Ryan Cramer has spent his whole life learning how to bring the best and freshest produce to market year-round and do it sustainably. After all, he grew up in the greenhouse business, helping out in his father’s operation and eventually going to work for him after realizing the good life the business afforded the family.
“Farmers have always had to be very cost conscious because margins are tight, and they need to be able to weather the tough years. In a lot of ways, being efficient translates into sustainability because what you’re doing to save on your heating bill, for example, is helping reduce your carbon footprint,” Cramer, President of Big Marble Farms, says.
“We may not have called it sustainability back in the 1990s, but as a result of being so focused on efficiency, we’ve always been sustainable,” he says.
Over time, Cramer learned that while reducing the business’s carbon footprint is important, so too is profitability. “The efficiency targets that we’ve had in every area, be it labour, heating and water, or fertilizer usage, all that stuff ends up translating into sustainability,” he reiterated.
After working in the family business for several years, Cramer’s father Albert Cramer and his uncle, Rick Wagenaar, proposed starting a year-round greenhouse business that he would operate. County Fresh Farms was established in 2009 and renamed Big Marble Farms a few years later. That year, Cramer also married his wife, Brianne, who has been a part of the executive team since Day 1, contributing to the day-to-day management in bookkeeping and human resources.
“At the time, the vision was: ‘We’ve got this young guy who is interested in the industry, and we need to innovate and expand into new spaces and new markets’,” Cramer said.
At 32 hectares, the Medicine Hat-based business is the largest greenhouse operation in Alberta, supplying mini and English cucumbers, tomatoes on the vine, beefsteak tomatoes, and peppers year-round to most large grocery store chains across Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia. Cramer maintains there is still plenty of room for the company to grow in western markets.
Photo: Ryan Cramer
To help grow the business and continue to find ways to be more efficient and sustainable, Big Marble Farms switched bankers in 2016, moving to Scotiabank. “We have been very fortunate to have a team at Scotiabank that understands the industry. That has been crucial to our business,” he said.
“Scotiabank is committed to the future of Agriculture,” Thomas Neufeld, Director, National Accounts, Canadian Agriculture, said. “As a major financer of Agriculture in Canada, our team understands the ups and downs of the industry, with many of our specialists coming from agriculture and farming backgrounds. We’re proud to partner with Big Marble Farms — their use of technology to build a sustainable, profitable greenhouse operation in Southern Alberta is a prime example of how Canadian Agriculture is focused on feeding us all in a responsible manner,” he said.
When it comes to sustainability, Cramer sees the greenhouse industry as a success story, with growers capturing so many different practices under one business umbrella as they look for efficiencies everywhere. Big Marble Farms is focusing on what it refers to as its key pillars of sustainability.
Heating and water
Using a high-wire growing method that suspends plants one to two metres above the ground so they can receive maximum sunshine and are at less risk for infestations, fungus and disease enables Big Marble Farms to produce the best possible crops, while using almost no pesticides and fungicides, and increasing energy efficiency.
To cut carbon emissions related to heating, the operation employs a nearly 100%-efficient boiler system that captures carbon dioxide and heat from the boilers and stores it in a hot-water tank for later use. That means the farm can turn the boiler off at night when the plants aren’t consuming CO2 and pull the heat from the tank, Cramer said. The boiler pumps the water through hundreds of kilometres of radiant hydronic heating pipes resulting in low carbon emissions and keeping the operation ultra-efficient in winter months, while a mechanized louver system cools plants during the warmer months.
Similarly, Big Marble Farms uses a hydroponic irrigation system to collect rain and snow from the glass roofs and condensate from the plants to store in a holding pond, which is then used to deliver precise amounts of fresh water and nutrients to each plant several times a day.
The water savings are enormous. While field grown tomatoes, for example, require 60 litres of water to produce one kilogram of tomatoes, Big Marble Farms achieves the same result with less than 15. Its aim is to reduce that to less than five litres per kilogram by combining new and advancing technology with its water recycling system.
We may not have called it sustainability back in the 1990s, but as a result of being so focused on efficiency, we’ve always been sustainable
Integrated pest management
Like many farming businesses, Big Marble Farms has nearly eliminated the use of harmful pesticides by introducing predator insects, or good bugs, to biologically control any crop-damaging insects.
“We only use pesticides if we absolutely need to, and generally speaking, that’s only in a small spot to, for example, control an outbreak of insects,” Cramer said. “We have people dedicated to monitoring the ratio between the good bugs and the bad bugs. And when it’s getting a little shy, they’ll add more good bugs and watch them win the battle for us.”
In the past few years, Big Marble Farms also has been more aggressively investing in and developing sustainable, environmentally friendly packaging for its products, looking at everything from 100% unbleached, recyclable paperboard and film to water-based ink and compostable bowls and trays.
“It’s definitely been more about trying to eliminate plastic, but it’s a big challenge because produce needs to be able to last on the shelf. We’re trying to find a balance between what’s good for the environment and what makes sense,” Cramer said.
For example, cucumbers, which have been traditionally wrapped in plastic film, tend to lose moisture quickly and would be soft by the time they hit the grocery store shelves if they were not properly wrapped. Tomatoes, on the other hand, do well with a cardboard or compostable packaging, a solution that is currently more expensive than plastics, Cramer notes.
“It has to be something society is ready for because the cost needs to be shared. If retail pitches in and the consumer pitches in, we’ve got a good thing going,” he said.
“It’s going to require having to pay more and in today’s environment with all the increases we’ve seen post-pandemic — expenses going up and inflation — that will be a tough ask.”
Read more Sustainability Spotlights:
- Convertus Group aims to close the loop on organic waste
- Commercial Lighting Products plugs into net-zero economy
- CarbonCure’s concrete solutions make headway in cutting CO2 emissions