The future of food – in the Island Hothouse

July 14, 2023 – If you crave the explosion of flavour that comes from biting into a fully ripened tomato fresh off the vine, you can’t beat growing a few in your own backyard, a community garden plot or on the balcony of your apartment.

But even people fortunate enough to have the gardening space and a green thumb happily stand in the predictably long line at the Qualicum Beach Farmers Market on Saturday mornings to buy tomatoes and other produce from Island Hothouse.

Aurora explains, “We’re a little bit special. We can keep everything on the vine and let it ripen to full maturity for flavour and colour. Then we’ll harvest and it’ll be in the stores the next day or two days later.”

Devoted customers agree, the taste and the consistent quality of their produce are exceptional.

As many QB residents and visitors realize, Qualicum Beach is blessed during the summer months to have local farmers who produce ultra-fresh vegetables, field-to-fork, delivered to the market in a few hours.

But Island Hothouse is the real season stretcher. Their greenhouse grown cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are delivered to the QB Farmers Market, and to selected retailers and restaurants on Vancouver Island, from January to October.

Aurora Clark and Matt Charlton have owned and operated Island Hothouse since 2018, a 2.63 acre (1 ha) greenhouse near Ladysmith. More recently, the couple also acquired Freedom Farms in the Comox Valley, now a source of delicious, much-sought-after asparagus and other field crops.

Aurora Clark and Matt Charlton at the Qualicum Beach Farmers Market in June 2023.

For both Aurora and Matt, their affection for horticulture has early roots. Aurora spent much of her childhood on a “prolific organic farm” near Lytton BC. Matt has an extensive family in Saskatchewan who have always been grain and cattle farmers.

But Vancouver Island was a magnet for them both.

“When I grew up, my grandparents owned 10 acres on the Malahat. They had a beautiful garden,” says Matt who fondly recalls hanging out in the garden with his brothers and cousins “playing in the grapevines, pulling up radishes, and eating strawberries.” Later his parents bought and moved to a hobby farm near Nanaimo, where Matt’s serious interest in making food production a career emerged.

At first Matt and Aurora aspired to finding a property and creating a greenhouse operation from the ground up. But in 2018 they discovered that the existing Island Hothouse property was for sale, including its existing greenhouse facility. Cranking the numbers, it made more sense to acquire Island Hothouse and refurbish the existing greenhouse infrastructure rather than start from bare land.

By 2019 they were farming full-time, growing and selling produce, their previous work in retailing happily behind them.

As most family-centred local farms can attest, it is a challenge to thrive in a market dominated by cheap, industrial, global-scale food products. Finding a balance that combines the lifestyle advantages of hands-on horticulture, producing a premium product, connecting with the people who actually consume your products, but at a scale that is cost-efficient and high-volume enough to make a decent living is not easy.

Contrasting his previous work as an electrician commuting to Alberta for work, Matt sums up how lifestyle matters: “We love what we do. We get to eat great food, and meet great people.”

Product differentiation is also challenging.

To an unaware shopper, a red pepper from Island Hothouse, on the surface, doesn’t look much different from a red pepper trucked in from a thousand kilometers away. At the risk of under-statement, Aurora explains, “We’re a little bit special. We can keep everything on the vine and let it ripen to full maturity for flavour and colour. Then we’ll harvest and it’ll be in the stores the next day or two days later.”

On our recent tour of their greenhouse operation, two observations were immediate.

First, a remarkable tonnage of food can be generated from a small footprint operation when coupled with a lengthy growing season in a controlled indoor environment.

Second, this indoor farm is a very complex ecosystem combining natural horticulture with rigorously controlled temperature, moisture, soils and nutrients, supported by a local distribution network that gets fresh produce to consumers quickly and efficiently.

