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Fresh start provides green field opportunity

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It’s not every day when three major IT trends converge for an IT manager. But that’s exactly what happened to Keith Bradley of NatureFresh Farms in Leamington, Ont.Cloud, Internet of Things, and 3D printing came together for NatureFresh Farms that resulted in the independent greenhouse vegetable producer dramatically increasing its produce yield by close to 30 per cent while also reducing energy and labour costs.

NatureFresh was started in 1999 as a greenhouse design business by Peter Quiring, the company’s CEO. Quiring built a state-of-the-art greenhouse, but with no customer prospects. Driven by a belief that greenhouses could improve the quality of food, he started growing bell peppers in 16 acres of greenhouse area of his own design.

Today NatureFresh has turned into the largest independently operated greenhouse grower in Canada with large supermarket customers such as Kroger in the U.S. and The Great Canadian Superstore in Canada.

Currently, NatureFresh has 130 acres of greenhouse facilities in Leamington (135 total greenhouses) growing bell peppers and specialty cherry tomatoes. They also have an operation in Delta, Ohio.

A unique part of NatureFresh’s operation is a mobile trailer that has been converted into a greenhouse, which any grower can control from their smartphone. Bradley said the mobile greenhouse is similar to the company’s actual greenhouses and from his smartphone can control the temperature, if vents are open or closed, and watering the plants from anywhere in the world.

Despite all this horticultural innovation, the company was faced with ongoing competitive pressure from growers in regions of the world that had more affordable labour costs, such as South America. Quiring also pushed the mandate to use innovative technology for growing their produce to higher standards of quality and be able to track each and every tomato or pepper ensuring food safety.

Bradley, a University of Windsor graduate who used to work for a managed services provider, took the challenge head-on and developed a strategy with help from IT industry partnerships from Intel Canada and Priva North America, a technology solutions provider for climate control and process management specific to the horticultural market.

The results enabled NatureFresh to transition from one grower per acre to one grower for every 32 acres.  Implemented traceability technology barcoding for every vegetable, smart building technology, as well as the use of a 3-D printer to design and build things and IoT solutions  for smart lighting that has  helped NatureFresh produce vine plants that can now grow throughout the year here in Canada.