(May 14, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) TORONTO — Whether it’s environmental or economic reasons motivating their decision, Toronto’s wholesalers and retailers strive to take advantage of the Canadian seasons and sustain local growers.

“Canadians, especially people from Ontario, support our local growers in a very big way,” said Jeff Hughes, president of Gambles Ontario Produce Inc. “A lot of our vegetables come from Ontario year-round within a 150-mile radius. That’s the origin of our business.”

Indeed, tomatoes and cucumbers are harvested nearby 10 months out of the year, while from May to November, Gambles yields numerous other local products, such as lettuce, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, carrots, apples, tree fruits and pears, Hughes said.

Streef Produce Ltd. also is a huge proponent of the local grower — being a farm-based operation itself — and dedicates much of its busi-ness to promoting other area growers, said Peter Streef, vice president.

Streef owns seven farms and leases the majority of its land but still produces 2,000 acres of mainly potatoes and beans for the fresh market, Streef said.

The firm also represents between 25-40 local growers, handling sales, marketing, distribution and logistics for their operations, and during the summer, 98% of its supply is Ontario grown, Streef said.

“We really focus on supporting local producers and giving local producers access through us,” he said. “It’s politically correct to support local producers.”

As a result of new relationships with three local growers, National Produce Marketing Inc. expects to carry watermelons year-round for the first time in 2008, starting in July and wrapping up by the first frost, said Mike Wilson, National Produce Marketing’s watermelon buyer.

National expects to receive between 100 and 200 loads this season from the farmers, who recently switched from tobacco to watermelon production. The remainder of the year, watermelons will be imported from Mexico, Wilson said.

Veg-Pak Produce Ltd. is capitalizing on tobacco growers who now grow other commodities as a result of government grants distributed to growers willing to convert tobacco fields to other products to offset the tobacco industry, said Vic Carnevale, Veg-Pak’s president.

“We’re trying to help the economy, of course,” Carnevale said of the local products Veg-Pak carries, including sweet potatoes, yams, greens, beets, kale, Swiss chard, parsley, basil and hard squash.

GROWER-RETAILER PROGRAM

The Ontario Produce Marketing Association’s grower-retailer campaign — which unites local growers, wholesalers and retailers — continues to strengthen in its ninth year, said Matt Eckerd, who works on the newsletter and regulatory issues for OPMA and on the standardiza-tion and grades project for the Fresh Produce Alliance.

In 2007, bosc pears, asparagus and nectarines were added to the program’s commodity list.

Wal-Mart Supercenters has joined the OPMA-driven initiative, which collaborates with the Toronto Wholesale Produce Association, Sobeys Inc., Loblaws and A&P to annually raise $150,000 for the Ottawa-based Canadian Produce Marketing Association’s 5 to 10 a Day campaign.

Other programs that benefit from the money include the OPMA’s Gimme 5 program, the Canadian Cancer Society and the Heart and Stroke Foundations, Eckert said.

“It’s an example of what can be done when people work together to increase overall consumption and a healthy lifestyle,” Eckert said.

The program generates revenues by requiring that growers and retailers add several cents to each package per purchase order, coupled with a direct donation from the Toronto Wholesale Produce Association, which represents 23 wholesalers and the credit association, Eckert said.

The grower associations and commodities now involved in the program include:

  • Apple Marketers Association of Ontario, apples;


  • Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, greenhouse cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes;


  • Ontario Tender Fruit Producers’ Marketing Board, peaches, nectarines and bosc pears;


  • Ontario Potato Board, potatoes;


  • Canadian Mushroom Growers (Ontario), white mushrooms; and


  • the Ontario Asparagus Growers, green asparagus, Eckert said.

CANADIAN FEDERATION OF INDEPENDENT GROWERS

The Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers also is making strides to strengthen relationships between local growers and independent grocers.

The federal government provided a $250,000 grant to CFIG in 2007, which enabled the retail organization to bring 24 local producers and 24 independent grocers together at its fall trade show — Grocery Innovations Canada — in Toronto to facilitate business, said John Scott, CFIG’s chief executive officer and president.

“We believe every independent needs to be significantly differentiated from the competition, and the consumer needs to be able to identify the reason,” Scott said. “Local produce gives a differentiation for the consumer. Some farmers grow a great product, but are terrible marketers and our idea is to put the two together.”

Networking plans for 2008 have not been identified, but Scott said CFIG expects to coordinate three or four meetings between growers and retailers in five different Canadian markets, including Toronto.

Longo’s is one independent retailer focused on enhancing its locally grown program, which is available year-round, said Mimmo Franzone, produce category manager for Mississauga, Ontario-based Longo’s Bros. Fruit Markets Inc.

“We’re trying to build more relationships with local growers,” Franzone said.