Unprecedented greenhouse growth won't slow down in 2020

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Windsor Star/Sharon Hill




After an unusual slowdown, expect hundreds of acres of vegetable greenhouses with a construction value of up to $420 million to be added this year and next in the Leamington area.

By the numbers, Leamington and Kingsville had permits with a construction value of more than $183 million issued in 2019 for greenhouses which was an increase from 2018.

But permits issued doesn’t mean all the greenhouses got built, and the growth in the cannabis sector “threw everything off,” said Joe Sbrocchi, general manager of the Ontario Vegetable Greenhouse Growers.

Not all the intended vegetable greenhouse expansions got built, Sbrocchi is guessing, partly because of delays in getting construction crews or materials such as lighting that vegetable growers also use for year-round production.

Sbrocchi said he expects 250 to 300 acres of greenhouses at a cost of about $1.4 million an acre will be built with most of that to be constructed this year.

“This year and next year are going to be very aggressive. People need to get these built and up and running,” Sbrocchi said Monday.

After years of steady growth, there was a never-before-seen pause in 2018-2019 when only about 20 acres of greenhouses for crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers were added instead of the 250 expected acres, he said.

Part of the problem vegetable growers face is that, for a variety of reasons, it now takes three to three-and-a-half years to go through the permit process and build a greenhouse complex of any size when it used to take about two years, he said.

Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald said she’s expecting another banner year for greenhouse growth.

“This has taken us by surprise, by storm,” she said Tuesday of the last four years of growth especially with the construction of greenhouses to grow marijuana. “The numbers and the size of the growth has been unprecedented.”

Leamington has 2,890 acres of greenhouses which doesn’t include about 120 acres under construction, she said. Building permits were issued for 173 acres of greenhouses in 2019 with a construction value of about $110 million.

MacDonald doesn’t know how many acres Leamington has of cannabis greenhouses but said there are about six cannabis operations built or under construction.

Neighbouring Kingsville is getting its first two cannabis greenhouses. Kingsville had four permits representing about 50 acres of greenhouses with a construction value of $73.6 million in 2019. The more complex cannabis greenhouse operations that are more expensive per acre to build are going in on Road 3.

Ontario has about 3,000 acres of vegetable greenhouses with most of that acreage in Essex County.

MacDonald doesn’t expect the growth will slow down. With weather extremes, the need for reliable and safe greenhouse-grown food will continue to increase, she said. “It’s going to be the food source of the future.”

Highway 77 north of Leamington has become a corridor of greenhouses, MacDonald said. “You’ve got people building 60 acres at a time. It’s incredible.”

MacDonald said Leamington welcomes the growth that includes businesses and jobs that support the greenhouse industry. She said it comes with some challenges since the town is “writing the playbook” as more cannabis greenhouses are added. “We know we have challenges but we know we are prepared to find solutions to those challenges.”

Residents have complained of the night sky glow from the greenhouses in Leamington and Kingsville. Greenhouses for cannabis and for fruits and vegetables are being built with lights for year-round production.

MacDonald said Leamington is working with provincial and federal agriculture experts to find a measurement of light the growers can adhere to which can be used in bylaws. Growers have and can install curtains but they are expensive, so the town is looking for a fair solution for residents that won’t drive away business, she said.

Kingsville is about to have more control over where greenhouses are located. Council will consider a bylaw amendment for new greenhouse development regulations at its Jan. 27 meeting. It’s not about lights but will limit where greenhouses are allowed and increase setbacks, said Kingsville Mayor Nelson Santos.

“It’s a new Kingsville approach, specific to how we can help manage the continued growth,” Santos said.

Kingsville still wants greenhouses but isn’t depending on them for its sole economic future, he said. Kingsville has about 1,400 acres of greenhouses that are mostly in the Ruthven area. The 50 acres from the four permits issued in 2019 was the highest greenhouse acreage added since 2014 in Kingsville.

Municipalities across Essex County are seeing an increase in their total construction value of 2019 permits.

In Kingsville, the total construction value was $165 million, which looked to be the best year in the last 19 years. Santos said he’s encouraged by the balance Kingsville has in residential, industrial, commercial and agricultural development but noticed construction costs have jumped. The construction value for new homes went up $6 million last year in Kingsville but the number of permits went up by one home, from 108 to 109 dwellings.

Vegetable greenhouses that used to cost about about $850,000 an acre are now around $1.4 million an acre.