The basics of greenhouse growing

Produce density – The greenhouse is tall enough to enable plants to grow twelve feet high! The plants are guided by row upon row of thousands of individual cords suspended from the top. Hence, the focus on peppers, eggplants, cukes, and tomatoes all of which, with a little training, love to climb. This training is labour-intensive; each plant has to be regularly trimmed of excess tendrils and spiraled firmly around its cord to sustain the weight of the maturing veggies. Harvesting is not for the feint of heights!

Water efficiency – A drip irrigation system delivers carefully calibrated water and soluble nutrients directly to each plant’s roots. Any excess runoff is collected and recirculated. Contrast that with the wasteful sprinklers seen in fields across Vancouver Island, where on a hot day more than half the water evaporates before it reaches the grasses being grown to produce hay to feed pet horses. In the winter, a supplemental hot water heating system compensates for the fluctuating winter temperature outside and hastens early season growth. In a future where water conservation, retention and re-use are critical, only one of these two scenarios is sustainable. Also, in a closed indoor environment, humidity can be carefully controlled so that even the moisture from plant transpiration remains in the ecosystem rather than vaporizing into thin (drier) air.

Integrated pest management – Greenhouse growing is less exposed to, but not completely shielded from, tiny pests that like to forage on plants. But the indoor controlled environment does enable effective use of natural alternatives instead of toxic chemicals. For example, to combat aphids in your backyard you could purchase and introduce ladybugs but the majority will simply fly off to your neighbours’ gardens. In a greenhouse, that same concentration of ladybugs can become a welcomed component of the ecosystem.

The extended growing season – We started this article with the intensely pleasurable late summer taste of a homegrown freshly picked vine-ripened tomato. Thanks to Island Hothouse, succulent ‘maties were on our plates this year in early March. A lot of work was done to make that first bite happen.

The commercial greenhouse growing season

In planning for each year, Matt and Aurora first need to evaluate and choose from a wide range of available seeds. Seems simple, right?

Determining the quantities, varieties and timing of future deliveries to each customer location is an on-going logistical task which has to get baked into a production plan for the following season.

Large grocery chains like Thrifty’s, Superstore, and Save-On Foods as well as smaller Island-based grocery stores like Village Food Markets in Sooke all have different needs. Thanks to Island Hothouse’s Producer-Shipper license, they can make arrangements directly with these major grocery retailers.

Seeds are ordered in August of the year before. A nursery is contracted to turn the seeds into seedlings (“starts”) to be delivered to Island Hothouse in early January.

Meanwhile, back at the farm, harvesting wraps up around the end of October. November is clean-up time, removing the old plants, cleaning the entire greenhouse, and ensuring everything is in good repair and readiness for a new season.

While still needing to keep tabs on logistics, December does bring some much needed R&R and family time.

In early January the pace quickly increases. Ideally, their team of reliable workers arrive and settle in just in time to welcome the arrival of 20,000 new plants that need to be positioned in their rows of coco coir, each plant with its individual drip line and aligned with a vertical grow cord. Whew!

The pandemic arrived but the farm workers could not

Immediately on the heels of their first season (2019), the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. It was hugely disruptive to their production and profitability, the couple says.

Aurora at the packing assembly station.

The most urgent “supply chain” issue was the availability of capable labour. 

The federal government, which manages the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program in close co-operation with Mexican authorities, took “forever to sort out travel and COVID testing requirements,” with the result that the Island Hothouse team members were about five months late arriving in 2020.

Meanwhile, Aurora and Matt tried to manage the intensive planting season with local workers, but “it took 16 of them to do the work of the regular team of four workers from Mexico.” And then, along came CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) income supplement, and the local workers disappeared.

About 80 percent of their farm team are seasonal guest workers from Mexico.

Matt says, “We’re fortunate to have the Mexican workers. They really like the work; they look forward to it. We wouldn’t be able to survive without them. Generally we have the same [people] return every year. It would be cumbersome to have to retrain new employees every year.”

Matt and Aurora make the workers’ eight-months-stay as comfortable as possible, providing accommodation, utilities, internet access, laundry facilities, as well as a car plus car insurance to enable them to get out and enjoy the community.

