I had the privilege of participating in this year’s Agriculture Bus Tour sponsored by the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce, and it was an exciting and eye-opening demonstration of why Abbotsford is the agricultural capital of Canada. Farming and agribusiness provides over eleven thousand jobs in the region, and adds 1.8 billion dollars each year to the local economy. What is interesting, though, is that Abbotsford does all of this in an agriburban region located on the fringe of land-starved Vancouver; property values are extremely high, and agriculture must be correspondingly efficient. The theme of the tour, in fact, was innovation, and the operations we visited combined extensive hand labour with intensive technology. More factory than farm, these incredibly compact operations hint at the future of food on the fringe.
We visited too many interesting sites for one blog post, so I will highlight two very interesting operations; Van Eekelen Enterprises, BC’s largest producer of Belgian Endive, and VanderMeulen Greenhouses, a producer of hothouse peppers. Both of these operations use technology to grow difficult crops in small spaces, and are extremely innovative.
I’ve often been curious about the giant endive sign on the highway, and so I was quite excited to see where this interesting crop comes from. I enjoy endive (also known as chicory) grilled on the BBQ, or raw in a salad. Good endive is sweet with a slightly bitter overtone, and it must be kept in the dark; if your grocer has endive sitting out under the light, ask them if they have any in back that is still safely tucked away in a box. What I didn’t know about endive was that it is a two year crop that involves time both inside and outside. During the first year endive is grown in the field from seed, and then the roots are harvested and stored in cold storage. These roots are then sprouted hydroponically in total darkness to create the final crop. They are then trimmed and hand packed for shipping. Interestingly the biggest challenge the farm has faced has been creating bigger demand for endive; though not well known, they are an excellent addition to a salad and stand well on their own.
We also toured VanderMeulen Greenhouses, where acres and acres of peppers grow on vines up to ten feet high. The plants are grown hydroponically, in blocks of coconut waste (all of those coconut husks have to end up somewhere!). They grow orange and yellow peppers on site, and I learned that green peppers are not actually a different variety; they are simply immature specimens of the classic varieties. Small cars on rails allow pickers to reach the ripe peppers, as the mature crop moves up the plant as the season progresses.
As the plants reach the end of their lifecycle after a year in the ground, the ripe peppers are nearly to the ceiling. Greenhouses are costly and complex, but they do offer some advantages; VanderMeulen uses bio-control against pests within this closed environment, and the greenhouse is heated in the winter with wood waste. Interestingly in the summer the greenhouse is heated only at night, but carbon dioxide must be added to the greenhouse during the day, as the plants deplete the stock from the air inside.
It was a very educational morning, and I left with a much finer appreciation for the combination of hand labour and high technology that allows farms on the rural/urban fringe to make the most of scarce land. Vancouver benefits from access to such excellent fresh product, and our excellent Agricultural Land Reserve. And the best part is that they sent us home with fresh endive and peppers; maybe next year they can include a stop at a salad dressing facility.