TORONTO — After a roller-coaster start to the year, with colder than normal temperatures in the U.S. restricting supply, sending prices soaring and leaving buyers begging for produce, the Toronto market appears to be settling down as spring approaches.
“Production is starting to ramp up again in some commodities,” said Steven Green, vice president of produce distributors Richard E. Ryan & Associates Ltd., “but it feels like the rhythm isn’t there — we’re not really sure how to predict, and we’ve lost our ability to forecast where we’re going to be price- and volumewise.”
For Peter Streef, owner of Streef Produce Inc., January’s cold snap in California, Arizona and down into Mexico led to an extreme shortage of asparagus.
“Asparagus has been so expensive, at $60 to $70 for 11 pounds, some retailers have discontinued it,” he said in late January.
He predicted very good asparagus volumes by late February though, and said he planned ads for the last two weeks in February.
At the same time, Peru’s asparagus crop was hit by a heat wave that slowed its growth, and Chilean grapes were hit by rain before harvest, which will affect the entire deal, said Steve Davidson, vice president of North American Produce Buyers.
Wholesale berry buyers have also struggled. At the Italian Produce Co., co-owner Vince Bruno spent several weeks battling a Florida strawberry market that went from a high of $14-15 f.o.b. to a low of $5 when heat opened blossoms like popcorn, leading to a flood of berries.
“There weren’t enough ads in place,” Bruno said, “so it caused the market to take a drastic dip.”
Apart from weather-related woes, most wholesalers at the Ontario Food Terminal said the past year has been good, thanks to strong support from independent retailers, a growing population and a fairly robust economy.
More companies appear to be beefing up their organic offerings. Peruvian mangoes are arriving in supermarkets, and the demand for local produce continues to grow at every level.
Wholesalers such as Veg-Pak Produce Ltd. that specialize in Asian and South Asian markets, continue to import unusual products for Toronto’s many nationalities eager for a taste of home.
“We have 10 different kinds of eggplant,” said president Vic Carnevale, “and Asian products such as long beans, baby bok choy and nappa are becoming staples in mainstream supermarkets, not just ethnic stores.”
Bruce Nicholas, the terminal’s general manager, said tonnage was up just 0.1% last year.
Nicholas said the Arctic air that froze blossoms last spring, practically wiping out Ontario’s apple and tender fruit crop, was a blow to growers who sell in the terminal’s farmer’s market.
“Prices were up and some growers had nothing to sell … it hurt the whole market,” he said.
He hopes a major construction project about to get underway to enclose the loading docks and offer shelter to smaller vans parked further away from the docks will encourage even more buyers to use the terminal.