COURTENAY – First generation farmers Matt and Selena Lawrence knew they wanted an acreage and to raise their family on a farm, but securing land and water for a large-scale operation in the Comox Valley was not in the cards.
However, after creating a viable farm business model, the couple were able to secure a mortgage and loan to buy a five-acre property in Courtenay and construct a hydroponic lettuce facility.
“Land is very expensive up here,” Selena says. “We thought, what can we farm small-scale that is sustainable if we can only afford up to five acres of land? We couldn’t have these massive cornfields and you know, water is very scarce on the Island. … So, we decided a greenhouse was going to be our best bet.”
The couple bought the property in June 2022, incorporated their business as Forest Valley Acres and ordered a greenhouse from Harnois Industries in Quebec. Delivered with instructions, greenhouse assembly was more of a challenge than Matt, a Red Seal carpenter, expected – even with his father’s help.
“Coming from working with wood as a carpenter to putting up the steel infrastructure frame with polycarbonate was definitely a challenge,” he says. “It probably took us twice the amount of time that we had budgeted. We had budgeted maybe three months but then the snow came, and we didn’t have that roof on.”
The unfinished building sustained some damage during a late November snowstorm, but once cleaned up, the gas fitters and electrical contractors were able to complete installing the building systems and commission the facility.
“There’s a thermometer, humidity sensor, sheet screens, fans and a cooling system and heater,” Lawrence says. “It stays between 21°C and 24°C at all times all through the year.”
With some help from Matt’s parents, the couple now manage a fully operational Nutrient Film Technique hydroponic system in which nutrient-rich water continuously flows down the channels past exposed plant roots. Any unused solution is captured at the end of each channel, returned to the reservoir, remixed for nutrient balance and recirculated to the plants.
The system recycles up to 95% of the water, Lawrence says. The plants consume about 100 gallons of water per day, which is replaced by their service well. It has been able to keep up with the daily demand so far, but the couple are considering alternatives as drought conditions persist on Vancouver Island.
One option is to buy municipal water from the Comox Valley Regional District at $1.50 per 400 gallons and truck it back to the farm. The other option is to dig a deeper well, but Lawrence says that’s a $20,000 project.
Now that their facility is up and running, the couple hope they can get an environmental farm plan audit and apply for some funding or grants to help cover the cost of a new well.
On June 27, the BC Ministry of Agriculture and Food announced the $20-million Agricultural Water Infrastructure program that will be administered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC over the next three years. The program consists of three funding streams that support the improvement of water storage and delivery systems and agricultural water supply assessments, engineering studies or plans.
Water scarcity a limiting factor
Carmen Wakeling, owner of Eatmore Sprouts and Greens in Courtenay, says water scarcity is a significant limiting factor on regional production.
Each week, Eatmore produces about 10,000 pounds of sprouts, which are 99% water. This means a significant volume is regularly removed from the farm.
One of the main reasons Carmen and her husband bought their property was because it has two very deep wells that draw from the Quadra sand aquifer.
“The aquifer actually takes quite a long time to empty and recharge so probably the impact to us is about a six-month time from when we have an extreme weather event,” Wakeling says. “We’re really lucky because we have wells here so we can actually go online and see the wells on a regular basis and access all that information.”
The data allows Wakeling to plan half a year ahead if they experience drought conditions. She also has a drought plan and staged approach as to what they would do as a business if water access became restricted.
“We’re not being impacted this second, but we’re certainly paying attention and we certainly know that we could be.”
At Forest Valley Acres, April marked the start of the couple’s first growing season. They planted their first seeds on Easter, passed the CanadaGAP food safe certification in May and harvested their first plants on June 1.
In July, the couple were selling their lettuce at mid-Island Quality Foods, Thrifty Foods, the Real Canadian Superstore and their farm stand, with logistical support from Vancouver Island Farm Products Inc. From farm to grocery store should only be about 48 hours, Lawrence says, which together with having the lettuce’s live root ball attached extends its shelf life.
Forest Valley Acres currently supplies four varieties: green leaf, red leaf, green and red butter lettuce with seeds sourced from West Coast Seeds and Stokes Seeds in Ontario.
In their first month of production, patience was the biggest lesson learned, Lawrence says.
“We expected the sales to be there right away. … We hit the market when it was lettuce-growing season for everyone,” Lawrence says. “Our germination rates and our crop loss percentages are not exactly where we want them to be because we’re kind of still learning. We’re experimenting with seeds. We’re switching delivery companies to have better distribution.”
Despite the steep learning curve and evolving logistics, the couple are still providing products for local residents. Other destinations for their lettuce include local schools and Comox Valley Food Bank. Lawrence provides elementary students with fresh greens through the Salad Bar program.
“We were having some product that didn’t quite make the requirements for the grocery stores but was still like a very fine product, very edible. … And I tried to figure out how to kind of get rid of that product and be able to provide somebody with lettuce instead of just having it in our little farm stand,” Lawrence says. “It warms my heart as a mom being able to help these kids get some really fresh, local, clean produce.”
As they continue to refine their production techniques, the couple’s goal is to grow between 1,800 and 2,300 heads of lettuce per week. Right now, they can harvest about 2,000 plants over two days each week. They have a storage cooler on site that can hold about 4,800 heads of lettuce.
Moving forward, the couple eye consistency and expansion.
“Where we placed the greenhouse on the property, we could have up to four greenhouses. They’re a gutter-connect greenhouse, so you actually connect them side by side,” Lawrence says. “I would say the next five-year plan would be to add another greenhouse, whether it’s going to be lettuce or a different product in that greenhouse expansion is definitely in the works.”
However, the expansion will have to wait until Lawrence has a bit more time as her hands are now full with two boys under the age of four and another child due in September.