MONTREAL â Between Mother Nature and the surging Canadian dollar, itâs been a difficult year to be a grower in Quebec.
Yet for Montreal wholesalers and importers, the rise of the dollar close to par has been the icing on a not-so-bad year.
Companies such as Gaetan Bono, Montreal, have had trouble selling organics this year because of their higher price. Overall, the rising Canadian dollar has helped Montreal wholesalers endure a weak economy.
âItâs been a good year,â said Guy Milette, vice president of international sales and development at Courchesne Larose. âWe were expecting the economy to be much harder hit. The produce economy did slow down a little, but it hasnât reflected what we hear in the news.â
Milette said most Quebec wholesalers are down up to 40% over last year, while Courchesneâs strong importing side led to a small percentage of growth.
âEveryoneâs doing fine,â said George Pitsikoulis, president of Canadawide. âThereâs a little less business in foodservice and a little more retail, so one compensates for the other.â
Tony Bono, a partner in Chenail Fruits and Vegetables, agrees the media have done a great job whipping up bad economic news, but he has definitely seen a change in eating habits.
âPeople are eating more at home than at restaurants,â said Bono, âand theyâre eating differently â cutting out pricey peppers from Holland and blueberries at $4 a pint, and buying broccoli instead the week itâs on sale. Theyâre also eating more lettuce and tomatoes. Weâve had to adjust our buying decisions week by week to meet the demand.â
On the import side, both Courchesne and Chenail are building strong international programs in the Southern Hemisphere.
âThe world is opening up a lot more, especially in South America, and we have great connections with growers,â Bono said. âWeâre bringing in beautiful mangoes, papayas and avocados directly from growers in Chile, Argentina, Peru and Belize.â
Milette also sees the region developing.
âChile and Argentina used to have a monopoly on fruit such as grapes,â he said, âbut itâs now spread among other countries, which is creating more competition. And thereâs been an exponential growth of blueberry production.â
For the beleaguered Quebec grower, meanwhile, 2009 has been one for the record books.
âIn June and July it rained every day, leading to losses in the fields,â said Andre Plante, director of the Quebec Produce Growers Association.
âThen in August and September it was so dry that growers had to work harder and use irrigation.â
âIn the end, we lost 25% of the crop,â Plante said. âUnlike last year, however, we couldnât raise prices to cover the shortfall because the stronger dollar restricted exports. I donât know if Barack Obamaâs âbuy Americanâ message made a difference, but it was very tough.â
Then the weather turned unseasonably cold.
In early October, as he looked over the broccoli fields owned by Les Productions Margiric in Laval, Quebec, Mario Cloutier was shaking his head.
The crop desperately needed warmth to grow to harvest size.
âIf weâre lucky, weâll get half the 325,000 boxes weâd planned,â said the marketing director. âAnd we had so many peppers that boxes we normally sell for $10 were selling for $6, below the cost of production.
âItâs going to be a strange ending for a strange season,â Cloutier said, âand we thought 2008 was the worst. Itâs the same story for all the growers.â
The one bright spot for growers, perhaps, is that Quebec chain stores are all committed to promoting local products in season.
âItâs good for us,â said Valerie Grenier, sales and marketing director for Savoura greenhouse tomatoes and cucumbers in Portneuf, Quebec.
The company is now waiting with baited breath to see how prices will fare when Mexican production gears up this month.
âWe hope they wonât go as low as last year,â said Grenier.
When it comes to organics, the jury is all over the map.
âThereâs a growing demand for organics, but the price is out of the consumerâs reach,â said Eric Landry, vice president of CDS Brokers Inc.
But though there are no major volumes now, CDS is aggressively sourcing products for the future, convinced that sales will rise in the next five to 10 years.
Montreal organic pioneer Gaetan Bono said the economic downturn has made it a difficult year.
âPeople are buying as cheaply as possible right now and they donât want organics,â said the central market wholesaler. âSales to retailers, distributors and fruit stores are slowing down, not growing. Weâre bringing in the same amount, but weâre working harder to sell it.â
At the foodservice level, Benoit Lecavalier, director of sales and development for produce at foodservice supplier Hector LarivÃ©e, said organics arenât selling and he doesnât get many requests for it, even from top chefs.
âTheyâre too expensive and unreliable,â said the director of sales and development. âA bag of regular carrots is $10 and a bag of organic is $22.50. Nobody wants to pay it. The next week, we donât have any. We need steady availability.â
On the import side, Lecavalier said heâs delighted with the high-flying Canadian dollar.
âWhen you have a full load of product at $8,000 U.S. itâs almost like $8,000 Canadian,â he said. âIt used to be more like $10,000 to $11,000. If you take that extra $3,000 and divide it among the load, thatâs $3 a case.â