TECHNOLOGY From floors to climate managementsystem, Vermillion Growers is building for efficiency
Vermillion Growers in Dauphin thinks it’s time for Manitoba to step up its game on commercial greenhouses, and they’re just the people to make it happen.
The final vision of what will, by next year, be the province’s largest commercial vegetable greenhouse, built from the ground up for sustainability and efficiency, may still take some imagination. The construction site is still largely empty, outside of acres of prepared soil and the rough frame of what will one day be the company’s warehouse.
By this time next year, however, Vermillion Growers hopes to be growing its first crop of tomatoes, to be marketed year round to grocery stores as tomatoes on the vine.
Why it matters: The project could blaze a trail for a larger commercial horticulture sector in Manitoba.
It’s a model that hopes to capture the health and taste benefits of locally grown produce, Vermillion Growers managing director Maria Deschauer said, along with a pitch for a lower carbon footprint, since produce from Dauphin does not have to be shipped as far.
Tomatoes have consistently been the most imported vegetable in terms of volume since at least 2014, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, while Canada was the sixth-largest vegetable importer in the world as of 2018.
“Logistically, it’s a good location,” Deschauer said. “It will ensure that we’ll actually be able to harvest our product when it’s ripe and be able to get to the grocery stores in a timely fashion.”
Dauphin is within a half-day drive of Winnipeg, Regina and Saskatoon, she added, putting the greenhouse within range of major grocery distributors.
The story of Vermillion Growers starts with Deschauer’s brother, Lucky, a Dauphin resident with 35 years of experience in construction and property management and a longtime interest in greenhouses.
At 15 years old, according to his biography on the company website, Lucky and his father began experimenting with greenhouse designs, with a project list including a 20-foot glass greenhouse for winter vegetables.
Then, almost four years ago, Lucky Deschauer decided the time was right to fill what he saw as a gap in Manitoba’s agribusiness landscape.
“My brother Lucky was really the instigator, the founder of this company as he’s been interested in greenhouse and vegetable production for a long time,” Maria Deschauer said. “It wasn’t until recently — I guess the last 15 years — that greenhouses have become more and more profitable. So all of a sudden the expense of setting one up became viable and I think that’s what brought us to this industry.”
Lucky Deschauer’s research, including tours of greenhouses in Ontario, eventually convinced him that Dauphin was a viable location. Gas, electricity and water were all available on site, Maria Deschauer said, while Dauphin’s cool climate actually lent itself to the project, despite the relative lack of growing degree days compared to southern Ontario.
“It’s easier to heat a greenhouse than it is to cool one,” she noted.
The region isn’t totally without greenhouses, Maria Deschauer concedes. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, there were 102 vegetable greenhouse farms in the Prairies as of 2018. At the same time, greenhouses in Manitoba accounted for little of Canada’s production. About 69 per cent of greenhouse vegetables in 2018 came from Ontario, followed by British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec. All other regions in Canada accounted for a combined one per cent of the country’s production.
Current local greenhouses tend to be small, compared to the 10-acre first phase of the Vermillion Growers project, let alone the 60-acre footprint the company hopes to expand to within five years of opening, she said. Nor do they tend to produce year round.
The current market environment also looks good for local produce, she noted. Public attention to food security has rarely been higher than during the COVID-19 pandemic, with worries earlier this year over potential supply chain disruptions.
The company’s first phase will be limited to tomatoes on the vine — chosen largely because of the crop’s resilience and ease of production, as well as the popularity of tomatoes — although the company says it hopes to eventually expand to other produce.
Waste not, want not
The completed greenhouse will be a web of infrastructure, sensors and digital controls, all geared for energy, water and nutrient efficiency.
The efficiencies start with the physical design of the facility, according to project engineer Cormac Foster. The greenhouse will be outfitted with a water reclamation system, designed to minimize waste and make the most out of natural rainwater and snow.
The 10-acre footprint of the greenhouse means a lot of roof to collect precipitation, Foster noted, water that Vermillion Growers saw as being needlessly lost. Looking for solutions, the company turned to Winnipeg engineering firm Eng-Tech Consulting to develop a system for drainage.
The resulting gutters will not only carry water from roof run-off, but also gather condensation from the inside of the glass ceiling. That water will then feed into the irrigation and nutrient system hooked up to each hydroponically grown plant.
