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Momentum gathering for HydroSerre Mirabel Inc.

MIRABEL, QC - Mâche is up and coming within the 1.1 million square feet of greenhouse production for HydroSerre Mirabel Inc., located here. Beyond Mirabel, the company operates Quebec greenhouses in Drummondville, Victoriaville and St. Clotilde. This spring, the St. Clotilde facility doubled in size from its original 100,000 square feet of production.

While Boston lettuce has been common on North American tables for many years, its importance to greenhouse production is rising fast, according to Daniel Terrault, HydroSerre’s vice president of sales and marketing.

Mâche, which became part of HydroSerre offerings last fall, and Boston lettuce are the largest-volume commodities for the greenhouse lettuce producer. Boston lettuce was the original product grown by HydroSerre in 1988.

Boston lettuce produced in greenhouses is being “discovered more and more” by customers and consumers, Mr. Terrault said. HydroSerre and its greenhouse competitors are busy meeting that demand.

“People have come to know more about greenhouses versus field production.” Because of the highly controlled environment, greenhouse lettuce production is more sustainable, he said. While greenhouses are not exempt from chemical inputs, “we have used no pesticides or fungicides here for two-and-a-half years,” he said. These benefits help the greenhouse lettuce business expand because they are attractive to end users.

Production in “our state-of-the-art greenhouses … uses 95 percent less fertilizer and 98 percent less water per acre.” One acre of hydroponic lettuce production is equal to 50 crop-acres of conventional production, Mr. Terrault said.

HydroSerre’s greenhouse hydroponic production system is unusual because the thin foam platforms it uses to support lettuce root systems float atop a deep pool. Growing lettuce plants side by side on buoyant trays makes for a very efficient use of space. Water is recirculated — and not lost — contributing to the sustainable nature of the system. Eighteen crops a year are produced in HydroSerre’s greenhouses. He noted that solar heat through greenhouse roofs is a “big-time” contributor to a current HydroSerre effort to reduce natural gas heating costs. The firm is considering wood fuel as a supplement to gas for heating the greenhouses.

Mâche sales are “pretty exciting. Mâche has been a delight to people in Europe forever. We’re happy about sales in North America — especially Quebec — and they’re slowly growing in the U.S.”

Mr. Terrault said that, as of mid-August or by early September, HydroSerre will expand its Mâche and Boston lettuce foodservice sales with the product extension of one- and three-kilogram bags.

HydroSerre exports several times a week to customers in Boston, New York City and Philadelphia. Half the company’s sales are to the United States, although a low currency exchange on the U.S. dollar “is a problem.” When The Produce News visited HydroSerre July 19, $1 U.S. equaled $1.04 Canadian. A decade ago, $1 U.S. traded for $.67 Canadian. HydroSerre, and of course other Canadian growers, pay labor, carton and “outrageous” transportation costs in Canadian dollars, so there is a 4 percent hit in each sale in the United States, Mr. Terrault said.

The greenhouse producer is gearing up for increased seasonal sales in September. Mr. Terrault said that greenhouse vegetable growers annually share some summertime business with field growers. Thus, HydroSerre lowers its summer production by 15-20 percent, but was still shipping 20,000 12-pack cartons of lettuce a week in mid-July. This includes weekly sales of 25,000 Mâche clamshells, which are packed into shipping cartons.

Because of field-production problems in California this year, the summer lettuce prices did not see as much downward movement as usual, he noted.