Weekend Warrior

WenKai Oriental Vegetables

WenKai Oriental Vegetables,

Gargantuan Greens

Eco-greenhouse in Elie yields abundant harvest.

By Robin Summerfield

WenKai Liu’s hands are encrusted with caked-on mud, evidence of a hard day’s work. Life is hectic at WenKai Oriental Vegetables, the 55-year-old’s farm in Elie, 30 minutes west of Winnipeg.

Spring is early and balmy weather has bumped WenKai’s outdoor planting schedule ahead a month. Inside three 100-feet-long by 23-feet-wide energy-saving and innovative greenhouses, the farmer’s vast crop of oriental vegetables, fruits and herbs have been in the ground since January. 

Now it’s harvest time.

WenKai’s produce—with its freshness, taste, variety and nearly year-round availability—has earned a cult-like following in Winnipeg. Line-ups are long at his St. Norbert Farmers’ Market stand. (The market opens June 5.) In Winnipeg, several city chefs are big fans and all city Superstores stock his produce.

WenKai plants about 70 different vegetables and herbs on his 10-acre farm. Peppers, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, melons, arugula, lettuce, squash, broccoli, cucumbers, beets, cabbage and a host of Chinese choys are grown on the farm, among many other vegetables. Basil, dill, cilantro and other herbs round out his crop.

While not certified organic, pesticides or herbicides aren’t used on the farm.

It shows. WenKai’s produce is  vibrantly saturated with colour. His vegetables are always market fresh, crisp and abundant. Gargantuan heads of lettuce, arugula and other leafy greens are the norm. The flavours are gutsy and intense.

“We produce special vegetables. The quality and taste is much better than everyone else,” says WenKai.“We have a real vegetable taste. Other farmers use chemicals and it ruins the taste.”

The eco-friendly greenhouses also save energy and significantly reduce heating costs in the winter. The walls are filled 6”-thick and 6”-high with sand to trap heat. Further fibre-glass insulation inside the walls protects the greenhouse from the elements.

In winter, the greenhouses are kept at about 35°C but it costs only $1 a day to heat, saving him thousands of dollars annually, WenKai says.

He was the first farmer in Canada to use the energy-saving set-up, which is common practice in China, says WenKai, who was raised on his family’s farm southeast of Shanghai. Today, WenKai sells his greenhouse kits for $10,000 each. So far, several farmers in Manitoba, Alberta and the U.S. have  bought his do-it-yourself greenhouses.

Before coming overseas, he earned a degree in argriculture from China. He left his homeland and briefly lived in Venezuela where he did a brief stint as a consultant in the country’s agriculture department. In 1993, he moved to the U.S. where he received a master’s degree from North Dakota State University. In 1996, he moved to Manitoba and started his own farm. Six years ago he set up his energy saving greenhouses.

Today, his produce is in hot demand. Aside from a break between late November and January, WenKai harvests produce year round.

Each week from spring until the end of the growing season in late November, Dim Sum Garden Chef Henry Yan orders about five cases of WenKai’s greens—including gai lan, cucumbers and peppers, among other vegetables—to use in a variety of dishes.

“It’s the taste. They’re better,” Chef Henry says. “They also have more choices of vegetables and they’re very fresh.”