Getting a-head in the lettuce business

Blurb: HydroSerre Mirabel's floating-raft technology has made the company North America's largest hydroponic Boston-lettuce grower


A good way to get a jump on the competition in today's tough business environment is to save customers time. That applies to all industries ranging from dry-cleaning to fast food. To Martin Desrochers' delight, it even affects the lettuce Quebecers eat.

"Lettuce only takes a few minutes to wash, but people see it as a major inconvenience," said Desrochers, president of HydroSerre Mirabel, which operates a massive 800,000 square-foot cluster of 85 hydroponic lettuce growing basins and greenhouses, just outside of Montreal.

Those few minutes have been gold to Desrochers and partner Sylvain Terrault, who are almost single-handedly changing the Quebec lettuce market. Two decades ago the province's lettuce consumption patterns roughly mirrored those in the rest of Canada, with the Iceberg and Romain lettuce varieties dominating.

But during the mid-1980s, Martin Desrochers' brother Luc began testing a new greenhouse-growing method, which consisted of planting the lettuce on rafts that float in nutrient-filled water. The lettuce never touches earth, which means that it's cleaner and easier to prepare.

The Desrochers brothers never doubted the technology's potential.
According to the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, per capita fruit and vegetable consumption in Canada has sky-rocked during the past three decades, from 350 lbs. per person during 1972, to about 500 lbs. last year.

"Canadians want to eat healthier, but they find that vegetable preparation takes too long," Martin Desrochers said.

Luc Desrochers tested many types of lettuce but settled on the Boston variety (also known as butterhead). Boston lettuce at the time had an almost insignificant market share in Quebec, despite the fact that it comprises almost 80 per cent of all lettuce consumed in Western Europe. HydroSerre's Boston lettuce is not strictly classified as ready-to-eat, but it comes close.

"Many of our customers don't even wash it before serving. Others just give it a quick rinse," Martin Desrochers said. "In any case it's a lot faster, because our product never comes into contact with dirt."

Ready-to-eat brands, are pre-washed several times in chlorine to get rid of pesticides and other dirt, a process that often affects product's color and taste. But Desrochers is convinced that HydroSerre's Boston lettuce, which is grown using minimal amounts of herbicides, is superior.

And many seem to agree. The company's sales hit $13 million during 2003, almost doubling in the past five years, with about 40 per cent of revenues coming from U.S. exports. Since HydroSerre's lettuces are grown inside greenhouses, planting continues even in cold weather and the operation cranks out 16 harvests per year.

According to one key HydroSerre customer, Boston lettuce has really taken off in Quebec.

"When I first heard about what they were trying to do-- a new product with new technology in greenhouses,-- I thought they were crazy," Christian Bourbonnière, vice-president (fresh foods) at Metro Inc., said with a laugh. "But now Boston lettuce is the only kind that we have in our fridge at home. And we only carry the HydroSerre's brand here at Metro."

According to Bourbonnière, HydroSerre's Boston lettuce has advantages that go far beyond its simple convenience.

"It is also attractive and tastes good," Bourbonnière said. "And it has good nutritional content."

Precise statistics were unavailable at press time, but the CPMA estimates that about $207 million worth of lettuce was sold in Canada during 2001. If consumption is prorated among the provinces, the $8.4 million of Boston lettuce that HydroSerre Mirabel sold in Quebec last year would give it roughly a 16.9 per cent market share.

Danny Dempster, the CPMA's president, who has known Martin Desrochers for several years, is a firm believer in HydroSerre Mirabel's business model.

"They are the largest producer of hydroponic lettuce in North America," said Dempster. "And as their product becomes more well known, they will probably increase their market share even more."

But Desrochers and Terrault are no longer content to be just lettuce growers. The two recently branched out into the production of fresh herbs such as basil, chives and thyme. Fresh herbs comprised just 6.0 per cent of sales last year, a total that's expected to hit 20 per cent within the next year or two.

Luc Desrochers has also done well with his deep-raft growing technology. He has since spun off his own company --HydroNov,-- and he now sells the growing system in markets such as China, Mexico and Europe. HydroSerre Mirabel owns the license for Eastern America.



Photo caption: According to Martin Desrochers and Sylvain Terrault, HydroSerre's water-grown Boston lettuce is meeting strong acceptance from consumers who want to eat better, but who don't like to spend time preparing their vegetables.



Sidebar: Getting ahead in Quebec's lettuce market

o HydroSerre Mirabel operates 85 hydroponic basins and greenhouses, which turn out 16 lettuce plantings a year.
o Production focuses on the Boston variety, which is well-suited for hydroponic growing and known for its taste, nutritive and aesthetic qualities.
o Because it's grown in water, HydroSerre's lettuce requires only minimum preparation and washing, providing time-stressed consumers with a major convenience.
o The company recently branched out into fresh herb production which is expected to comprise 20% of sales within the next year or two.


Fact Box:
Company Name: HydroSerre Mirabel Inc.
Owner: Martin Desrochers, Sylvain Terrault, Fonds de Solidarité FTQ
Founded: 1987
Products: Boston Lettuce, spices
Employees: 140
Sales: $13 million
Phone #: 450-475-7924


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Peter Diekmeyer
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Montreal, Canada, H9S 1T6, 514-631-0025



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