COALDALE – Amid concerns about romaine lettuce and E. coli, a massive greenhouse operation just east of Coaldale is doubling in size to meet the demand for a clean, Canadian source of lettuce.
When the expansion is complete in 2019, the Whole Leaf operation will be 11 acres or roughly 480,000 square feet, and capable of turning out 24 million heads of lettuce each year. The company’s total investment in the plant will be $60 million, according to a news release.
Senior director Rindi Bristol recently provided LethbridgeNewsNOW with a tour.
“It’s all about a controlled climate,” she explained. “It’s all about giving the plants everything that they need to thrive and to grow big and to be strong as well as nutritious. And we control all of the inputs. Our harvesting crew – they’re the first human touch. Everything is automated here, but most importantly is we control our water and we control our air. So, clean water means all the difference.”
The greenhouse is so big, employees use bicycles to get from one end to another. It’s also an automated water, with rows of plants called “gutters” being moved from one end to the other. Bristol said a plant takes 36 to 44 days from seeding to harvest during the winter, and even faster during the summer – 28-34 days.
The process begins with seeding, in pots filled with peat. That’s done automatically. After three days in a dark germination room, they start to work their way across the huge growing platform. At a couple of intervals, they’re transplanted to give them more room.
Human hands don’t touch them until they’re ready to harvest. The harvest crews inspect each head and wrap it in a sleeve, with the roots intact, ready to be sold under the brand name Inspired Greens at supermarkets across Western Canada and even in the northern U.S.
“We have a whole bunch of different varieties including green leaf, red leaf, and probably our most notable and recognizable is our trio, which is three different types of lettuce in one offering,” Bristol said. She added they’re working to expand their markets right to the east coast.
“We know that there’s demand for this type of product, you know, in recent events of what’s going on in the market with some field products and we’re pretty confident that we can get to those markets.”
The processes used to grow Inspired Greens involve Rocky Mountain water from the St. Mary’s River Irrigation District that’s then treated three times. Using their process, each plant requires only around one litre of water, compared to up to 166 litres using other methods.
The amount of sunlight was the main factor in locating near Coaldale, Bristol said, and the company has been embraced by the community. They use electrical cogeneration and heat the greenhouse with waste heat and carbon dioxide.
“There’s a demand for Canadian-grown and locally-grown lettuce 12 months out of the year,” she said. “It’s difficult to grow lettuce when it’s -40 outside with a windchill, so what Whole Leaf and Inspired Greens want to achieve is using artificial light as well as a combination of natural sunlight from Mother Nature and we can grow 12 months out of the year.”
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