15 August 2009

Great Gambols with Public Money: Sprung Cukes

Ah, how quickly they forget, these pleasant but heavily indebted, taxpaying people of Newfoundland and the sorry experience of governments that gamble (or is it gambol?) with public money on all manner of ventures.

How quickly they forget just how they got to be the most indebted people in the entire country.

More than anything else, they got into hock up to their eyeballs from cheering government after government as it poured thei tax dollars into this hole and that, each of which was supposed to gush barrels of cash so that God's Other Chosen (But Seemingly Forgotten) People could at last have their Eden here on Earth.

How quickly do they forget?

Apparently 20 years ago is too long for some of the poor darlings.
From the Memory Hole, the first newspaper cutting about that gloriously foolish venture known as the Sprung Greenhouse.

Bear in mind though that at the time there were a great many supporters of the regime du jour who cried that any amount (in this case upwards of $22 million) was fitting.

"Spend a buck to make a buck" they cried. 

"Brian can gamble with my money any day" they shouted. 

"How can anyone be so negative all the time and oppose this idea?"

"Sure they'll create a few jobs and get it all back in taxes."

"We will be the world leader in cucumber production."

At the end, all the pod-houses did was induce an epidemic of insomnia among the good residents of Mount Pearl and add another $22 million to the public debt.

"Skepticism rains over hydroponic greenhouse"
The Toronto Star
Friday, May 22 1987

by Alan Story

ST. JOHN'S, Nfld. - In a province with a mere 380 farms and the poorest soil, a raging agricultural debate has been at the centre of politics - and over-the-back-fence conversations - here for the past two weeks.

The subject: hydroponic cucumbers.

With the active encouragement and financial assistance of the Peckford government, an Alberta firm is dismantling its 3.2-hectare, high-tech greenhouse in Calgary and shipping it east to St. John's to begin growing hydroponically produced cucumbers, tomatoes and other vegetables.

The $18.5 million joint venture between the Sprung Group of Companies and the Newfoundland government is being touted as a solution to several of Newfoundland's problems.

Among them:
  • The lack of cheap, high-quality produce available locally. Neither the price nor taste of a tomato or a cantaloupe you buy at a St. John's supermarket matches what you can find at Toronto's Kensington Market.
  • The lack of jobs. According to company president Phil Sprung of Calgary and the government, which will put up to $11.5 million into the project, 330 construction jobs and 150 permanent jobs will be created.
Even if all Newfoundlanders became vegetarians, the Sprung greenhouse would produce far more tomatoes and cukes than the local market could ever consume. Sprung's surplus would shipped to the mainland.

"For once, Newfoundland will be first in new technology and not just in unemployment rates," Peckford said on May 8 when he announced the deal. It's not only skeptical mainlanders who are questioning the wisdom of setting up a giant food factory based on technology that failed to perform properly in Calgary and on market studies the premier won't release.

Peckford's mad hunt for employment has brought him "full circle to the insanity that premier (Joey) Smallwood pursed when he tried to set up a chocolate factory, a rubber factory and orange juice factories in the middle '50s," declared Newfoundland New Democratic Party Leader Peter Fenwick.

Worried about the Sprung greenhouse's potential surplus entering markets in the Maritimes and even Ontario, James Keizer, president of the Greenhouse Growers' Association of Nova Scotia told Peckford that "if this greenhouse is built and operated as Sprung claims, it will fail within two years and take some Maritime growers who have built their business - one stick at a time over many years - with them." Letter-to-the-editor writers and editorial cartoonists have had a field day too.

Last week's Sunday Express, a new and brightly written St. John's weekly newspaper, featured a cartoon of a moronic-looking Peckford, clenching a stem of grass between his teeth and overseeing a Rube Goldberg-like operation known as "Peckford's Pickle Farm."

The main serious questions being raised are whether a major hydroponic greenhouse is technically feasible in Newfoundland - hardly Canada's banana belt - and whether it makes economic sense. Hydroponics - growth with water, instead of soil, as a medium - is recognized as a viable method of producing vegetables which is just starting to come into its own across the North America..

Sprung's somewhat secret hydroponic process involves planting seedlings in trays of water containing various nutrients, but no pesticides, and rapidly raising them to maturity under natural or artificial light in greehouses. Sprung makes big claims about the level of productivity. At his former Calgary greenhouses, he says 28,000 tomatoes and 22,000 cucumbers were produced daily. The cukes matured in less than a week.

But can his process work in often foggy and cloudy Newfoundland? Agricultural scientists have pointed that in St. John's, the number of degree days (a measure of natural heat available) is 1,600 while southern Alberta has 3,100 days. The extra heating required and the extensive use of artificial lights proposed for the St. John's greenhouse may significantly boost the costs of production, they warn.

Others following the great greenhouse debate aren't sure what to make of Sprung's claim that gas leaks from the soil at his Calgary site were the only reason why he had a major crop failure last year and why his tomato plants turned grey.

 The economics of the project are also in doubt. Some here are surprised that Peckford, who has tended to avoid getting sucked in by the industrial dream-peddlers who regularily come calling in Atlantic Canada, has become the project's biggest promoter.

Will all of the tomatoes and cucumber grown - more than twice Newfoundland's entire current level of consumption - actually be sold?

Why is the project so large after a recent provincial royal commission specifically warned against the dangers of getting tied into mega-projects?

What will be gained if other Maritime greenhouse producers are put out of business by the government-financed Sprung operation?

Before the Sprung story is over, Peckford may realize that tomatoes can be thrown as well as grown.