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Nature Fresh automated systems ensure peak efficiency

State-of-the-art technology doesn’t come close to describing the thought put into every detail to ensure Nature Fresh Farms is operating at peak efficiency.

The Leamington-based greenhouse operation is one of the largest greenhouse producers in Canada and one of the largest pepper growers in North America.

Owner Pete Quiring, a greenhouse designer, manufacturer and builder began his foray into greenhouse growing as a demo model for his work. He wanted to showcase that an upfront investment in the latest technology was worth the cost and the showpiece was originally built with the intention of being sold. Today, the company has grown into one of the most highly automated hydroponic growing greenhouses.

The Produce News was privy to a behind-the-glass look at the automated systems, including self-guided carts, with grower Harry Stigter and Tyler Clark, specialty tomato and peppers specialist and sales.

16-NF-STaffNature Fresh Farm's Tyler Clark, specialty grower/sales; Harry Stigter, TOV grower; Herman Fehr, pepper grower assistant; and Jason Guenther, head pepper grower.Clark, now in a sales role, credits his growing background as an integral part of his success as a salesperson. “Every variety has different needs but we only have one spec, top notch,” said Clark. “A lot of care has to be taken with peppers, you can tell a quality grower by looking at the stem.”

Food safety and traceability top the list of key priorities for Nature Fresh. “Everybody has children in their lives; our products need to be safe,” said Stigter.

There are approximately 1.8 million plants on the 130 acre farm and about 220 crop workers to tend to the plants. According to Stigter, consumers seem to like bigger tomatoes and dealing with excessive heat can make them smaller. He equates taking care of the plants to taking care of yourself — you have to know the right balance. “When they’re tired, take a break. Dark weather slows plants down and you don’t want to burn them out, during sunny days you push, push, push,” he said. In the summer, each stem gets approximately 3.5 liters of water a day per plant.

“We keep moving the stems up every week and de-leaf weekly, pulling three suckers,” said Stigter. The 11-month growing season starts the third week of January for Nature Fresh. The regular weekly routine for Nature Fresh is to clamp, delete three leaves, add cluster supports, and lower the plants that grow 22-27cm per week.

The greenhouses are carefully monitored and computerized climate control ensures optimum conditions. “We keep different heat regimes day and night, four throughout a 24-hour period to promote fast growth and big fruit,” he continued. “If you control the humidity, you help control diseases.”

Nature Fresh Farms was recently awarded five awards during the annual 2013 Hottest Tomato/Perfect Pepper Competition.

Awards won by the company included “Best” in the following categories: Overall Hothouse Tomato, Beefsteak Tomato, Specialty Tomato — Yellow Grape (Sweetest), Yellow Sweet Bell Pepper, and Roma Tomato.

“We continue to search for the varieties that provide the best eating experience. Recently our team traveled the Eastern European growing regions identifying new varieties in all categories that will continue to fuel our efforts in growing the best product. Producing greenhouse vegetables that look great with a taste that enhances the eating experience is why we take great pride in the awards we have received,” Nature Fresh stated in a press release.

Nature Fresh is intent on staying ahead of the curve with peppers, tomatoes and specialty tomatoes. They have over 300 trials on the farm this year. “I’ve been at a few places and for me this is the nicest. It has all the toys a grower could want and that’s why it’s fun in here. You have to enjoy your job and I do,” concluded Stigter.