With access to only 33.8 million consumers in their country, Canadian field produce growers and shippers focus largely on the export market.
There’s little choice in the matter, they say.
“I wish it worked that way, but you have more people in New York State than all of Canada,” said Paul Otter, president of Woodville Farms in Woodville, Ontario. “You’ve got to export it somewhere.”
That “somewhere” is usually the U.S.
Otter says his company exports as much as half of its products, although the exchange rate sometimes can cut into that percentage.
“Five years ago, we sent out a $10,000 to get $16,000 back; now, we send a $10,000 load and get $9,500,” he said. “That would cut back on exports.”
Ontario’s growers and shippers fill a couple of niches, said Mark Wales, owner of Mark Wales Farm Fresh Produce, Guelph, Ontario.
“One is the processing niche with peas, beans, sweet corn, those kinds of crops,” he said. “One is foodservice, which crosses both sides of the border. Plus, we fill the fresh markets. Thankfully, there’s no U.S. or Peruvian asparagus in the pipeline, so Canadians are doing well in the stores for a change. For those kinds of crops — asparagus, strawberries and chili peppers — we fill a local niche.”
Wales said every item he grows stays in Ontario.
He said he feels no need to export product.
“I spend a lot of my time on farm politics, so quite frankly I’m too busy to get any bigger than I am,” said Wales, who serves various association functions. “I run a sizable pick-your-own, so I have people coming from three hours away to come pick their own Spanish onions, hot peppers, eggplant, tomatoes. I do a couple of local stores and restaurants and do a lot of garlic festivals. I’m marketing as locally as I can. Some of what I do selling bulk moves out of the province. Some get processed into hot pepper paste. But that’s not what I’m interested in doing. I’m also vice president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. We have 37,000 farm families to represent on all facets of agriculture.”
For others, exporting is at least half of their business.
“We ship to the states and the Caribbean,” said Doug Pearce, a partner with Leamington, Ontario-based Pier-C Produce. “I would say, as a whole, maybe 50% of what we grow here is shipped across the border. The U.S. is our biggest market. The Caribbean is next — like Puerto Rico and Trinidad-Tobago and like that.”
St. Thomas, Ontario-based Whalls Farms also exports about half of what it and its allied growers produce, said Kevin Butters, president.
“The U.S. is the big market,” he said. “I do ship some overseas, but it’s nothing major.”
Growers typically say the U.S. is their biggest market because it’s the closest.
“We’ve tried some overseas stuff — like Puerto Rico and the islands — but it’s a little harder to adapt to that; it’s a little bit out of our range,” said Steve Chary, president of Oakland, Ontario-based Chary Produce.
Viv Agresti, partner in ATV Farms, Holland Landing, Ontario, said his company exports about 70% of its crops to the U.S., primarily in the Northeast and Southeast.
The company’s diversity — it offers a lengthy roster of onions, carrots, cauliflower, root vegetables and other items – works well with its business plan, Agresti said.
“It suits our situation, no question about it,” he said. “It has its ups and downs, but we’re in a commodity business driven by ups and downs.”
Growers and shippers often look primarily to customers’ needs inside the province in the early part of the deal, said Tony Tomizza, president of Dominion Farm Produce Co. in Bradford, Ontario.
“Once we start, it feeds Ontario,” he said. “There really isn’t enough to export until August or September. The early stuff generally stays within Ontario and Quebec.”
Tomizza said exports probably were in the 20% range over the last few years.
“Nothing is typical, just because it’s such a weather-related world we live in now,” he said.
Tony Moro, Bradford & District Produce, Bradford, said his company has built an export business with carrots.
“We provide carrots to the Toronto market, as well as basically Ontario, and we do export to the U.S., as well as Japan and England,” he said. “The muck soil here is ideal for growing jumbo carrots. They last pretty long and have good shelf life. There’s a big fresh market, but there’s also a lot of processing.”
P. & S. VanBerlo Ltd., Simcoe, Ontario, strives for a balance between export and domestic sales, said Peter VanBerlo, president.
“When you look at where we are in southern Ontario, we are really close to Chicago and New York,” he said. “Produce is harder to truck up there from the Carolinas than it is from here.”
Scott Siemon, president of rutabaga grower-shipper Stovel-Siemon Ltd, Mitchell, Ontario, said he has seen the market for his product shrink.
“It’s a niche market,” he said. “New York City used to take loads, and now they’re down to skids.”
Adding items to his company’s roster isn’t likely, he said.
“At 50, 60 years old, you can’t change,” he said.