Learning from our neighbors | OPINION

A first visit to British Columbia is a learning experience. You learn that BC’s marketing motto, Supernatural British Columbia, is an understatement when it comes to the province’s natural beauty. Gorgeous, awe-inspiring and vast, BC offers fierce extremes from storm-swept coasts to glaciered peaks and everything between.

Canada’s dollar coins with loons on their faces are known as Loonies. The two-dollar coin, or Doonie, with Queen Elizabeth on its face and a grizzly bear on the reverse side, is whimsically dubbed The Queen with a Bear Behind. Cultural differences are few. You quickly get used to Canadians ending sentences with, eh.

We get a taste of Canada each time we buy tomatoes on-the-vine at a supermarket. Almost as inexpensive as Mexican Romas, BC Hothouse tomatoes differ in that they’re raised to ripeness while Romas are picked greenish to ripen during the journey north. Interesting that the winter tomatoes we eat cross northern and southern borders to get to PNW markets while few are grown in the States.

BC tomatoes are grown under glass and what a lot of glass! At every trip north it seems that new hothouses have sprung up and old ones have expanded. What follows are impressions gathered from driving the fertile Frazier River delta plus what could be gleaned from the web. Let your mind expand the facts and figures since my data was taken from web-sources that were 2 to 10 years old.

Imagine 13 acres of inter-connected greenhouses at one farm near Ladner. Then imagine how much land BC’s 42 under-glass hydroponic farms would cover if put together. All told, their production contributes more than $600 million to British Columbia’s economy. If Canadians do it where daylight is some minutes shorter than in Snohomish County, why aren’t we doing it here?

Of all greenhouse vegetables sold in Vancouver, 96 percent are raised in BC. Of all greenhouse vegetables sold in Washington, nearly 100 percent are raised elsewhere. Is something the matter with this picture? BC’s hothouse industry employs more than 3,200 workers. Imagine what an impact 3,200 jobs would have on Washington’s unemployment rate.

There seems to be no good reason that U.S. growers are so far behind. Population can’t have much to do with it because BC’s population of 4.5 million trails Washington by 2.5 million. For reasons of food quality, economics and security, we should be closer to food sources. One study showed that while the average calorie on Italian tables was produced less than 28 miles distant, the average calorie on U.S. tables travels almost 1,400 miles. Much of it imported.

We’re far behind when it comes to hothouse agriculture. Japan, China, Turkey, Peru, Ecuador and most of Europe are ahead of us. Hothouses — or greenhouses — use hydroponic techniques where nutrient solutions are dosed out to roots while tubes dispense drafts of carbon dioxide to leafy growth. Light and heat are added as needed.

With greenhouses closed off to the world, threats of bugs and weeds are minimized to a point where they can be controlled without pesticides or herbicides. Many are certified organic. Technicalities cause vegetables from other farms to be labeled “Tested to contain no pesticides or herbicides,” which satisfies most converts to organic foods.

Tomatoes are BC’s main hothouse crop and command high prices because they’re picked when ripe. They are pollinated by bees from hives kept in the greenhouses while other insect activity is managed by beneficial bugs such as wasps and ladybugs. As to production, the tomato record was 165 pounds grown in one square meter.

Cucumbers, especially English cucumbers, need a bit more warmth which raises the cost of production. Cucumbers are raised in spring and fall from farms closest to major population centers. Two or three crops are possible with 20 to 30 pounds of cukes harvested from each plant during four month seasons.

Chances are that the yellow or red peppers you buy come from BC hothouses. The big hothouse near Ladner specializes in peppers, growing 14,000 plants per acre. Every square meter of plants delivers an average of 55 pounds of peppers which, at about four peppers per pound, is way more than Peter Piper ever picked.

Commercial hydroponic greenhouses are rare in Washington. Herbco’s three hydroponic houses produce living basil near Snoqualmie. Greenhouse Business Magazine (1992) featured a write-up about Jack Benjamin’s farm outside Spokane. A hydroponic pioneer, Benjamin invented solutions to the inevitable problems while supplying pricey tomatoes to discriminating buyers in Spokane. The web offers no evidence that Benjamin is still in business.

Washington State University is charged with providing agricultural research, advice and technical assistance to growers yet there is no action on the hothouse front. Considering that hothouse vegetables test out to be nutritionally superior to field-grown vegetables, contain less chemical toxins and can be grown on small acreages near cities, what’s the hold-up?

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.


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