About 4.2 million people live and eat in the greater Montreal metro area of Quebec, a population that growers, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants and marketers want to feed with their fresh produce as much as possible — no matter what life throws their way.
The 2020 local growing and marketing seasons have been the hardest in recent memory for the area’s produce leaders, but they’re getting by and learning along the way, they say.
“Since Day 1 of all this, we were deemed essential, and we proved that we can fulfill this role while we’re struggling with all the challenges to keep all these products on the shelves, even though we’re short of workers and weather hasn’t helped at all and foodservice is really affected,” said Sophie Perreault, CEO of Quebec Produce Marketing Association, based at La Place des Producteurs, or Montreal Produce Market Terminal.
Perishable industry professionals have always had to be innovative, proactive problem-solvers because they need to move quickly to keep the commodities fresh, she said.
“So, I think we just proved again that we can do this. And consumers weren’t lacking and had the majority (of) what they were looking for, and at a reasonable price,” Perreault said.
While the fresh produce industry always has challenges, 2020 was unprecedented with the pileup.
“And challenging is a little bit of an understatement because we virtually had it all,” said Pierre Dolbec, vice president of sales and procurement for the commodities division of Vegpro International, based about 30 minutes south of Montreal in Sherrington, Quebec.
Besides the new coronavirus pandemic with its foreign labor delays and shortages, there was the weather: spring frosts, six extreme heat waves, drought-like conditions and heavy rains.
These conditions affected the yields and volumes available on the market, but some of this lower supply means prices remained relatively stable, Dolbec said.
“As far as we can tell for now, fall is looking stable,” he said.
A lot of commodities are selling for 15% higher prices on average than last year, said Jocelyn St-Denis, executive director of Quebec Produce Growers Association.
Based at the Montreal Produce Terminal Market, the association has about 450 members comprising about 80% of the province’s vegetable production.
However, growers who rely on exports are seeing a lot fewer sales, due to the similar economic and public health conditions elsewhere, St-Denis said.
Several companies that have a lot of foodservice customers found other avenues, some liquidating the products to smaller local markets, he said.
A few ongoing initiatives have helped the local market, including internet guides on where to buy different fruits and vegetables and who the local growers are.
“In the summer growing season, our population really supports local product,” St-Denis said.
The season ends for lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli and delicate summer vegetables in late September or mid-October. Root vegetables last another month or so, depending on the weather.
“Carrots, for instance, were slower to grow because it was dry, so growers might leave them in the field longer,” St-Denis said.
Then Quebec’s companies will source from California, Florida and South America.
Sherrington, Quebec-based Les Jardins A. Guérin & Fils is selling about 15% less volume to wholesalers on the Montreal Produce Terminal Market, said Yannick Guérin, local produce sales representative.
Guérin said his company is “really lucky” because it has a lot of variety in its business: U.S. exports, major wholesalers in Montreal, all major Canadian retail chains and some restaurants.
“It’s really important to put our eggs — or radishes — in many different baskets,” he said.
The extreme weather caused Guérin’s farm to lose almost 50 acres of radishes, onions and carrots, so the somewhat slower market, especially for clients that supply restaurants, went hand in hand.
“This year we had a lot of issues,” he said. “But for us, it wasn’t that bad.”
Vegpro International specializes value-added baby salad greens in clamshells and bags, as well as commodities such as iceberg, greenleaf, romaine, Napa cabbage, carrots, onions and bok choy.
The company serves major retailers including Loblaws, Metro and Sobeys in Montreal, as well as the rest of Quebec, Toronto and New England with commodities. The Fresh Attitude-branded salads go to customers coast to coast, Dolbec said.
The delay in attaining foreign workers during the pandemic-induced closed borders has meant many growers planted or harvested 20-30% less acreage, he said.
“That created, not a shortage, but made for a healthy market. That bolstered the prices from dropping too much. Not high, but stable,” Dolbec said.
And more recently, California’s extreme heat has brought up the demand also.
As fall’s root-vegetable homecooking season begins, Vegpro International is being cautious with retailer promotions so as not to overpromise on availability.
“If sales come off a bit, it’s grower-driven rather than retailer-driven, because the retail demand is still there,” Dolbec said.