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The Bigger Picture

The Bigger Picture

How North America’s Leading Plant Propagator is Transforming Sustainable Agriculture

In the Middle of Everywhere

Just south of London, Ontario, the relatively small and unassuming Highway 3 cuts east to west in a straight line through flat cornfields and gently rolling wilderness. This beautiful countryside is speckled with farmsteads, while horses graze on the bright green grasses that stretch to the boreal forests on the horizon. When driving along this four-lane highway, you may get the feeling that you are in the middle of nowhere. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. When you zoom out, the rows of cornstalks and black spruce disappear, and the bigger picture takes shape. This is the middle of everywhere.

Ontario Plants Propagation was founded in 2002 along this seemingly desolate stretch of natural splendor between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. As a family business with immigrant roots and generational wisdom, the passion for nurturing premium starter plants from seeds was pursued on a humble seven-acre plot of land just outside the town of St. Thomas. Few other places can boast a more remote and—yet—more centralized location than Ontario Plants Propagation, which has grown to become North America’s leading supplier of high-quality starter plants for hydroponic and organic greenhouse growers. Today, the operation comprises 45 acres of high-tech greenhouse facilities that produce more than 60 million “ready-to-grow” young plants from seed each year. Incredibly, approximately 40% of all greenhouses in North America get their starter plants from Ontario Plants Propagation, which is renowned for its quality standards and customer-first approach.

A dedicated team of more than 200 experienced professionals, led by experts from the Netherlands and Canada, makes this possible. The talented team at the St. Thomas facility specializes in the propagation of greenhouse vegetable plants, particularly tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, and berry plants with biosecurity at the core of their approach. Following a meticulous, custom-made program for each client and crop, the little plants graduate from their own version of kindergarten—ready to take on the wider world.

Shipped in trucks along Highway 3, these starter plants are just a short drive to a majority of their customers in North America. Some starter plants make it as far as California, Texas, and Mexico in climate-controlled trucks. By focusing on westward expansion of facilities and customers, Ontario Plants Propagation is reducing not only its carbon footprint, but also time to delivery. This is just one example of the way small innovations in efficiency can have significant, long-term benefits. It may also explain why, for more than two decades, North American growers have trusted Ontario Plants Propagation as the industry’s gold standard for high-quality starter plants, sustainable innovation, and timely delivery. But this is only the beginning of the journey.

The Interior of Innovation

From the rich interior low country of the Netherlands to the glacier-carved and water-rich lowlands of Ontario, Canada, it would be remiss to say that Ontario Plants Propagation began in 2002. In truth, Ontario Plants Propagation brought dreams and expertise to North America with roughly 500 years of innovative Dutch farming practices in tow. Today, the experienced management team is led by highly accomplished industry veterans, who continue to seek the next best approaches to sustainable agriculture. The ultra-modern greenhouses, which span an impressive length along Highway 3, utilize sophisticated and proprietary growing methods adopted from Dutch propagation best practices, technologies, and systems. Such game-changing innovations were almost non-existent in North America before this standard was set.

Ontario Plants Propagation is driven by customer needs. Their experts seek and leverage cutting-edge technologies and innovations at every stage to improve plant quality, service, sustainability, and product offerings. Controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) has recently become the standard in North America and elsewhere for a variety of crops; however, along Highway 3, beneath the endless rows of triangular-roofed greenhouses, CEA is a well-honored tradition.

Here lies another paradoxical secret to the success of Ontario Plants Propagation: their traditions are flexible rather than rigid. With the mission to be at the forefront of innovation, the company’s experts and decision-makers must balance—quite deftly—the risk-averse needs of the now and the risk-required improvements for the future. What is more, each innovation is integrated to enhance the overall efficiency, efficacy, and sustainability of the operation.

By growing hydroponically in greenhouses, Ontario Plants Propagation can produce crops with roughly 30 times higher yield than those in the open field. Hydroponics uses far less water than open field agriculture. In fact, utilizing a range of water treatment methods, including screen filters, cloth filters, and—ultimately—UV treatment, Ontario Plants Propagation effectively recycles 660,000 gallons (2.5 million liters) of water each day, while sustaining a high rate of dissolved oxygen.

Furthermore, hydroponics removes soil from the equation altogether. Perhaps less obvious, hydroponic greenhouses solve many issues such as soil-borne and air-borne diseases and pests. Controlled and clean growing technology allows for minimal use of pesticides, herbicides, and other synthetic chemicals. By working alongside customers and seed breeders, Ontario Plants Propagation helps to develop vegetable seeds and to drive new seeds naturally, meaning they are not genetically modified (GMO).

