One of Sturgeon County’s most iconic businesswomen is taking a step back from the thriving Morinville Greenhouses, an operation she built from a bare field more than 40 years ago.
Alissa Marles is passing the spade to her son, Greg, to spend part of the year at her Airbnb on Vancouver Island. Marles, and her husband, Jim, purchased the six-acre ocean-front property at Mill Bay in the '80s.
“We were planning to retire there. But Jim passed away in 2009. He had cancer behind the eyes,” said Marles.
Even though son Greg is taking over administrative responsibilities, he suspects his mother will continue coddling plants around the greenhouse.
“She’s always been energetic and restless. She’s never not worked seven days a week in her entire life. If you don’t work, what do you do?” he asks.
While many families might linger over meals, the Marles family worked long hours and dedicated their resources to growing banner vegetables, flowers and bedding plants.
Throughout its growth and expansion amassing a 35,000-sq.-ft. operation, Morinville Greenhouses developed a reputation that focused on quality, selection and trustworthy information.
Unlike many modern businesses that concentrate on branding, Marles let her personality speak for itself — one that was welcoming, authentic, honest and generous.
“This place became successful because of Alissa. It wouldn’t exist without her. She was the driving force. It was her entrepreneurial spirit that made it work,” said longtime employee Ted Popma.
So, who is this petite woman with a big smile who sowed the seeds of victory within the local horticulture community?
Born in Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea, Marles' father was an educated man positioned in the agriculture industry. Her mother was a fan of opera.
“As a little girl, she took me to an opera house in Russia and it was magnificent,” Marles said.
When the Second World War broke out, her life changed dramatically. During Stalin’s purges, many members of her family were killed.
“My mother and I got out alive. The rest were killed. Under Stalin, anyone with a university education was killed. My mother and grandparents left. My mother spoke fluent Russian and German, and we were able to go to Germany.”
Her uncle, Albert Rieps, one of the founding members of Concordia College, located them in a refugee camp.
“At 13 years old, I came to Canada. It was 1951. My uncle bought us a house in Highlands and we all went to work.”
By the time Marles was 16, she had enrolled in Alberta College’s stenography program, one that led to a chequered career at Inland Cement, the Royal Alexandra Hospitality pathology department, and the Department of Defence at Griesbach military base.
However, while working for the Commerce Bank, she met another young banker June Sernowski, daughter of Mary Sernowski, a gutsy Polish-Ukrainian woman who immigrated during the Depression. Although arriving from shocking circumstances, the elder Sernowski scrimped until she could afford her own farm and raised produce to sell at the St. Albert Farmers Market. Although Mary could neither read nor write, she was an astute businesswoman who developed the respect of anyone that dealt with her.
June and Marles bonded quickly becoming fast friends.
“We would come to St. Albert. It was a dirt road then. We would visit the Club Mocombo or the Bruin Inn. You couldn’t have a beer in Edmonton then until you were 19,” Marles said with a laugh, a deliberate twinkle in her eyes.
While in the area, the young women stopped by the Sernowski farm to assist in planting, cultivating or delivery.
“I still remember carrying bags of potatoes and delivering them to the King Edward Hotel for Mary.”
The King Eddy, as it was fondly known among Edmontonians, was destroyed in a massive fire in 1978. Located on the corner of 101 Street and 102 Avenue, it was replaced by Holt Renfrew and the Manulife Tower.
Marles and June would also de-stress weekends at dance clubs. While soft-shoeing at a Jasper Avenue dance club, Jim approached Marles and asked for a dance.
“I must have liked him because we went out after that and the rest is history.”
Initially, the two shared a life-long passion for opera that was a springboard into their mutual love of gardening and horticulture.
“Mary told me what land to buy. It should have water and be close to a highway. ‘That’s where opportunities will be later in life’ she told me.”
In the mid-'70s, the young couple bought 80 acres north of Hwy. 2 on an asphalt road that runs parallel to a set of railroad tracks next to the highway.
“We were never looking at a greenhouse. This was all lake bottom soil. It’s deep and loamy with lots of earthworms. And there was never any spraying. I never allowed spraying.”
Together the Marles couple poured through seed catalogues selecting and experimenting with various varieties of vegetables. In a first attempt they seeded 20 acres of peas, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, onions and snow peas. While Marles tended plants, Jim tackled the mechanical aspect of farming.
Initially the produce was sold at farmers markets. One of the first Marles attended was Edmonton’s long-gone 97th Street indoor market located roughly where the Citadel Theatre is now.
“It was hard work, but we sold everything,” said Marles, who looked forward to the camaraderie and shared friendship between vendors from Holes, Kuhlman’s, Zachuk’s and Wallish Greenhouses.
“It was so much fun. There was such a mix of people. You could hear every language. Right across the street, there was the Edelweiss Club and after market all the vendors would cross the street. It was a colourful market, full of fun.”
Five years after the initial plantings, the couple built their first greenhouse, a wood-frame structure covered with a plastic roof.
“Now everything is steel.”
But a greenhouse allowed the Marles to extend the growing season and that equalled a healthier cash flow. By the mid-'80s, Morinville Greenhouses consisted of several greenhouses that grew spring bedding plants (vegetables, flowers and herbs), as well as winter poinsettias.
One year, Morinville Greenhouses was supplying 40 regional Safeway stores with the profitable poinsettias. However, the invasion of box stores carrying the Christmas plant, the poinsetta's long growing season (six months), and a dip in prices, forced many regional growers to stop growing them.
As Morinville Greenhouses’ reputation spread, quality plants at modest prices, an influx of shoppers increased.
“Before the big stores like Walmart and Home Depot came, we would have two tills going.”
But it wasn’t just all gravy. One year a tornado passed through from west to east decimating four greenhouses.
"It just mowed them down. It was a huge financial loss. We hand no insurance at the time.”
She corrects herself. Like any savvy businesswoman, she had purchased insurance. However, the insurance company refused to pay out claiming the tornado was an act of God.
Another heavy loss that devastated the couple was a chemical spill. The farm runs parallel to railroad tracks and the Alberta Dept. of Highways sprayed the tracks with a powerful herbicide called Tordon. It is used to control unwanted weeds, brush and trees beneath electrical wires, roadsides, railroad beds and pipelines.
However, Marles said that according to legislation, the department was only permitted to spray in dry weather. Unfortunately, the crew sprayed during rainy weather and residue trickled into the greenhouses’ water supply.
Once the Tordon-contaminated water was inadvertently fed to plants (begonias, dahlias, tomatoes, etc.) the leaves started to curl up and die. Since there were no lab facilities in Alberta capable of testing the water at the time, the couple tested the water outside Canada.
Their discovery led to a court case that lasted several months, caused a great deal of stress and only netted them a fraction of related costs.
“We were devastated. I don’t know what kept us going. Sheer stubbornness? We put so much into it. Do you quit?”
Despite some major hits, the benefits far outweigh any negatives. In looking over her shoulder at the past, Marles said, “It was a very interesting life. It certainly wasn’t boring. There were many ups and downs, but you only go through it once. You may as well have fun. I was lucky. I had an uncle who sponsored me and I think of him often.”