“Basically, you’re capturing the water from the roof of the greenhouse and running that through a series of pipes into retention ponds where you can store that water and then utilize that water for irrigation purposes inside the greenhouse, for your crop,” Foster said.
Greenhouse construction is also part of the design. Floors on either side of the central, east-west walkway will slope slightly, creating gravity flow for waste water to run through the north-south-running row gutters. That water will then be collected and recycled. Exterior support columns, meanwhile, will double as water transport.
“Those columns are actually hollow,” Foster said. “So the columns are actually connected to the gutter system that’s in the roof and when the rainwater runs through the gutters in the roof, or if there’s snow that’s on the roof that melted, that melted snow then runs through the gutters and filters down into the columns themselves.”
With the greenhouse still under construction, it is still hard to say how much water the system will actually save, he noted.
Alongside water reclamation, the company has turned its gaze to energy efficiency. Like all greenhouses, Vermillion Growers will have relatively high heating needs, but has turned to a biomass boiler, sourced out of Triple Green Products in Morris, rather than natural gas.
The company has said fuel for its biomass system will be drawn from wood industry byproducts.
“We’d be taking on the waste stream from another industry and utilizing that for our energy source for our biomass system,” Foster said.
No agreements have been signed, he added, although he says the company is in discussion with several “relatively local” potential suppliers.
Yet more technology will focus on getting the most out of sunlight.
The company plans to install a system of energy screens, sourced from Swedish textile company Ludvig Svensson, vertically along walls and horizontally across the facility’s roof.
The double-layered fabric screens are designed to trap energy that would otherwise leach through the glass walls and ceiling.
“Glass is typically not a very efficient material. You lose energy through glass,” Foster noted. “We need the glass, because we need the light transmission from the sun, but then the energy screens allow us to capture that heat inside.”
That ability to trap energy is especially relevant in Dauphin’s cold winters.
The company also expects an advanced ventilation system will help manage temperature and humidity evenly through the whole vertical space, a common challenge in greenhouses and a particular issue for the Vermillion Growers project. Design plans for the facility call for plants to be grown vertically along strings, creating potential issues if climate is not even throughout the entire height of the structure.
“You end up with plants that are extremely tall, and then as it grows and as it fruits you end up pulling the plants down and wrapping it around the grow gutter and it continues to grow up to the roof,” Foster said.
Vermillion Growers turned to yet another European company for a solution. The Hinova VentilationJet system promises to control humidity by circulating cooler, drier air from the peaks of the greenhouse to the main growing area below, pushing up the warmer air.
The Dutch company has linked the system to reduced disease concerns, given the more controlled humidity.
Overarching it all, are the digital climate controls.
The network of technologies throughout Vermillion Growers will be managed through a PRIVA climate control system, Foster said, something that he says will both allow for automatic efficiency, as well as future improvements. Humidity, ventilation, lights, temperature, the carbon dioxide dosing system and the drip system that feeds water and nutrients will all be centralized under PRIVA controls.
“PRIVA is really controlling and monitoring everything,” Foster said. “So that allows us to track all of the data, because there’s sensors all throughout the facility, so we can keep track of our climate data, nutrients, water use, energy and track that.”
The Manitoba government seems to agree with Maria Deschauer’s optimism around the future of the business.
In late June, the province announced up to $4.2 million in tax-increment financing for the project. The tax break would be offered through the Manitoba Works Capital Incentive (MWCI), which “rebates the incremental education property taxes generated by a project for up to 20 years,” the province said.
At the time, Economic Development and Training Minister Ralph Eichler pointed to the MWCI’s mandate for diversifying Manitoba’s economy.
“We select projects like Vermillion Growers’ new greenhouse that focus on economic development and long-term job creation and substantially improve property values,” Eichler said in a June release.
The first phase of the project is expected to create 30 full-time job slots, ramping up to 180 positions once the project reaches its five-year goal for expansion.
The project also earned praise from Agriculture and Resource Development Minister Blaine Pedersen, who said the greenhouse was “very important from a food security standpoint.”
Vermillion Growers is on track to plant its first crop between March and August 2021, although Deschauer noted that some equipment from overseas may be delayed.