Greenhouses keeping fresh food local during winters in Niagara

·3 min read

It may be getting colder out, but stepping inside Rita Pintea's greenhouse offers a balmy escape from the chill.

Rising steam fills the humid tunnel with the smell of fresh, soft earth, planted recently with lettuce.

The 75-foot-long greenhouse is a first for Rita and her husband, Laurentiu, who, two weeks ago, constructed the framing and assisted Rita in installing a plastic covering.

"We were trying to figure out how we can deal in Canadian winters with some inexpensive methods," Rita said.

Also known as a "caterpillar tunnel," for its ribbed segments, the greenhouse is covered by two, six-millimetre-thick polyethylene sheets, which have warm air funnelled in between, inflating the layers to help prevent temperature loss and keep snow from piling up.

"It should keep the zone difference about two zones up," she said, referring to hardiness zones, which traditionally dictate what plants will have the best chance of survival according to climate conditions.

Rita is educated as a nurse and paramedic but has opted to stay close to her familiar roots, settling down and planting some of her own in Canada, eight years ago.

“As kids, we grew up constantly on the field,” she said of her parent's farm back in Romania, where they still grow food today.

Now, her children, ages three, nine and 12, help out with the farming on roughly an acre of land in Beamsville where she operates Rita's Market.

Manure from their chickens is used for fertilizer inside the greenhouse and absolutely no sprays are used, Rita says.

Had the greenhouse been around sooner, it would've prolonged her growing season beyond last year's fall killing frost.

This year, she hopes to plant salad greens, green onions, peas and cucumbers.

Provided seeds and trays arrive on time, harvesting could begin as soon as February for some salad greens.

"Everything is an experiment this year," she said.

Not so for Sascha and Agnes Ohme, of Ohme Farms, who have had a greenhouse since first acquiring their Jordan Station property in 2009.

“Within a month we had a greenhouse up," Sascha said. They knew it would be a necessity to keep growing when winter came.

The farm could operate 52 weeks of the year, "no problem," he says — breaking a concept of domestic production being hampered by cruel Canadian winters.

“We have something growing in every greenhouse, back to back, all year round,” Sascha said.

While hardy root vegetables like squash, rutabaga and carrots actually do better outside and can tough out a freeze, the climate-controlled greenhouse environment allows for a head start on the growing season, keeping fresh greens local and providing more products during wintertime.

“Variety truly is interesting and keeps it fun for the person eating,” Sascha said, mentioning some of their rarer offerings: crosne, oca tubers and mâche.

The Ohmes also farm organically, using composted cow manure, organically-certified sprays and biologically beneficial insects.

“They basically just slow release; there’s different stages of insects in there and they just come out of holes,” Sascha said of small, white packets stuck into dirt on a stick around a mâche crop.

But with more variety and organic farming methods also comes added cost.

Unlike Rita's tunnel, the Ohmes electrically heat their greenhouses and, on days with less sun, use artificial light to supplement daylight, resulting in hefty energy bills.

The Ohmes also try to add another greenhouse each year, leading Sascha to notice what he says is a doubling of cost for greenhouses since cannabis production became legal.

Once supplying Niagara's restaurants with premium greens, Ohme Farms and Rita's Market now rely on individuals consumers to reap what they've sown.

Rita's Market runs a winter stand selling microgreens and produce, while Ohme Farms offers a smorgasbord of veggies and greens via a community supported agriculture model.

Jordan Snobelen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Niagara this Week