Fresh look at vegetable processing

Bets are that when you eat an onion ring, you don’t know that it originated 40 minutes from the Cavendish Farms’ plant in Wheatley, Ontario. Or that quinoa-coated onion rings are as close as your grocer’s freezer section.

 

That’s the kind of innovation that’s underway in Ontario’s processing vegetable sector with a farmgate value of $100 million annually. For many years, it’s been a reliable business for brothers Kevin and Pascal Jennen, Dresden, Ontario and Ian Bradley, Pain Court, Ontario.

 

They are long-time growers of processing vegetables for Omstead Foods, the predecessor of Cavendish Farms which took over the Wheatley plant in 2009. They supply Spanish onions for the months of August through October. After that, Cavendish Farms sources its supply from the U.S. Unlike cooking onions, these processing onions must meet a specification of three- to four-inch diameters with a single center. The large size is needed for easy peeling and processing. 

 

“We like what we do,” says Ian Bradley. “But we have no idea of what’s in store for 2019.”

 

Negotiations will soon be underway through the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers (OPVG). However, an acceptable price may not guarantee 2019 contracts with the same or more pounds for next year. The processors are balancing many variables including availability of North American supplies, exchange rates and consumer demand. With the proposed United States Mexico Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA), yet to be ratified, it would seem there will be unfettered flow of raw product from the U.S. to Canadian-based processors.  

 

But an outward flow will also occur from Bonduelle Canada which announced $79.8 million earlier this year to update its Tecumseh, Ingersoll and Strathroy plants. The investments, topped up with provincial government funds, will put Green Giant canned vegetables as well as new frozen products on trucks bound for the U.S. The company expects exports to the U.S. to increase by $34 million annually.

 

That’s good news for the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers which crafted its 2017-2021 strategic plan before the USMCA deal. The association represents 384 growers who supply a total of 14 processors in the province. One of the biggest threats to the industry is mobility of capital to the U.S. and lost share to Mexico which can produce raw materials with less cost.

 

The processing tomato industry is a good case in point. Half of farmgate revenue from Ontario’s processing vegetables, about $52 million is in tomatoes, however this crop represents only three per cent of what California produces. The sector is vulnerable in a global context because of its relatively small size and the fact that strategic decisions are made outside of Canada.

 

Tomato processing is recovering after a low point of $34.4 million farmgate value in 2013. That’s the year that H.R. Heinz announced its abandonment of its historic plant in Leamington. Since then, Highbury Canco has taken up residence and along with other tomato processors, farmgate value in 2017 was $51.8 million. Final numbers aren’t known yet for 2018.

 

The most positive uptick for Ontario’s processing sector comes from the August 2018 announcement of $16.5 million by Whytes Foods for a new facility in Wallaceburg. The family-owned, Quebec-based company says it will be ready to handle the 2019 crop, with a need for 500 tons of fresh peppers and 7,000 tons of fresh cucumbers for the iconic brand of Strub’s pickles. In its media release, Whytes Foods cited the reasons for its investment:  prime agricultural real estate, crop risk management with the other growing region of Quebec and proximity to the U.S. market. 

 

As harvest winds up, Ian Bradley is shipping to three different processors: carrots for dicing at Bonduelle’s plant in Tecumseh, baby carrots to Bolthouse Farms’ plant in Wheatley; carrots for slicing to Bonduelle in Strathroy.

 

His farm is located about 40 minutes away from each of these processors. It’s clearly a triangle rich in soil, water and knowledge for food production. The hope is to capitalize on those assets for a healthy processing sector in the years to come. 

 

2017:  Harvested Tonnage and Value from Major OPVG Regulated Crops

 

Regulated Crop

Production in tons

Farmgate Value (,000)

Number of Contracts

Carrots

52,776

6,803

15

Cucumbers

39,380

12,412

109

Green & waxy beans

29,817

5,432

76

Green peas

29,071

10,049

159

Lima beans

3,737

1,765

30

Squash and pumpkins

16,221

2,064

7

Sweet corn

75,112

7,146

122

Tomatoes

470,049

51,866

84

Totals

716,163

$97,537

602

 

Karen Davidson, editor of The Grower goes "Behind the Scenes" of this cover story and speaks with Cathy Lennon, general manager, Ontario Vegetable Processors Association. Cathy offers a fresh look at this $100 million sector.

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