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Green Flower Machine

Sourcing local to meet growing needs

Written by Scott Jamieson
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The assault of colours overwhelms visitors to Rosa Flora’s Plant 5 in Dunnville, Ont. It’s hard to focus at first, as the eye skims a multi-coloured sea of large gerberas, framed above by an endless expanse of steel tubing and blue sky. Regain your perspective, however, and you’ll see more than just stunning accent flowers.

Harvest time in Plant 5. Stunning flowers aside, note the state-of-the-art lighting system and double-pane acrylic coverings, both of which maximize growth while reducing energy consumption. 

You’ll also take in a host of design features that may interest your growing list of environmentally sensitive clients.

Look up at the latest in double-pane acrylic coverings, a premium option that not only creates an effective diffused-light growing climate, but also acts as an insulator to retain heat. Take in the high-end light fixtures that create a maximum of light using a minimum of electricity. You won’t see the computer controls maintaining the greenhouse climate, but they are set to shut off the lights when natural lighting will do the job, again saving electricity.

Look down, and you’ll see heating pipes below the plants, transfering heat directly to the plants, creating a warmer microclimate where it’s needed rather than heating the entire greenhouse to that temperature. You’ll also see a drip irrigation system that collects any water and nutrients not used by the plants, filters the mixture, and recirculates clean water back to the plants. Rosa Flora uses gutter systems on its greenhouses to collect rainwater, so little fresh water is needed.

If you’ve got a keen eye you may see some friendly critters. These are no cause for alarm – they have been deliberately introduced to hold the bad bugs at bay. As operations manager Ralph DeBoer explains, it’s all part of a design and process to run a sustainable operation. The beauty is that if done right, it’s also cost effective.

“There are a lot of features included in this plant to create an ideal growing climate in the most efficient way possible, with a minimum of resources and operating costs. It’s a large investment up front, but we’ve always had a long-term approach. We’re still benefiting now from some of the energy efficiency investments made 25 years ago in Plant 1.”

The goal, he adds, is to grow flowers while using as little energy and fresh water, and as few chemicals as possible.

Flower power
Even in southern Canada, growing flowers is energy-intensive. Flowers need to be kept warm and fed plenty of light, even in winter. Energy can be responsible for up to 40 per cent of a greenhouse’s expenses, second only to labour.

Rosa Flora has invested heavily on this front, starting with a massive wind turbine producing five to 10 per cent of its electricity needs. It also installed a biomass combustion system, which turns wood construction waste into heat. Modern boilers create up to 80 per cent of the facilities’ heat from material that would otherwise clog landfills. Finally, it recently added two natural gas generators, bringing its total to four. As DeBoer explains, this technology, which produces heat and power, is well suited to the greenhouse sector.

“When you produce electricity by itself, you’re lucky to achieve 40 per cent efficiency, meaning 60 per cent of the fuel you burn ends up as waste heat. As a greenhouse, we need heat, so we use what would otherwise be waste heat to warm the greenhouses, bringing that efficiency to 90 per cent or more. There are also opportunities to use the C02 in the emissions for plant growth. This is a natural opportunity for greenhouses that allows us to generate our own electricity for lighting at a reasonable cost, and from an environmental perspective it’s very efficient.”

Any excess power can be sold to Ontario Hydro for general consumption. DeBoer expects this part of the business to grow in the coming years, as electricity costs continue to climb and the province looks for ways to replace its coal-fired generating capacity.

Yet he is quick to add that the first step is finding ways to reduce energy consumption. The design elements mentioned above are a large part of that, and all but the original Plant 1 built in the 1970s make use of double acrylic coverings. Where these are not used, Rosa Flora has installed energy curtains that roll out at night like blankets to insulate the greenhouses.

Bugs and people
The Canadian greenhouse sector has been steadily moving to integrated pest management (IPM) over the past decade. IPM uses positive biologicals, or “good bugs,” to control problem pests such as aphids or whitefly. In the most successful IPM programs, conventional pesticides are reserved for localized breakouts. Once  “hot spots” are under control, the friendly bugs take over. Results were mixed as growers learned to use the new tools, and DeBoer admits that the move to IPM has not been easy.

“If we’d been having this conversation even two years ago, it would have gone differently. But we’ve learned a lot and have a strong partnership with our biological supplier, so in the past 12 months we’ve seen good results. A big part of it is being proactive, scouting continually for trouble spots, looking for aphids, thrips or whitefly. If you do that, you can essentially move away from using chemicals 95 per cent of the time or more.”

With 35 acres of growing space to monitor, manually scouting for pests is labour intensive. The wide range of crops also means there is no single solution. In addition to the large gerberas in Plant 5, Rosa Flora grows gerbera daisies, mini gereberas, alstroemeria, snapdragons, sweetheart roses, and stephanotis, all with their own pests. Still, there are benefits beyond providing a green product.

“The old chemicals would take care of the pests, but you can imagine the flowers weren’t wild about them either. We’re finding our crops are responding better in the absence of chemicals. The bottom line is that, if done right, IPM creates better crops.”

The final pillar of sustainability is social responsibility. When it comes to respecting employees and communities, Canadian employers hold an edge over many exporting nations. Minimum requirements set out in federal and provincial law set the bar higher than workers in many flower-growing nations can ever aspire to. Quality growers like Rosa Flora typically go farther still.

Rosa Flora offers full-time employees benefits and an opt-in RRSP plan. A Workplace Safety Committee promotes a safe work environment, and a social committee plans everything from barbecues to golf outings. Community involvement includes participation in local events, fundraising and donations for charities, and matching employee contributions of up to $500 per employee per calendar year.

All of which means that as flower buyers start asking more questions, growers like Rosa Flora will have at least some of the right answers.
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