(March 27, 11:15 p.m.) Greenhouse vegetable growers in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. continue to look for creative solutions to the problem of soaring energy costs.

Energy costs aren’t nearly the burden for Mexican growers as Canadian growers. Still, even companies that source greenhouse product from Mexico are considering alternatives.

“We haven’t done anything at this point, but we have looked into it,” said Jeff Taylor, a salesman for Prime Time International, Coachella, Calif. “We’ve looked into a few alternatives to natural gas. Mexico’s pretty good, but it still gets cool.”

Some Mexican growers, Taylor said, have come up with an alternative to alternative sources of energy.

“I think some people are pushing further south,” he said.

Wind and solar power are among other alternative sources of energy Prime Time and other companies are considering, Taylor said.

One big hurdle, however, is the size of the investment necessary to switch from one source of power to another.

“We’re definitely looking at everything, but it’s so expensive, infrastructure-wise,” he said.

One company has found an irrefutably practical solution to the problem of high energy costs: Don’t use energy.

“We don’t heat or cool our greenhouses,” said Bryant Ambelang, vice president of sales and marketing for Desert Glory Ltd., San Antonio.

The company achieves that goal by choosing the sites for its greenhouses very carefully, Ambelang said. They’re constructed at 3,000 feet, the optimal altitude for consistent temperatures, in three states in southwest Mexico, he said.

When the company first built its energy-free greenhouses, Ambelang confessed to being skeptical.

“I asked, ‘What if it snows?’ and was told it had snowed one time in 100 years,” he said.

Sure enough, the second snow in a century came that year and wiped out the company’s crop in that location, Ambelang said. Since then, though, there haven’t been any problems.

But even with heating costs taken care of, Desert Glory took steps to minimize the affect of soaring transportation-related fuel costs, Ambelang said.

The company centralized its distribution process in Mexico, getting more product on each truck, he said. Trucks also burned less gas driving from distribution center to distribution center, he said.

Lakeside Produce, Leamington, Ontario, has progressed from looking to acting, said Peppe Bonfiglio, salesman.

In 2007, the company installed three coal boilers to heat its greenhouses.

“It helps us battle costs, and it helps our customers become more cost-efficient as well, and they can pass that along,” he said.

Soaring energy costs tempt Ontario growers to push back production as long as they can, said Jim DiMenna, owner and president of JD Marketing Inc., Kingsville, Ontario.

That not only saves money on energy bills, DiMenna. It also can yield better product.

“Growing in the dead of winter in Southwest Ontario is a very difficult thing to do, and if you plant a little bit later, you feel you have a better-quality crop,” he said.

This season, most Leamington-area growers planted about Jan. 1, about two weeks later than usual, DiMenna said.

“Every trend is toward planting a bit later,” he said.

Clifford Produce Sales Inc., Ruthven, Ontario, looked at the possibility of installing wood-burning boilers in its greenhouses to save money on energy costs, said Mario Testani, salesman.

Because of the huge capital expenditure, however, the company deemed it wouldn’t be worth it in the long run, he said.

The company also has looked at wind power, and one of its growers has converted to coal, Testani said.

Clifford has, for the past three or four years, recycled the carbon dioxide emitted from its boilers, Testani said. The used gas is pumped back into the greenhouse, where it helps vegetables grow, he said.

The company grows bigger and higher-quality tomatoes, for instance, as a result of the extra carbon dioxide, Testani said.

Greenhouse growers innovative as energy costs rise
Soaring energy costs have been a challenge for greenhouse vegetable growers in Canada and Mexico. To deal with the problem, many growers are using alternative energy sources and planting later during the winter, among other solutions.