The impossible salad: Ontario farmer offers first local, year-round spinach
(Port Perry) – Jim Sheehan demonstrates each piece of customized seeding and harvesting equipment with the flourish other men might reserve for sports cars. He explains there are nuances that separate “farmers” from “growers.”
“A grower will buy machines like this from Europe. A farmer will make them himself,” he says. To emphasize which camp he belongs in, Sheehan grins and gestures to a switch on the electrical panel that has been fashioned from a small tupperware container.
Sheehan worked with two local colleges to build most of the equipment for his company, Durham Foods Limited – located east of Toronto in Port Perry Ontario – but his commitment to innovation runs even deeper. Sheehan has invested more than four years – and the bulk of his retirement savings – to achieve something farmers, researchers and bankers say is impossible: he has found a commercially viable way to grow spinach hydroponically (in water). Now, Durham Foods Limited is North America’s only commercial hydroponic spinach producer, supplying locally-grown spinach to more than 50 area grocery stores year-round – and the operation is expanding to keep up with consistently rising demand. In 2012, his innovation earned him a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.
“Spinach is a massive market in Canada, but it’s a sensitive crop that is difficult to grow,” Sheehan says. “As a ground crop, it doesn’t like hot weather, and its leaves can become tough from wind and rain. As a hydroponic crop, no one has been able to grow it successfully until now.”
Pythium, or “root rot,” is a fungus that attacks plants at the root. Pythium is not unique to spinach, but because the fungus thrives in water, it has made a greenhouse spinach industry impossible. But now that Sheehan’s research has paid off and he has found a way to manage pythium, he says the final product from a hydroponic spinach plant is far superior to its field-grown counterparts.
Sheehan’s plants are grown on styrofoam rafts in deep pools he likens to a “spinach spa.” Sheehan suggests his growing method allows the plants to develop sweeter, more tender leaves that don’t toughen against the elements.
“Because my plants don’t have to fend off wind and insects, they convert all their energy into sugars, producing a more tender, sweeter product,” Sheehan says. “It’s a difference you can taste.”
And, growing spinach in a controlled environment without the use of pesticides or herbicides, he can easily alleviate food safety concerns around field-grown spinach imports, which are more prone to environmental contamination.
Sheehan’s business plans include dissemination of his information to farmers across Canada, in due time. He sees opportunities for local spinach in markets nationwide – but first, he’s working on expanding his own operation and getting contracts in place. The company has an expanded greenhouse opening soon, offering ten times the capacity of his existing building. Sheehan expects with the help of his small team – including his wife, his mother, his son and nephew – they’ll be able to meet growing demands for locally-grown hydroponic spinach as word continues to spread.
“When you’re doing something that’s never been done before, you need to invent everything yourself,” Sheehan says. “It’s about economies of scale, and for us, ramping up our own production is the next logical step.”
This article is one in a series of profiles on Ontario farmers and farm businesses produced by Farm & Food Care Ontario.
By Lisa McLean