This year marks Alan Turner’s second season owning his greenhouse, Carraic Farm, in Courtenay, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. He previously worked at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada for 10 years. Prior to that, he worked at a B.C. vegetable greenhouse for about seven years.
Turner has found that starting his own business presented new challenges, even though he had significant experience working in the industry.
“When you're a grower or junior grower, you don't see the sales side," he says. "You don't see what the ownership is seeing and the pressures that they’re under. You just go to work, and you work hard, obviously, but you don't think about what else goes on in the operation. It's not your job.”
In addition to his experiences coming from a farming family and professional agriculture background, Turner has learned several things since starting Carraic Farm last year and has plans for years down the road.
Turner sells mostly to farmers markets, and he has discovered that it’s important to have variety in a direct-sale market. He grows multiple crops, such as tomatoes, hot peppers and sweet and bell peppers, and customers buy a mix of those items in one fell swoop.
“They're stringing together a bunch of purchases, and that's what makes your money at these markets — having a couple different things,” he says. “I’d say 60, 70% of the people, after a while, are repeat customers. They know you're there; they know the spot even in the market you're at and they’ll come to you directly.”
In his first season, Turner had fewer items, making it difficult to retain customers. But now, he brings more produce, which means repeat customers.
“I’m venturing into strawberries as well,” he says. “I know as far as North America, it’s never been a big greenhouse crop compared to other more traditional ones, but studies that I was reading out of Eastern Canada [said] that there’s a possibility for strawberries [for] the small operators. There are a lot more opportunities there for it because of the volumes.”
Turner sells to the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market, which runs year-round — inside in the winter — in addition to other farmers markets in nearby neighboring towns.
He currently grows in 4,000 square feet of greenhouse space and in fields. In the next five years, he plans to add another 8,000 square feet of greenhouse space and more field space. Once his production increases, he plans to start selling more wholesale.
“I think, ultimately, I want the extra greenhouses so that I can do all of the big five, big six crops of heated greenhouses — the tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers — and then probably add to that strawberries, eggplant and probably lettuce into the fall as a transitional thing,” he says.