Athena cantaloupes – with a sweet smell of caramel – will be in season in early August. Thanks to Keith Wright and his son David, the Harrow, Ontario farmers are shipping this summer specialty to the Ontario Food Terminal (OFT). That’s a four-hour, one-way trek from the southernmost tip of Canada to a highly competitive marketplace in Toronto.
Transport costs alone are up to $30 per bin, about 20 per cent of the sale price. One visit to the farm’s packing line underscores the team effort in growing, packing and shipping the bulky melons and begs the question: why?
“Diversification is the key word,” explains Keith Wright who is well regarded for his apples. “My grandfather grew a diversity of crops under the mantra: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. It’s difficult to grow asparagus at the front end and have enough crops to keep a labour force busy until apple season. If you’re not specialized enough or big enough, it’s hard to find a market. Growing cantaloupes helps to spread the labour over the season.”
Zucchini used to fit the bill, Wright says, but the chain stores didn’t like the closed-top box which he had sourced from a Michigan supplier. Wright doesn’t have the farm size to warrant buying his own carton-making equipment.
Would working with other growers and aggregating the loads for one trip help?
“It’s not done in a big way here,” says Wright, referring to pooling produce in one packing shed. “There are few commercial growers left. When you lose a grower, you lose the commodity and the industry. Most of the sweet corn grown in Essex County, for example, now goes to fruit stands. Vegetable growing has moved to the sand plains in Norfolk County on Lake Erie.”
Today, the Wright’s are down to 15 acres of Athena cantaloupes from what used to be 40 acres a few years ago. Essex County melons always had a good reputation because the high temperatures meant high sugars.
“Because of the distance – and time -- to Toronto, very few field growers here are big enough to ship directly to a grocer’s warehouse,” says Wright.
As in previous seasons, he sells to Zakaria Produce, an OFT vendor. The cantaloupes will be shipped in a waxed cardboard box or cardboard bins of either 9-count or 12-count cantaloupes.
“I always like to use new cardboard bins,” says Wright. “My product needs to sell itself, and I don’t want it in a saggy, dirty, used bin.”
The concern for the future is whether cantaloupes will suffer the same fate as cabbage. Two years ago, his OFT vendor declined to sell his cabbage anymore. It was the cost of labour, the transport and the cardboard bins. Cabbage is too bulky.
These changes in farm businesses may not be readily apparent at Toronto’s terminal which is always teeming with variety and abundance.
“Our tonnage is steady,” says Gary DaSilva, operations manager, OFT. “It’s too hard to quantify the difference between local and imported volumes. What has changed is that over the years, growers are moving from straight trucks to tractor trailers.”
To support the larger vehicles, the OFT just opened 23 loading docks (40 feet in length) in July 2018 to accommodate tractor trailers.
As DaSilva explains, there’s a market for everything from a 99-cent cantaloupe to a $4.99 cantaloupe. Buyers are looking for different aspects depending on their client base. The OFT acts as a show window for the quality of what’s available. The sale takes place at the OFT, but the buyer may say, “Send me 10 skids to a different location.”
Back in Essex County, the value of agricultural commodities remains the highest of all counties in Ontario. It’s an economic powerhouse with $1.2 billion of farmgate sales per year. What’s changed is the mix of produce. The greenhouse vegetable industry is the key driver, while field fruits and vegetables are declining. It’s a trend that not’s visible to the naked eye unless you take a drive on its scenic roads.