Greenhouse vegetable acreage in Ontario has increased 25% since 2011, hitting almost 2,400 acres for the 2014 season as tomatoes continue to hang on to their shrinking lead in terms of overall production.
The Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association reports 228 growers for 2014, compared with 224 in 2013.
There are 35 marketers selling the province’s greenhouse vegetables to retailers throughout North America, but the lion’s share continues to be exported to the U.S., which gobbles up 70%.
Several greenhouse growers have plans to add even more acres to the area along Lake Erie’s north shore in Ontario.
The region, which includes the towns of Leamington and Kingsville, receives more hours of sunshine than any other part of Canada on an annual basis.
George Gilvesy, general manager of the Leamington, Ontario-based association, said tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers remain the top three commodities in terms of production.
Some greenhouses in the Leamington and Kingsville areas also have a few acres of eggplant and specialty peppers.
Those eggplants and specialty peppers, combined with a slow but steady increase of bell pepper acres, are whittling away at tomatoes’ top spot in Ontario’s production charts. Now at a projected 38%, in 2012 tomatoes accounted for 43% of Ontario’s greenhouse production.
Bell peppers were at 29% in 2012 compared to 32% for 2014, and cucumbers were at 28% in 2012 compared to 29% in 2014.
Most growers expect tomato and pepper harvests to be in full swing in late March, Gilvesy said. However, some operations have moved to an almost year-round cucumber program. Consequently, the association started a winter cucumber program aimed at retailers in January and February to remind them of winter availability.
Prices for Ontario produce are yet to be set for the 2014 season, but grower costs so far are up a bit because of exceptionally cold weather, said Joe Spano, vice president for sales and marketing for Mucci Farms, Kingsville, Ontario.
“The markets aren’t quite where they should be to make up for the heating costs so far,” Spano said.
Workers began picking the first cucumbers of Mucci’s season on Jan. 27, he said.
At DiCiocco Farms, Leamington, director David DiCiocco agreed the bitter cold in January was a cost concern but tomato and bell pepper planting went ahead as planned and was finished Jan. 6-7.
DiCiocco said the company’s cucumbers went in even earlier, with picking expected to begin around Feb. 20.
Several Ontario greenhouses are shifting some of their acres from beefsteak tomatoes or bell peppers to specialty tomatoes to capitalize on snacking trends and the efforts of chefs and at-home cooks to incorporate interesting looking and tasting produce into recipes, Gilvesy said.
Mucci Farms, DiCiocco Farms and Mor Gro Farms Inc., Leamington, all have increased specialty tomato acres for 2014.
At DiCiocco, cherry tomatoes have more room to grow this season based on demand from retailers, said Anthony Butiniello, marketer and salesman.
DiCiocco had about 12 rows of the cherry tomatoes for the 2013 season, expanding that to 1.5 acres for 2014, Butiniello said.
“Containing roughly 10-14 tomatoes per vine, this cherry tomato has been a hit with many of our customers, and hopefully it will be a stepping stone in furthering our business across Canada and the U.S.,” Butiniello said.
Tiny tomatoes are also a growth area for Mor Gro.
“We consistently sold out of our Smarty-brand, three-color grape tomato mix,” said Tom Trojniak, marketing, production and warehouse manager for Mor Gro.
“The red tomatoes in there were amazing. We are also seeing a huge demand for heirlooms, and we’ve added a brown tomato that we plan to name at a later date.”
A medley pack of bite-sized tomatoes from Mucci Farms that includes red, yellow, purple, zebra and baby pink varieties is set to hit retailers this season, Spano said.
Mucci’s Vero tomatoes on the vine are also making a big impression in the specialty tomato arena.
“One of our retailers is actually rearranging their tomatoes on the vine display areas to give us more room,” Spano said.
He said Vero tomatoes on the vine are a little smaller than many varieties.
“They have a big flavor profile, though. Their jelly is more vibrant and it reminds you of the flavors of home-grown tomatoes,” he said.