COVID-19 provides significant worry for greenhouses

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Windsor Star/Lloyd Brown-John


“What a lot of people don’t understand is … you can never shut a farm down,” the owner of Nature Fresh Farms, Peter Quiring, told the Windsor Star this week.
His concern is about the availability of off-shore workers who need to arrive “last week” and who may also have to be quarantined for two weeks after arrival.
And there are numerous other issues facing greenhouse growers as the COVID-19 pandemic washes its poisonous way across the region, province and country.
Decisions about what to grow were made many months ago. Indeed, long before last year’s tomato and cucumber vines were removed from greenhouses work already was underway in preparation for the 2020 growing season.
Local greenhouse growers commit to contracts with wholesale and retail grocery chains all over eastern Canada and the northeastern USA. Growers must fulfill contract commitments and thus planning for next season’s crops involves prospective markets and a capacity to start your own seedlings or purchase them from seedling growers.
Once planted within a greenhouse then comes the issue of crop growth, crop maintenance and crop protection from pests and other potentially disastrous critters.
Crop harvesting already is underway for many vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce, strawberries and much more.
As any backyard vegetable gardener knows, once your crop starts producing you need to harvest and keep the produce moving either to your table, your preserves or to market.
Greenhouse growers do not have the luxury of intermediate consumers unless selling some produce at road side stands. They need to go straight to market which helps explain why suddenly there is an abundance of heavy freight lorries on our local highways.
Ironically much of what consumers purchase locally from their supermarkets moves to Toronto, and then returns to be retailed locally.
Given the temporary low cost of gasoline some might find it worthwhile to wander into the Kingsville-Leamington area and see what produce is currently available.
A warning, however: most traditional roadside stands may not open because of the COVID-19 threat. But others, for example, Anna’s in east Kingsville, has produce available but you need to order ahead and pick-up roadside at their greenhouse.
Meanwhile, for the greenhouse growers the always stressful task of finding enough employees to work harvesting, sorting and packaging goes on.
Local newspapers in the greenhouse area invariably carry advertisements for people to work in greenhouses. As Mr. Quiring observed there are jobs but local people are not inclined apparently to seek them, thereby leaving the door open for off-shore workers.

And there are other significant concerns well beyond the off-shore labour matter.

To construct a greenhouse one needs plenty of money and that usually involves investors and credit. In a bean-shell, so-to-speak, unless crops are sold growers and owners could be in serious short-term financial difficulties.

Like any business now facing the COVID-19 virus — hence the threat of full or partial business closure — there are bills to be paid and contractual obligations to be met. The greenhouse industry, always in a precarious relationship with its financiers and markets, is also under direct threat from the virus.

Should an employee in a warehouse or driving a truck or working in the processing area be diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus what would a grower do?

Shutting down a packaging line or closing a warehouse could spell disaster for individual growers and, it follows, consumers.

Remember, our greenhouses while technically called farms are really much more akin to a complex manufacturing process. These are not quaint farms. Our local greenhouse industry is a significant — indeed, massive — producer of food. And, obtaining food, as I’m sure we all have noticed ranks high on the list of things you still reasonably may do whilst isolated in your residential cell.

COVID-19 poses a significant potential disruption to the intricate consumer supply chain.

If we fail to take such things as social distancing and hand-washing seriously, we may face an enormous price both in terms of a massive local industry undermined and our own personal abilities to survive.

Ironically, like our courageous hospital workers and medical support personnel, our greenhouse industry is also in some respects a frontline service provider for our health and well-being.