Growing 'up' with cucumbers

Features - Cover Story

One Canadian family applies its expertise to guide Big Marble Farms, the largest produce greenhouse operation in Alberta, into the future.

From left to right: Eden, Brianne, Ryan and Rhys Cramer

“I grew up in a cucumber crop,” Ryan Cramer says, recalling his formative years helping around his father Albert’s greenhouse. Now, Ryan has a cucumber greenhouse of his own, called Big Marble Farms.

In 2009, Ryan started Big Marble as a four-acre greenhouse near Medicine Hat in Alberta, Canada, with his father and his uncle, Rick Wagenaar. Ryan sticks close to his family — he also works with his wife Brianne, who is the company’s executive assistant, and they are raising their daughter, Eden, and son, Rhys, around the greenhouse.

Family was the foundation for Big Marble Farms, and it is now a huge operation. In less than a decade in the role of CEO, Ryan has expanded the business to its present 35 acres of glasshouses. This city of cucumber production, with 190 employees, is the largest produce greenhouse in Alberta, Ryan says. And fitted with high-pressure sodium (HPS) grow lights throughout its entire production area, “It is one of the biggest lit operations in Canada,” he says.

Several key practices have contributed to Big Marble’s success: marketing geared toward healthy diets, crop selection based on market demand, year-round production enabled by the use of supplemental lighting, near-total adoption of beneficial insects for the benefit of both crops and customers, and packing onsite and selling local to ensure freshness.

“You’ve got to be always moving forward,” Ryan says. “That’s a common thing. You always have to be constantly innovating and adapting to the changes — constantly becoming more efficient and looking for ways to produce better.”

From one generation to the next

Raising Ryan on a farm was a natural follow-up to Albert’s own childhood. Albert was raised on a dairy farm where he tended to crops such as alfalfa, timothy and wheat. In the mid-1980s, Albert opened Rolling Acres Greenhouses, an operation that has, at various points, produced cucumbers, peppers, specialty crops and tomatoes. Although Albert brought his experience to Big Marble as founder, he still operates Rolling Acres Greenhouses, which is currently situated on 9.5 acres in Medicine Hat. Albert splits his production between cucumbers and peppers.

“My dad was always close to home,” Ryan recalls. “He worked on the acreage [where we lived] — that’s where the farm was. And he was able to be around. But we were also in the greenhouse a lot. We learned how to work from a young age, from just small jobs like dumping the leaves out in the field to actually having to pick cucumbers when we got a little bit older.”

Big Marble Farms has 35 acres of cucumber production.
Photo courtesy of Big Marble Farms

Albert bought a quarter section (160 acres) of land in the early 2000s with the intention of growing on a larger-scale. He noted how Ryan, who had developed a serious passion for growing, needed an opportunity to advance in the business. “When we had started talking as a group about doing something, I said to my brother-in-law, Rick, and Ryan, ‘Let’s just start our own,’” Albert says. “There was nothing around here with year-round production, and I said, ‘Let’s do something completely different. We’ll put glasshouses up and put lights in it.’ We just had to pull the trigger, and we did, and there we go, and now we’re at 35 acres. It grew fast.”

With 20 years as a grower under his belt, Wagenaar wanted to try something new by 2007, when he sold his own produce greenhouse, Sunquest Growers. Originally, he and Albert had more of a hands-on role at Big Marble. But now Wagenaar, who performs public relations and marketing, and Albert leave most of the day-to-day decisions to Ryan. “[Albert and I] are not scared to take a leap of faith, and we’re not scared of debt — we’re not scared of risk and reward,” Wagenaar says. “Both of us being in that same position, but at an arm’s length to the day-to-day, is perfect. And Ryan, being youthful and spending his whole life within the greenhouse industry, was the perfect third partner.”

Cuke choices

With Ryan at the helm, Big Marble Farms grows Long English Cucumbers and Mini Cucumbers. The Long English Cucumbers fill about 21 acres of production space, and its Mini Cucumbers fill about 14 acres. The offerings and how the greenhouse space is divided are based on market demand, he says.

The operation uses rockwool starter cubes for both types of cucumbers. It then grows them in high-wire systems using bags containing coconut fiber, growing off the main stem of each crop and pruning off the side shoots. “We keep on lowering the plant down so that we keep the head in the same spot so that the cucumbers are always being harvested in the same spot,” Ryan says. “It’s much better for labor, it’s better for quality of the product and it also has potential to yield higher. But it’s a premium system. It’s more labor, so it’s a bit of a commitment, but it also gives you better product quality.”

Growing Mini Cucumbers and Long English Cucumbers are similar practices, Ryan says, but they differ in some ways. For instance, growers need to pick Mini Cucumbers every day, but they can get away without picking Long English Cucumbers for a day. “Mini Cucumbers will grow too fast in two days — they’ll just get too fat,” he says. “They’ll get too big, and then they’ll go to waste.”

Mini Cucumbers are ideal snacks for children’s and adults’ lunches, Ryan says, and Long English Cucumbers are well-suited for slicing up and including in larger dishes.

Ryan (left) and Albert (right) Cramer
Photo courtesy of Ryan cramer
Ryan as a young boy
Photo courtesy of Ryan cramer

Growing year-round

Big Marble Farms takes advantage of the sun’s rays at its location near Medicine Hat in Cypress County, Alberta. This part of the country receives the most annual hours of sunlight — it’s what Ryan calls the “sweet spot of Canada’s Sun Belt.”

In Medicine Hat on the Summer Solstice, the sun shines 16 hours a day, but on the Winter Solstice, it shines only eight hours, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Big Marble Farms maximizes light transmission by using glass structures, Ryan says. And when the days get shorter, the farm increases the amount of light its crops receive by using HPS lighting throughout its 35 acres.

