Sustainable farming not new for Ontario’s fruit and vegetable growers

Originally published:

Sept. 27, 2023

As the world deals with the impacts of climate change, agriculture is one sector that is feeling the pressure from government, food manufacturers, retailers and consumers to focus on greater sustainability. After all, the ability to adapt to the challenges of the changing climate directly impacts the availability of food for the global population.

For many farmers, however, sustainability was top of mind long before it was making headlines. That’s especially true in Ontario’s fruit and vegetable industry, where sustainable environmental practices such as plant and soil health — reducing energy, pesticide and fertilizer use — or managing water more responsibly, have long just been a part of doing business.

“Sustainability isn’t new for us. It’s part of our DNA as farmers and we’re always looking for new ways to be more efficient, reduce what we use and produce more with less,” says Jan VanderHout, a greenhouse grower from the Hamilton area and chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association’s (OFVGA) environment and conservation committee.

Jan Vanderhout of Beverly Greenhouses and chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association’s (OFVGA) environment and conservation committee.

Ontario growers have made investments into better water use for irrigating field crops and adopting new technologies to reduce the amount of water needed to wash vegetables, for example. Greenhouse vegetable growers use a closed-loop recirculation system that continuously re-circulates and re-uses any water that plants don’t use.

Carbon capture technology in the greenhouse lets growers capture carbon dioxide (CO2) from their heating systems - instead of simply releasing it directly into the outside environment — and directly feed it back into the greenhouse to help their plants grow better and increase vegetable production.

To grow vegetables year-round, greenhouse growers need additional lighting in the winter months to supplement natural sunshine, so plants receive enough light to grow efficiently. Energy screens conserve the heat inside, reducing the amount of energy needed to heat the greenhouse, while transmitting sunlight through to the crops and keeping cold air out.

Particularly exciting for Vanderhout is the use of biological solutions instead of synthetic chemistry to control pests and diseases in the greenhouse, a tool his family’s greenhouse business first started using 30 years ago. That means managing insect pests, for example, with other insect species.

“It’s a progression that takes time to find the right mix of bugs and the right time to introduce them – and it’s not easier or cheaper (than using chemical controls) but we’re making the food that we’re eating that much more sustainable,” he says.

According to Vanderhout, it’s important to note, though, that sustainability for fruit and vegetable growers isn’t just about the environment. First and foremost, it means economic viability – and social responsibility is also a key pillar.

That belief is echoed by Niagara grape growers Matthias Oppenlaender and his daughter Jessica Solanki of Huebel Grapes Estates, a farm business that is verified by Sustainable Winegrowing Ontario under Ontario’s Certified Sustainable Viticulture Program that evaluates farms based on three pillars of environmental, economic, and social sustainability.

“Financially, how do we maximize our business by doing the right thing? Socially, we value our employees and are involved in community events, and we also work to be environmentally sustainable,” says Oppenlaender. “Our farm will be passed on to our next generation and for them to be able to take over, the business needs to be sustainable in all three pillars, but especially financially sustainable.”

It was Solanki and her brother Aaron Oppenlaender who led the process of getting the farm certified sustainable, which requires detailed recordkeeping and regular reviews by independent auditors.

“Taking on this endeavor is not just a quick thing and you have to back up everything (with proof). We were already doing so many of these practices because it just makes sense,” she says.

Sustainability is engrained in everything the farm does, and the benefits pay off not just for people and planet, but also for profitability.

For example, a move to technology that captures and recycles crop protection spray reduces the amount of product being used and its impact on the environment and lowers the farm’s pest and disease protection costs by 20 to 40 per cent.

New vineyard management software reduces labour needs and allows for real-time tracking of vine management to ensure work is done as efficiently and precisely as possible.

“To me, sustainability can be summed up in one word: resilience. We are dealing with a lot of challenges, but we need to balance today’s needs with those of the future,” she says. “Our resilience makes us sustainable and able to keep going in the future.”