Island Hothouse’s ability to retain qualified workers is all the more remarkable considering the constant turnover we see every day in most every other modest income workplace in our area.

Island Hothouse has not been immune to the opportunistic supply chain price-gouging widely experienced during the pandemic. Shipping costs jumped, particularly for off-shore supplies. And, the supplies themselves dramatically increased in cost.

For instance, that small plastic bag containing your mini-cukes? It quadrupled in cost AND the supplier also quadrupled the minimum order quantity. So, instead of buying enough for one year at a time, Matt and Aurora had to prepay and store a quantity of bags that will last them for four years. These pandemic-induced supply chain costs show no sign of abating.

Matt putting out fresh-picked asparagus from their Freedom Farms field in Comox, BC.

Aurora says that they are grateful for their neighbours too. Porter Dairy Farm helped by leasing part of the Island Hothouse property to grow more corn and hay for their cows. “They help whenever our tractors have been in the shop and we need bins of peppers brought to the barn for packing,” she says. “Helping us mow the grass with their larger equipment takes them an hour instead of multiple hours for us.” Another neighbour, a welder, helped them out in the wee hours of the morning when some equipment needed an urgent repair so they could deliver their produce to market.

An enhanced local food ecosystem

In addition to supplying the big chains like Save-On Foods, Thrifty’s and Superstore, one of Island Hothouse’s biggest customers is Village Food Markets in Sooke, BC.

Aurora says, “They buy weekly from us. They have had a designated display for us in years past but, this year, they found our quality so much better than mainland products (size, shape, wall structure and most importantly shelf life) that most of the time they are only selling our peppers now.”

In addition to supplying Vancouver Island grocery stores, Island Hothouse routinely provides produce to community NGOs such as Lush Valley Food Action Society and the Cowichan Green Community, as well as to local food banks.

Weather and market conditions can cause periods of excess supply of fresh produce. As (hopefully) local production of fresh vegetables and fruits increases over time, thanks to innovative farmers like Aurora and Matt, our community would also be well-served by expanding our complementary secondary food processing sector.

Ideally, surplus harvest would be preserved into premium shelf- or freezer-stable value-added products, salsas and pickles for example. We already have a number of local niche producers of such delicacies, and more would be welcome.

The climate emergency payoff benefits us all

There are many benefits to consuming locally produced fruits and vegetables. The produce can be ripened on the vine until its full nutrient profile has matured, enabling both maximum flavour and nutrition. We can get to know our farmers, building goodwill and trust that our food is clean, not contaminated with questionable chemicals inside and out.

We can reduce reliance on faraway sources, particularly those California valleys that will soon be drought-stricken or salinated deserts.

Outstanding in her field, Aurora at the Island Hothouse property near Ladysmith, BC.

We can say no thanks to the tasteless green tomato that was picked a thousand kilometres away two weeks ago so that it was hard enough to endure the transport truck ride, then artificially turned red with ethylene gas (not to be confused with ripened), so that the grocery chains can pretend they delivered fresh tomatoes to us.

Looking through the lens of long-term food security, eating local and eating seasonal is increasingly imperative.

If the true ecological costs of transporting food half way around the planet were actually incurred by industrial agri-business, rather than externalized as a crippling climate change mitigation taxpayer burden, then Island Hothouse produce becomes not only comparably cleaner, tastier and more nutritious, but also much, much less expensive.

Finally, locally grown produce has a unique, priceless value to people who live on an island.

To illustrate that, we need only look to two recent BC climate crisis events. The decimation of transportation infrastructure in the 2021 Abbottsford flood halted the delivery of goods to the Lower Mainland, and to Vancouver Island. The closure of Highway 4 to Tofino due to the recent fire at Cameron Bluffs is still hindering delivery to grocery stores in Tofino and Port Alberni.

A reliable supplier of Vancouver Island grown, high-quality garden produce for 10 months of the year is a priceless community asset.