Our neighbourhood hardware store switched up the signs in the window last week. Out with the sign announcing the skate sharpening service; in with the one announcing that McKenzie seeds are now in stock.
Your scribe was only mildly delighted at this harbinger of spring, having never attempted to grow tomatoes from seeds, preferring the jump-starting advantage of greenhouse-grown seedling plants.
Ah, the wondrous tomato, a vegetable (or is it a fruit?) we have come to cherish even more as we watch actor Stanley Tucci’s lush series on Italian cuisine on CNN. Tucci, as charming and amiable as the late lamented Anthony Bourdain was edgy and inebriated, has a special love for the pomodoro (golden apple). We learn that the tomato made its way from the New World courtesy of the Spanish conquistadors, who subsequently transplanted it in Tuscany, where it became the staple of Italian cuisine.
Back to those newly arrived seeds. Being ignorant of the world of flower and vegetable seeds, I asked Mr. Google, who tells me McKenzie is Canada’s top packet seed supplier, primarily for home gardeners. Founded in 1896 in Brandon, Manitoba, the company was gobbled up in 2008 by the Norwegian seed colossus Jiffy International, which also owns the largest supplier in the United States.
Apparently, McKenzie no longer produces seeds in Manitoba, so most gardens in Canada are basically sown with foreign seeds.
Such is the reality of our globalized world, but the prospect of being vulnerable to foreign suppliers of fruits and vegetables is something the Quebec government is determined to resist.
Folks may have noticed something changing in the past few years in Quebec supermarkets: an abundance of homegrown tomatoes in the depths of winter. Whereas not that long ago, snowbound Canadians were compelled to buy fresh tomatoes cultivated, sometimes under dubious social and environmental conditions, in places like California and Mexico, nowadays tomatoes on offer are more likely to come from the Laurentians, the Saguenay, the Townships or the Charlevoix.
Quebec’s greenhouse vegetable industry has been growing like a weed in recent years, nurtured by governments and driven by entrepreneurs capitalizing on an irresistible movement to embrace homegrown food year round.
According to 2020 data from the Quebec ministry of agriculture, the greenhouse fruit and vegetable sector in the province has grown by 50 per cent in nine years. There are some 553 greenhouse fruit and vegetable companies in the province, cultivating an expanse of 123 hectares.
Sales have leapt from $73 million in 2010 to $148 million in 2019, with average household consumption rising from 7.8 kg to 9.3 kg, or about the equivalent of three or four plump tomatoes from the hothouses of Quebec’s countryside.
(We should interject here, with Stanley Tucci’s San Marzanos in mind, that no greenhouse-grown tomato can compare in flavour with the sun-ripened beauties of summer.)
Last fall, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government unveiled its greenhouse growth strategy, which aims to double the province’s hothouse production by 2025, using a series of financial and other incentives. Some $91 million has been earmarked over two years to stimulate greenhouse expansion, in addition to a fund for reducing the cost of electricity, which is a major factor in heating greenhouses in the northern climate.
An example is the Demers operation in Lévis, where $23 million worth of government subsidization of electricity costs is the key to the construction of a new $70-million greenhouse facility.
Even with the massive expansion of greenhouse infrastructure, Quebec is still a long way from weaning itself off imported produce, 51 per cent of which still comes across the border.
There are many positive things about greenhouse-grown edibles, apart from vegetable nationalism. They require less pesticide and herbicide use than field-grown produce, they are of consistent size and quality, and they can be grown with a minimum of environmental impact, using recycled water and solar panels.
One of the giants of the industry, Savoura, boasts of using biomass as fuel to heat several of its plants … er, greenhouses. In so doing, the company says it reduces tens of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases every year.
How about that, greenhouses reducing greenhouse gases?
Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain
Greenhouse-grown tomatoes are reducing greenhouse gases!