If there’s no place like home, Ontario retailers in some cases haven’t gotten the message when it comes to promoting local produce, some growers and shippers in the province say.
“They can do a whole lot better, believe me,” said Mark Wales, owner of Mark Wales Farm Fresh Produce, Guelph, Ontario.
A key to the problem may be a clash of needs, Wales said.
“The challenge we face is the retailers have gotten into a mode where they want one guy to supply them with garlic, one guy to supply them with peppers, and that just cuts out everybody local,” he said. “I used to sell to a couple of local grocery stores. I got along well with the produce manager, and then the world changed, and he was no longer allowed to buy local.”
The situation has changed a bit for the better, for local growers, Wales said.
“We’ve worked on finally getting garlic back into Loblaws after not being there for 11 long years,” he said. “Loblaws finally got the message. Consumers were telling them, ‘We’re not going to buy the Chinese crap that you put on the shelf. We want Ontario.’”
Competitors from elsewhere, however, can undercut the efforts of local suppliers, Wales said.
“They’re beginning to get the message, but quite frankly, the chains’ attitude is ‘I can buy it from Peru or Chile or wherever for so much a pound, and I’ll take all you can grow but that’s freight,’” Wales said.
“If you can meet that price, that’s fine. But that means you have to compete with somebody who gets paid a dollar a day. I can’t get Canadians to work that cheap. I won’t work that cheap. That’s an attitude change that the chains have to get to, and they’re not there yet.”
Other growers note the chains are stepping up their efforts to bring in locally grown fruits and vegetables.
“I think the major chains, being Loblaws, Metro and Sobeys, are trying to push it as much as they can,” said Doug Pearce, partner in Pier-C Produce, Leamington, Ontario. “It’s just our costs are going up steadily every year.”
That creates an obstacle to making deals with the chains, said Tony Moro, president of Bradford & District Produce, Bradford, Ontario.
“They’re pretty strong but their mentality is like all retailers: they want it cheap and they want a lot of specials and ads,” he said.
Sweet potato grower Peter VanBerlo, president of P. & S. VanBerlo Ltd., Simcoe, Ontario, said retailers expect local product to come with a price break.