Shirley’s Greenhouses is a second generation operation run out of the Didsbury area by Dawn Buschert. The original greenhouse, located near Airdrie, was owned by Dawn’s mother, Shirley. When the original greenhouse closed, Dawn decided to keep the name Shirley’s Greenhouses, as it had proven itself as a reputable name.
On this family farm, knowledge and experience is passed down from generation to generation. Dawn learned a solid work ethic from her mother. Shirley was still working in the greenhouse at nine months pregnant!
The greenhouse predominantly grows varieties of cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers. They also grow eggplant, butter lettuce and kale. I had never been to a large-scale greenhouse before and was eager to learn more about the operations.
Upon my arrival the kids were still eating breakfast, but the crew had already began. I was sent with a crew member to harvest tomatoes on the vine. I spent the morning harvesting under careful supervision. It was clear that I was not overly experienced with nightshades. In the afternoon I was taken for a tour and learned about some of the trials and tribulations of greenhouse production…
As one can imagine, water is one of the most essential components of any greenhouse operation, especially for a hydroponic operation like Shirley’s Greenhouses. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants that uses minimal soil. Hydroponic plants receive their nutrients via water solution. This nutrient solution is a carefully calculated ratio mixed by hand. Shirley’s Greenhouses is supplied water from a dug out that’s located on site. The drought that has been inconsistently hitting Alberta over the past few years is a concern. Reliable water can be a challenge. Dawn lost the majority of her plants one year due to contaminated water containing herbicide from a neighbour’s run off.
No matter what challenges the greenhouse is facing, honesty between producer and consumer is essential to this family farm. Dawn’s philosophy is to “show the consumer the truth and let the customer decide what’s right for them.” A hydroponic greenhouse cannot be certified organic under Canadian regulations. The nutrients used in hydroponics are elementally sourced, carefully balanced by Dawn’s husband, and delivered to the plants via water solution. Due to the nutrient source used in hydroponic systems, they cannot be considered organic, even though other greenhouse practices are in accordance with organic principles. For example, no sprays are used and pests are managed using predatory insects. Dawn is happy to explain these details to anyone interested.
These conversations are key to local food producers. When purchasing directly from the producer, one can inquire about the exact practices and decide for themselves if ‘certified organic’ is necessary. This discussion allows customers to choose which practices they support. Accessibility to production information is a freedom not always found at the grocery store. Labels can be misleading and larger companies often stretch the definitions of ‘free-range’ and ‘organic’. Knowing your farmer allows for transparency in communication. This benefits both producer and consumer and for Dawn at Shirley’s Greenhouses, this is paramount; a value that makes her stand out and builds long-standing customer relationships.
If you haven’t tried Shirley’s Greenhouses' tomatoes yet, be sure to make a special trip to the Farmers’ Market just for these. You can buy Shirley’s Greenhouses' produce at Market on MacLeod Thursday through Sunday, Hillhurst Sunnyside Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays or straight from the source at Shirley’s Greenhouses’ on-site farm stand.