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.
“They’re really good about promoting it. Loblaws is really the leader,” VanBerlo said. “Sobeys is a little sticky on price. Their attitude is when you grow it close to home it should be cheaper. But the consumer is pushing it more than anything.”
Steve Chary, president of Oakland, Ontario-based Chary Produce, agreed retail chains were putting more effort in promoting local produce.
“I don’t know if the promotion’s actually working. Our numbers have fallen off over the last, I’d say, 10 years.”
Consumers want Ontario-grown items, said Tony Tomizza, president of Dominion Farm Produce Co., Bradford.
“A huge focus on buy local, buy within 100 miles, is what they’re saying for the carbon-footprint kind of thing,” he said. “They call it the ‘field to fork’ campaigns, ‘grown in your backyard.’ It really helps us.”
That consumer pressure is helping the category grow, said Eric Chanyi, operations manager of Shabatura Produce, Windham Centre, Ontario.
“In the last couple of years, they’ve really pushed the buy local,” he said. “They’re actually creating a competition to create nicest displays. There are pictures of growers and placards and putting it in the consumers’ faces. The display contest has been really good. It’s more than just a photo in the paper. The last couple of years, they’ve done well.”