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the ladder

Lakshana Kumarage, originally a computer engineer from Sri Lanka, dove into the greenhouse cucumber growing business in Niagara-On-The-Lake over 15 years ago without having any agriculture experience.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Lakshana "Lucky" Kumarage, 53, is the owner of HNL Greenhouse Growers and a co-owner of Four Mile Creek Farms in Ontario's Niagara region.

My nickname comes from people not pronouncing my name; a man in my first office job in Canada in 2001 gave it to me.

I worked in computer technology and management in Sri Lanka, in many companies like Coca-Cola. I thought I could build my future here, my scope [of opportunities] is good. Sri Lanka is a Third World country; there's no scope. When people come here they think they can get the same job, but you have to begin again – start from scratch. We came here in 2000, didn't know anyone. My wife and I stayed in a hotel for two months; all my money went to the hotel. No one would give us an apartment because they wanted references.

When I looked for jobs, people said my back-home experience wasn't worth anything; they wanted Canadian experience. I got a job distributing newspapers, had to wait in a van as it was so cold. The newspapers were dumped off. I had to sort them, alone, didn't know where to deliver them. I said, "I will never survive here." My wife worked at Wendy's, 6 a.m. to late. In Sri Lanka, she was in banking for 10 years, nearly an executive. It took me almost a year to get a job. A contact suggested a place; I offered to work free for a month, and if they liked my services they could hire me. With my computer and software experience, I made a good system, so they hired me.

A friend asked us to come on a road trip north near Midland. I didn't know where "north" was. We went to a nice place and had barbeque. They said they were going to church, it was close and they wouldn't be long, [but] we went along. We had a little exposure because my wife has Christians in her background. I was Buddhist, a teacher, raised in a temple. My family, history – all Buddhist. I didn't know what to do so I looked around, saw a nice picture of a man wearing a robe carrying children. We had [been trying] to have a child for 10 years. I made a vow [then that] if we got a baby, I would give back to Him. I didn't tell anyone, not even my wife. Weeks later, she was pregnant. I told her what I vowed in the church – she said she did the same.

From then, I said "nothing can go wrong." that was key to my success in life and business. I became a Christian. Our pastor asked us to help an orphanage in Tissamaharama in southern Sri Lanka. We [spent time there] every year. It didn't have electricity, just kerosene. With an agronomist, I built a simple biogas generator, piped to the kitchen for cooking, powered the dormitories. I was not scared – I know Buddhists, I know Christians – but in 2013, Buddhist militants had the orphanage shut. It has [since] re-opened, and we are going back [soon].

My wife could not keep getting time off work to go. We lived in Mississauga; she suggested we move to the countryside, start a business. I looked at greenhouses in 2009. My first question was, "What's a greenhouse?" I stepped into one [in Wainfleet] with English cucumbers, 5,000 plants; it was so big! They were farmers since childhood, generations; I knew nothing. But the greenhouse was on Zion Road, the promised land, so we bought it. We did everything – picking, planting, transporting – working 7 a.m. to dark.

I saw a new site with a big biodigester that had a court-appointed receiver [in Virgil]. I called banks [seeking a loan]; they said I was small fish, no way. In February 2016, this small fish told the judge about my small digester back home; [I] tried to make an offer. After one year of difficult times, the judge said to give it to me. The penalties I agreed to would be for generations. I remortgaged everything. My cross was heavy. I was short $95,000 the day before [the closing date]. That night, I told my wife and child, "I don't think I will survive tomorrow, you will have to leave the house. I'll be in jail." The next morning, a guy knocked at my door [to buy in] and wrote a cheque. I ran to the bank. Now I needed seeds, plants, $250,000 for irrigation. Hydro and natural gas were to be cut off the day we harvested our first box.

We're on our fourth crop – 67,000 to 70,000 mini-cucumber plants on seven acres – each crop 40,000 boxes, going across Canada and into the U.S., $700,000 for each crop. Our biodigester will feed into Niagara-on-the-Lake's grid, enough to power approximately 500 houses. I also have six acres of peaches and pears and two houses, one an eight-bedroom with swimming pool [which is rented out]. I am not interested in that; I stay in the small house.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

‘Frankly I like to surround myself with introverts that help me but they modulate my behaviour.’

Special to Globe and Mail Update