“Our tagline is ‘Always Growing,’ which is describing the fact that we produce all 365 days a year,” Ryan says. “It’s a summer-like product, even in the middle of winter. We’re able to turn on the grow lights once the fall light starts to set in, and we can actually push right through November, December, January, February, when most growers are changing crops and cleaning their greenhouses.”

On the marketing and sales side, Wagenaar sees major value in informing purchasers, produce managers and end consumers about the processes that go into a quality cucumber crop, such as supplemental lighting. He notes that not all customers have time to talk to food producers and learn about where the crop came from, but if he could tell all of them about the production systems at Big Marble, he’d be able to secure and maintain their business.

“When you explain it to them — the science of what it takes to grow a good cucumber and the effort of atmospheric computers and the lights and the waking up of the plant — they can’t help but grin,” Wagenaar says. “[They say] ‘You’re kidding? It’s not just a cucumber?’ ‘No, we wake them up in the morning, we put them to bed at night. We have to tickle their feet — tickle the roots — we call them the feet. We tickle them with the little sensations in the morning to get them active, to get them out of their sleepy slumber. And then okay, it’s worktime, let’s go.’”

Big Marble Farms grows its cucumbers in a high-wire system.

A biological approach

To fight pests and diseases, Big Marble Farms uses approximately 99 percent beneficial insects, Ryan says. The farm, along with other operations, takes the biological approach rather than using pesticides to assure customers that their food is safe. This is one of the main assurances about produce that is important to customers, he says, along with local and fresh.

In addition, growers are beginning to find more sense in using biological programs than using pesticides, Ryan says. “It might be more expensive, but it’s just easier on your crop,” he says. “If you’re always spraying pesticides on your crop, you’re damaging it, to a degree. Plants don’t like being sprayed. In the long run, people have realized that this is the better option.”

Big Marble Farms’ biological program manager scouts the entire farm for pests and diseases, Ryan says. “He’s got a really good eye for it, a real passion for it,” he says. “What he does is he orders the beneficial insects, and they come from Holland. He monitors on a weekly basis how many good guys and bad guys we have in the greenhouse, and then he makes decisions based on that for how many more good bugs he’s going to need for the next week.”

When it comes to educating end consumers on organics, Wagenaar says he tells them that it is far better that they are eating a vegetable rather than a processed food such as Pizza Pops or Crispy Crunch — Canadian junk food. He never says the product is organic, but he tells them, “Spraying pesticides is always, always, always the very, very last chink in the armor.”

Big Marble Farms packs its own product to avoid bruising and guarantee freshness and proper labeling.

Freshly packed

Once harvested, Big Marble Farms packs its own product to avoid bruising and guarantee freshness and proper labeling. The Mini Cucumbers can be packed in different ways, Ryan says, including six or eight packed together on a foam tray with a labeled plastic-wrap on top; or placed in one, one and a half or two-pound bags. The English Cucumbers are plastic-wrapped either individually or shrink-wrapped with others, placed in a box and sold in bulk.

Big Marble Farms uses grading lines, which Ryan says requires a lot of labor. Employees fill boxes with cucumbers and place the vegetables on trays by hand.

“All the big operations have been packing their product for a long, long time,” Ryan says. “But as far as Alberta goes, we are one of the only ones that do it. So [it’s] somewhat new to Alberta, because we never had big enough operations. We always co-packed.”

Big Marble Farms sells its cucumbers it through the RedHat Co-operative, a co-operative of about 30 growers near Redcliff, Alberta, “The Greenhouse Capital of the Prairies.” Ryan is a board member of the co-op, as is Albert, who chaired it for several years due to his roles at both Rolling Acres and Big Marble. The co-op sells Big Marble’s product throughout Canada — mainly in the Prairie Provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

The importance of family

Family still plays an integral part at Big Marble Farms. As executive assistant, Brianne helps with tasks such as marketing, branding and office work. And Ryan sees a benefit to having his children grow up around the operation.

“One of the things I think that I find very important from running a family business like this family farm, for my kids, is that I hope that they learn the same work ethic values that I learned and they have the same family life that I had,” Ryan says.

The business’ marketing emphasizes the importance of nutrition for children. Images of children — including Eden and Rhys — playing and eating cucumbers are prominent on the company’s website. There are also old photos of Ryan as a child — one of him on a tricycle holding a cucumber and one of him standing beside Albert, who is kneeling.

Albert says he enjoys seeing his grandchildren growing up in Ryan’s greenhouse like Ryan grew up in his. “It’s pretty exciting to see them being involved with that, and the opportunity for them is pretty cool, if they want to go with it,” he says.

The farm’s name also refers to children. “The name Big Marble harkens back to a simpler time when kids would spend hours playing with their friends and family,” according to the company’s site, which offers instructions for playing the game marbles, as well as Jacks and Conkers, two other games. (Ryan says the name is twofold — it also refers to Earth. “The Blue Marble” is a nickname for the planet, and an image the Apollo 17 crew took of it in 1972.)

More developments are on the horizon for Big Marble Farms, which has an expansion plan for 2020. Consumer demand will determine the crop type, and acreage will increase by another 10 or 20 acres, enlarging the greenhouse space to more than 10 times its original four acres.

Big Marble completed its 2016 expansion — a whole 20 acres — within a year of breaking ground, and Ryan has the same plans for this next expansion. “It will be complete in 2020,” he states, confidently. “We would break ground [in] early 2020, and we would have plants in it by the fall of 2020.”