Quality control is paramount for healthy crops. Strict hygiene measures are applied not only to greenhouses but also to personnel, carts, shipping trays, and vehicles. The unexpected emergence of catastrophic diseases, such as the Tomato brown rugose fruit virus (ToBRFV), necessitates the extreme level of biosecurity that Ontario Plants Propagation maintains. Additionally, their remote facilities ensure significantly less exposure to common growing pests and diseases that may plague other greenhouses.

Above the plants, a checkerboard pattern of HPS fixtures and Fluence LEDs provide supplemental lighting for optimal growth. Ontario Plants Propagation’s semi-retrofit of powerful and highly efficient LEDs throughout the 45-acre facility at St. Thomas is a major example of their dedication to innovation and sustainability. With support from Fluence’s Technical Services Team, Ontario Plants Propagation received a major rebate that eased the financial and operational risks of investment and installation. The integration of advanced LEDs greatly reduced energy costs and unwanted heat output in the greenhouses, lowering peak energy consumption by 5%. More critically, Fluence VYPR LEDs reduced the overall starter plant delivery time, giving customers a head start on the competition.

Such innovations and automations help to explain why Ontario Plants Propagation is the leading supplier of starter plants in North America, but technology does not tell the whole story. With clients across the U.S. and Canada, encompassing a vast array of climates, crops, and customer needs, Ontario Plants Propagation relies most of all on a deep reservoir of “know-how” and “know-why” that extends far beyond technology. Indeed, the ability to find success on a massive scale is perhaps their biggest industry secret.
Remarkably, while producing 60 million plants per year, Ontario Plants Propagation has incredible success rates with their seeds. Whereas the industry is known to overseed due to the difficulties of nurturing strong plants, the experienced team at St. Thomas finds consistent success with leaf-thin margins. Thus, it becomes clear why approximately 40% of North American greenhouses rely on this facility—in the middle of nowhere and everywhere—along Highway 3.

Future Solutions for Sustainable Farming
The world is facing a food crisis. For this reason, there is a global initiative to establish more sustainable farming practices, particularly advancements in CEA. With the support of its owner COFRA Holding—the 180-year-old family-owned enterprise that invests to build long-term, flourishing businesses—Ontario Plants Propagation is on a mission to improve biosecurity, sustainability, and customer service in North America.
Mathieu van de Sande, CEO at Ontario Plants Propagation, understands this mission as well as anyone. Having “grown up under the glass” of his family’s greenhouse, Mathieu exudes the life-long passion and experience that is required to take on the monumental challenges of the agricultural landscape: “At Ontario Plants Propagation, our emphasis is on industry-best practices to provide top-notch starter plants. We prioritize sustainability and biosecurity, channeling our resources to invest in both our people and innovative practices to proactively meet customer and consumer demands. Our dedication is rooted in a belief that Controlled Environment Agriculture can and must be a force for good for society and the environment.”

For more than two decades, the St. Thomas facility has provided the definitive blueprint for success and sustainability at immense scale. Still, their incredible growth is not over. With the support of high-tech greenhouse builder Dalsem, Ontario Plants Propagation is constructing an 18-acre, state-of-the-art greenhouse facility in Glencoe, Ontario, in addition to warehouse and office space on the 120-acre site. Strategically located on the Highway 401 corridor, this new location is just a 40-minute drive from their St. Thomas facility and provides ample space for continued expansion and innovation.

The Glencoe facility promises to set a new industry standard for sustainability, technology, and biosecurity. The greenhouse development will be equipped with a container growing system, a hybrid LED configuration, and Dalsem’s X-AIR Semi-Closed System. These systems work together to eliminate microclimates and produce optimal growing conditions from seed to start. The integration of smart technologies with data capture capabilities is a big step towards sustainability and hyper efficiency. For instance, instead of reacting to sudden drops in outside temperature or cloud cover, smart systems allow growers to become predictive and proactive in their methodologies. This data driven approach is gaining momentum in every industry, but it is certainly promising and pressing in relation to agriculture, nutrition, and food security.

The future is automation, and Glencoe is proof. As population increases and arable land decreases throughout the world, the importance of sustainable and scalable controlled-environment agriculture becomes ever more crucial for the health and happiness of billions of people. Ontario Plants Propagation’s Glencoe facility is expected to be the next blueprint for delivering world-class starter plants from seeds, but it may prove something greater. When you zoom out, the green grasses and greenhouses disappear, and a bigger picture takes shape.

Ontario Plants Propagation is in the middle of transforming agriculture as we know it.


This article was first published in Inside Grower’s May 2024 edition.

Michael Hanan

Fluence Sales Manager, Commercial Agriculture

Michael is the Fluence sales manager for the North American commercial agriculture market, where he is responsible for supporting the produce and ornamental growers across the continent. He has over a decade of experience in the CEA industry, including previous experience as owner / operator of Agua Dulce Farm, a greenhouse produce business.