Growing Our Own

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: May 17, 2018 9:53 AM
By the end of this summer, Growing For Life will have expanded from three greenhouses to eight. (All photos courtesy Blaine Hussey)

When people walk into the grocery store, it may seem like half the fruits or vegetables they pick up are already spoiled. That's because the vast majority of food in Newfoundland and Labrador is brought here by ferry and then trucked across the island before making it to our homes. Fortunately, a group of local entrepreneurs are working to provide locally grown food. 

Blaine Hussey is one of four directors at Growing for Life, a greenhouse company based in Black Duck Siding on Newfoundland’s west coast. They’ve already started to sell their tomato crops and they’ve been getting rave reviews. 

“Those that have tasted the tomatoes that are ready think they’re wonderful, because we actually fully ripen them on the vine before they’re harvested,” Blaine says. “And then we ship right away, and that’s the nice thing about being local, is that we can ship right away. As soon as it comes off the plant, it’s out into the marketplace.” 

That means no long boat rides and no arduous road trips before the public can get a taste.

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Tomatoes ripen on the vine in Growing For Life's greenhouses.
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Tomatoes ready for market

Blaine knows the state of our food insecurity because he used to work for the provincial Forestry and Agrifoods Agency as market development officer. In this position, he worked with wholesalers to determine how food secure the province was and, in 2007, he wrote about his findings in a report.

What he learned is that half the produce brought into NL is thrown out before it reaches the shelf. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians don’t have reliable access to quality food, “and that’s part of our plan…to make our province more food secure,” says Blaine. “Our long-term goal is to replace all the top greenhouse products that are coming into the province with local products.”

Blaine, Louis Mac Donald, Scott Madore and David Hobbs started putting Growing for Life together back in 2015 and planted their first tomato crop in June 2017. By September they were sending their product to Coleman’s locations across the island. At the moment it’s just tomatoes, but they also plan to branch out into leafy lettuces and peppers. Growing for Life is also in talks with Sobeys and Dominion (Loblaws), and they’re waiting to have enough product ready to become steady suppliers. Blaine explains they’re also CanadaGAP certified, which is a national program for food safety. It’s something Dominion requires.

“My long-term plan is to feed this province with fresh food. And if I’m dealing with Sobeys and Dominion and Coleman’s, that represents about 95 per cent of the marketplace,” Blaine says. “And down the road we will deal with anybody who wants to distribute the product. But right now that’s my goal, to get to those three.”

When people buy veggies, they’re looking for four things, he explains: freshness, taste, quality and nutrition. But when they get into the store they also start thinking about the price. “So one of the things we’ve got to teach people in this province is the difference between price and value,” says Blaine.

For example, many people are tempted to buy a cheaper bag of carrots that comes from out of the province. However, they’re not fresh and won’t last long. On the other hand, locally grown carrots might be a bit more expensive, but they’ll also last longer and have a better chance of actually getting eaten. While it may be a higher price in the beginning, the purchase is more economical, Blaine contends. 

Growing the Business
When deciding where they would set up their greenhouses, Growing for Life first looked at all the climatic data recorded by the government and chose Black Duck Siding, which neighbours Stephenville. This small community has more sunshine hours than anywhere else in the province, making it the ideal spot for greenhouse growing. 

Their greenhouses use a hydroponic system, which means there’s no soil used at all. The plants are grown in coco fibre and rockwool, while a hose provides water and nutrients to the plants. Right now they’re using a wood furnace to heat the greenhouses, but they’re looking into geothermal and other alternative energies. 

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You won't find soil in these greenhouses. Blaine and his team are tackling food security using hydroponics.

“Typically, it is too expensive to operate a greenhouse in this province during the winter months: January, February, March. But we’re getting around that,” Blaine laughs. At the moment, he says, they’re the only greenhouse company in NL that can operate 12 months of the year.

“The thing is, we need to make sure that we have not only a good food supply, but a safe food supply,” Blaine says. Their greenhouses don’t use pesticides, though they have been purchased and are on site in case they’re ever needed. Because there’s no soil in their greenhouse, there’s less concern over diseases, though fungal diseases (resulting from moisture) can develop.

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Some of Growing For Life's produce will be consumed in this cosy spot, slated to become a restaurant.

There are big plans afoot for the company’s future, including a farmers’ market where they’ll sell their tomatoes, and this summer they’re opening a restaurant with a Red Seal chef on site. The restaurant’s windows face the greenhouses, so patrons can be reminded of where their food is coming from. More windows offer a peek into the kitchen, so people can see their food being prepared. By the end of this summer, Growing for Life will have grown from three greenhouses to eight.

And these well-laid plans all serve a single purpose: “The bottom line,” says Blaine, “our goal is to help improve the food security for this province.” By Elizabeth Whitten