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October 26, 2022

Turns out that the year the Feenstra brothers John and Rich and their wives Laura and Sarah officially took over the family farm, they made their boldest move yet:  investing in a new Greefa packing line that optically sorts external and internal defects for both peaches and apples.


“The purchase was years in the making,” says John Feenstra, operations manager, Mountainview Orchards, Beamsville, Ontario. “There were constraints on the old packing line, parts were breaking down and the labour cost per unit was going up.”


Harvest is stressful at the best of times, but all the emotion of the growing season becomes compressed – or maybe expressed! -- on the packing line. Too many small-sized fruit? Signs of scab? Bruises? The packing line exposes the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to nature’s gifts. Every apple serves as a callout to orchard management, Rich Feenstra’s domain.


Weather patterns and cycles such as drought, temperature fluctuations as well as crop load can have a big  impact on the internal qualities of apples,” says John Feenstra. “Honeycrisp apples are particularly sensitive to temperature changes. There’s not always an ideal crop load after a drought.  There’s a fine balance in managing crop loads.”


When it came to improving the packing line, the brothers had to crunch the numbers together to prove that purchasing expensive new equipment would provide a return on investment within an acceptable length of time. And there were many factors to consider in this process. Near the top was the ability to gather more detailed data to enable better orchard management decision-making. Also, the enhanced ability on the line to pack right-sized apples into right-sized packaging was important to support the specific needs of individual retail clients and to ensure that the exact weight was being packed into each box.


The Feenstra brother’s pitch to Farm Credit Canada, the farm’s lender since 1980, described two scenarios. The least expensive scenario proved labour reduction on a per unit basis, a major plus since labour is one of the biggest costs on the horticultural ledger. With the first bite taken, their banker went on to give them two thumbs-up on the more expensive plan. “You’ve got to have the dryer,” he said, convinced that it would eliminate a bottleneck in the old system.


Father Peter Feenstra sat in on the pitch meeting but didn’t actively participate. Although he’s “sorta-kinda” retired, he still plays an important role pinch-hitting as needed. He vividly recalls that with his wife Marg, they made a farm purchase in 1980 when interest rates on operating loans were at a crippling 23 per cent. Forty years later, after endless trips to farmers’ markets and the Ontario Food Terminal, and meetings with key chain store buyers, he’s content to watch his sons make their own decisions.


John and Rich Feenstra’s packing line investment this year is all the more remarkable because it’s being carried by a 40-acre, high-density apple orchard with an additional 10 acres of peaches. Theirs is a small to medium-sized enterprise that has consistently grown in its ambition to deliver the finest quality fruit to local retailers meeting consumer demand for local product that continues unabated, especially since the pandemic.  


By mid-October 2022—the evitable learning curve hiccups behind them -- the Feenstra’s can confidently state they are packing 25 to 35 per cent more fruit per day with the new system. Having purchased the Greefa equipment through Provide Agro, a nearby supplier, they’re assured access to technical support when needed.


“We need to feel confident that what we’re packing is not only up to Mountainview Orchards’ standards, but up to Ontario apple industry standards,” says John Feenstra.


Contrary to the secretive nature of the apple industry in the past, the Feenstra’s are fierce advocates of sharing growing practices and observations with fellow apple growers.


“We have to look at the industry as a whole,” says John Feenstra. “If we’re all pushing the Ontario brand, the Foodland Ontario brand, we will be stronger against imports. Certainly in the last two years, we can see that retailers are looking for Ontario product because the supply chains have come under so much pressure.”


Ontario growers currently provide enough apples to fill 45 per cent of Ontario’s consumer demand, so there’s an opportunity to supply more, especially as freight continues to add costs to imports.


In keeping with the practice of sharing knowledge, Peter Feenstra has one more nugget to share with fathering farmers like himself.  “Don’t wait to hand over the reins of the farm,” he says. “My wife and I love having the opportunity of seeing the next generation taking over the business with enthusiasm and energy.”



Sidebar: Overcoming price objections


What are the biggest obstacles to selling new equipment? Sean Bartlett, business unit manager for Provide Agro, has encountered his fair share of quibbles about pricing. He’s most often asked about the return on investment.


Surprisingly, he answers, “Only the individual grower can pencil out the return on investment because inevitably all of this equipment is custom-designed for the client. What I can say is that most clients tell me afterwards that they wished they had made the purchase three to five years earlier.”


For horticulture, November and December are decision time for new equipment. That’s because at least six months of lead time are required to deliver from Europe. Even that time frame is still getting squeezed by logistics from the ports of Antwerp to Montreal.


Bartlett says that freight costs which used to be $6,000 for a 40-foot container have risen to $15,000 to $20,000 per container. And then the Port of Montreal continues to be a pain point due to lack of rail and truck capacity from there to points in Ontario. Demurrage fees also add to the tab.


“There’s absolutely nothing I can do,” says Bartlett. “It’s a big problem and it’s not getting any better.”

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Submitted by Karen Davidson on 26 October 2022