Coddled in a controlled environment, root-bound strawberry plugs are set to explode. What’s unseen in the fibrous roots is a globally-sourced variety that’s virus-free, disease-resistant, high-yielding and flavourful once grown in an Ontario greenhouse.
These plugs are the pride of Dusty Zamecnik, EZ Grow Farms, Langton, Ontario. He and his parents, Darryl and Helen, have built a state-of-the-art, 19-acre propagation facility that is home to the first crop of plugs in 2024. They are destined for the burgeoning strawberry greenhouse industry that has grown to almost 350 acres in the Leamington area since 2017.
“We’ll be rocking and rolling planting the first crop of mothers in early February,” says Zamecnik with characteristic enthusiasm. “We have evolved with our clients in the last seven years, understanding where the market is and what timing makes sense.”
The multi-million dollar investment is based on more than 30 years of propagating experience with bare-root plants for southern U.S. berry growers. His clients are primarily in the Plant City, Florida area, the epicenter of the winter strawberry industry. In the past and up to the present, bundles of bare roots are delivered to clients in October. The plants will bear fruit in 60-plus days, ready to be shipped to Canadian retailers by the peak holiday season and into spring.
In recent years, climate change has upped the risk for field growers. In 2023, he experienced the wettest and darkest summer on record. Half an inch of rain in 30 minutes not only saturates the ground, but brings disease too. As Zamecnik explains, many sleepless nights have bled into stressful days trying to deliver on promised quantities of viable plants. That uncertainty is not an acceptable risk for greenhouse growers. This is why EZ Grow Farms has been learning to grow plug plants for its greenhouse clients, finetuning which varieties and practices work best under local environmental conditions.
“November is the sweet spot for retailing greenhouse-grown strawberries in eastern Canada and the eastern seaboard,” says Zamecnik. “That means EZ Grow Farms needs to deliver plugs in July.”
Some of the knowledge behind these changes has been derived from frequent trips to Europe: Italy, England, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain. These forays are primarily to talk to breeders and scout new varieties. Still, this is not a plug-and-play venture. As experience has shown, these growing systems perform differently under Ontario’s various humid conditions, lighting regimes and substrates.
Understandably, the growth path has been incremental, starting with one acre of plug plants then expanding to 2.5 acres before building a 6.5 acre Cravo-retractable roofed facility in 2019. Thanks to the track record of proving that the technology works and that clients are paying for mature strawberry plugs compared to a bare root, Farm Credit Canada has been a long-time financial partner.
“We have been aggressive in our growth but with cautious steps,” explains Zamecnik. “Perhaps it would have made more financial sense to move to 6.5 acres more quickly, but our lender appreciated the building blocks.”
Growing with proprietary technology
Since the propagation facility is one-of-a-kind, Zamecnik has protected his competitive position with supplier agreements to not use his template for cookie-cutter builds within a few years. The details aren’t public, but given the investment, these arrangements are good business practice.
The water disinfection system, for example, is specific to EZ Grow Farms. The new plants must be misted and watered from overhead to prevent damage to the plant tips. Because a monoculture is under glass, it’s easy for disease to replicate. So water filters are designed of the highest calibre to mitigate this disease risk. The protocols to protect plantlets are tested at the South Essex Fabricating R & D Centre in Leamington.
“It’s not just the technology but the protocols that we’ve developed which are proprietary,” says Zamecnik. “There’s been no hard blueprint for us in North America. We’re developing these ourselves.”
Growing in the future
Ontario’s Norfolk County has always been known for its wealth of innovators. What’s not clear is how farm families will invest in future expansion as the costs of AI, robotics and infrastructure soar to millions of dollars. Will farmers be able to pitch their long-term visions with institutional partners at the boardroom table?
“If you look at the Statistics Canada data, we are not investing in agriculture in a way that reflects the superpower that we think we are,” says Tyler McCann, managing director, Canadian Agrifood Policy Institute (CAPI). “Investment is in decline in some agricultural sectors.”
“Good projects are getting financed,” continues McCann, with a nod to the strawberry propagation story. “But there’s a lack of projects on the table.”
At a broader level, he says there is too much comfort in the status quo and a lack of ambition for growth. Those are tough words for a sector known for its entrepreneurial ways. The underlying challenge is overcoming regulatory burdens and convincing provincial and federal governments of the economic engine that can sustain rural communities. Horticulture alone has a Canadian farmgate value of $6 billion.
That’s an elevator pitch that should be repeated often to governments that hold the policy levers. Dusty Zamecnik’s strawberry propagation story is an excellent case history of what can be done, responding to market signals and using the talents of a complex supply chain.
The Grower is Digging Deeper behind the story above and speaking with Tyler McCann. As managing director of the Canadian Agrifood Policy Institute, Tyler sees a need for more investment if agriculture is to meet its superpower goals in food production. Listen to the podcast here >>