Named Giuseppe in his native Italy, ‘Joe’ Sbrocchi is a long way from his home town of Roseto. Loosely translated, it means town of roses. During his lifetime in the produce industry, he’s taken those early lessons to heart, respecting the thorns and tending to relationships. He now arrives at the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers as general manager.
As recently as September 15, Sbrocchi was vice-president of business development for Mastonardi Produce, representing the organization in California. Over the weekend, as he bridged to his new role on September 18, he answered questions from The Grower.
Q. What makes you passionate about produce?
A. Besides the farming experience at a hobby farm in the Brampton area as a young teenager, I grew up about seven blocks from the Ontario Food Terminal and as such, spent most of my summers working there. It’s hard not to build a deep-rooted respect watching growers leave their homes wherever they may be to deliver their fruits and vegetables to the farmers’ market in the middle of the night and to watch buyers attempting to get the best quality at the best prices for their stores of all sizes.
It drew me in. And I developed a deep fondness for all these incredibly hard-working people and the elegant relationships they built through trust and dependency. One day, a gentleman named Jack and I struck up a 15-minute conversation. It was a defining moment that at the time, I didn’t even recognize. Eventually I found out that he was Jack Wolf of the Oshawa Group.
Q. What were three of the most memorable insights learned during your retail career at Sobeys and Walmart?
A. At Sobeys I had six roles in 14 years, all in the produce-related area and they just became progressively more leadership-oriented in nature. With Walmart it was different in that my job was very specific – to build the produce supply chain from vendor to store shelf and to move the company away from the haphazard way in which they were doing it at the time.
The key learnings were: 1) nothing gets done without people…they are your greatest asset. 2) The business is incredibly intricate and yet so simple all at the same time. Product seems to simply arrive at the store shelves but everything that happens before that is almost a miracle. 3) Produce is an incredibly “relationship-oriented’ business, driven by a supply/demand dynamic that means it can change in the space of a second.
Q. In your role at Mastronardi Produce for the last eight years, what were the three most critical insights to growing the greenhouse industry in North America?
A. We grew very quickly at my previous employer and as such, there seemed to be a need for good people all the time. The challenge today in a fast-paced environment like our sector is the "magic" required in fitting the people that got you there with the new people (and skills), who are going to get you where you are going. In this dynamic, what is too often overlooked in my opinion, is taking some of your best current people and further educating them or at the very least melding those with the experience with really good newcomers and fostering that synergy that can really make the company boom.
Greenhouse growing can be incredibly perplexing to the average consumer, and hence this is the single greatest challenge to the industry especially in some major markets throughout North America.
There is a whole bunch of opportunity available to the greenhouse industry, and I truly believe we are moving to a golden age for my sector. For example, simply moving the consumption of peppers to 40 or 50 per cent of what is consumed in Europe, would require that we quintuple greenhouse pepper production alone. Furthermore the world population is expected to grow and with it, I believe so will the demand for nutritious, high quality, sustainable and safe foods. The food we are producing in protected agriculture such as greenhouses is essential to the food supply of the future.
Q. In September 2017, we’re in the third round of NAFTA talks in Ottawa. What do you see as the big watch-outs, concerns for the greenhouse industry?
A. Allow me to start with an overarching thought. It is entirely normal that major trade agreements between nations be tweaked from time to time. The fact that NAFTA involves three bodies in the conversation rather than two adds a further complexity. I really believe that the trade agreement as it pertains to produce in general and greenhouse in particular is pretty much favoured across North America. It is in the interests of all three nations to do their best to do no harm to what is already there and working very well.
Q. With labour costs – and availability – becoming more of a concern on both sides of the border, what measures should be taken to ensure a reliable workforce?
A. Thus far it has been almost impossible to attract Canadians and Americans to work in greenhouses in the numbers required and it is doubtful in my mind that this is likely to change. It is apparent that in both the U.S. and Canada, access to a cost-competitive labour force is a key component to providing the volume of food that needs to be produced at prices the marketplace is prepared to pay. At this point, I cannot tell you exactly how the respective governments will finally arrive at supporting this. But I believe that together with the input of the growers who are affected, we can arrive at sound, "common-sensical" and financially logical solutions. As we have seen in the past, these programs can be changed or suspended should unintended consequences materialize. So from the standpoint of government it should be "do-able"and soon.... but we shall see.
Q. Increasingly, OGVG members are building south of the border, not in Ontario. Do you see a ceiling for growth in Ontario, and if so, why?
A. I don't have a large degree of depth to my insights currently; however allow me to speak from the point of view of a person who has limited background going in. Currently the industry has had strong tailwinds assisting its growth, and those good times don't last forever. The access to low-cost money and solid returns in general have prompted growers and marketers to spur acreage growth perhaps a little more aggressively than they would have in a different economic/financial climate.
From the discussions I have had with a number of industry members, I do believe that many of them intend to slow building after they finish their current projects. The industry needs an opportunity to "catch its breath" so to speak. I do not see a ceiling as much as a period of time where we can take the extra production that these additional acres will produce and develop homes for it before another major expansion gets underway.
Furthermore, I believe that strong consistent marketing, focused on growing the entire consumer demand pie on behalf of greenhouse producers is critical to any prosperity and expansion of the industry going forward.
Q. What opportunities and challenges lie ahead for OGVG?
A. Call me in 100 days and I will be better able to answer this question.