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Cheaper imports hurting local strawberry grower

You’ve likely seen the springtime TV ads with farmers singing and strumming their guitars in supermarkets, letting us know that "good things grow in Ontario." The spots were part of the Foodland Ontario program to encourage people across the province to buy locally grown foods. That message is apparently not getting through to corporate supermarket management in many of the bigger chains, says Bill Little, who's grown strawberries for 40 years on his 10-acre operation just west of Campbellford.

Little’s business is based on being able to sell his berries in volume to the larger supermarket chains in Peterborough. For the past two years, however, he finds that he’s been frozen out of his traditional market there by the larger stores who are now refusing to buy local produce by edict of their head offices. Little says the corporate headquarters of each chain has dictated to produce managers that they must only buy berries from their central warehouses, and that the berries must be grown in California. Little says he’s been told by the managers that he’s dealt with for years that as much as they’d love to buy his strawberries, "we have to do what we’re told."

"I know all the people that grow strawberries and they’re all finding exactly the same thing," he said. Little’s berry farm employs up to 40 pickers a day, putting as much as $1,300 each day into the local economy in wages. He sees that all disappearing at the end of this season if supermarket policies don’t change for next year. "If we can’t sell the berries, we can’t pick them, so they’re going to rot in the fields," Little explained earlier this week. "About half of what’s in my fields this year will go to waste."

Locally, his sales tend to be in the pick-your-own market, with only a few boxes of his berries being sold to local supermarkets in Campbellford and neighbouring communities such as Norwood, Havelock and Marmora. These stores might take up to 50 boxes at a time from Little or as few as a half-dozen, compared to one store alone in Peterborough that used to take 800 boxes every day. In order to stay in business, he believes he might have to cut his planting back by half next year, with the bulk of his business to be dependent on local residents picking their own berries. While this will save on upfront expenses such as hiring pickers, buying containers, and trucking his produce to market, the downside will be the loss of seasonal jobs for many locals.

"Pick-your-owns are excellent," Little said. "They do their own trucking, bring their own boxes usually, pick their own berries, and I don’t pay anybody, they pay me. That’s the way to do it, but we don’t have enough of them." He tried bypassing Peterborough for a while, delivering berries to the Toronto Food Terminal, but he had to leave at one in the morning to arrive at the terminal when it opened at six.

"I didn’t get home until 11 or 12 and I just can’t do it," Little said. "It’s too far and there’s many people around here who want to pick their berries. I’ve got to be home when they come. I don’t have anything else I can sell to the stores. I used to grow sweet corn but I’m 79 now and I just can’t do that work anymore." Little says he thinks the problem began as a result of a bad batch of raspberries that were imported from South America a few years ago.
"After that the stores really tightened up on produce," he said. Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs media spokesman Brent Ross said in an interview June 24 that he couldn’t comment on the business relationships of Little and his former customers in Peterborough. However, he did say the ministry is working with retailers and producers to support Ontario grown foods wherever possible.

"Mr. Little’s experience is not indicative of what we have seen," Ross said. "The Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors and the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers have both been very co-operative with us in terms of trying to get higher visibility and higher prevalence of Ontario produce, not just for strawberries but for all foods in their stores. Loblaws, for example, has a Grown Closer to Home program where they are promoting Ontario produce such as strawberries extensively."

Agriculture Minister Leona Dombrowsky announced June 24 that the government wants to see more Ontario-grown food on the tables of Ontario families. It is providing $4 million over four years to help people buy food directly from Ontario farmers. The funding will help Farmers' Markets Ontario and the Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association work with farmers to sell more local food. The allocation is part of the $56 million the province has committed to spending over four years to use toward buy Ontario and buy local initiatives.

Ross indicated that the ministry’s research shows that where food products are clearly marked as being locally grown, consumers are willing to pay a premium to buy fresher product and to support local farmers. Two supermarkets in Campbellford and Hastings exemplify the issue. One sells locally grown berries at $2.99 a box and the other sells California berries at $2.59 a box. Foodland Ontario’s in-store market research has found that the single most important consideration for consumers is freshness, with 73 per cent of shoppers ranking it number one, followed by guaranteed safety (60 per cent) and price (43 per cent).

Strawberries trucked from California travel 4,500 miles from Watsonville, Calif. to Toronto. If freshness is the most important consideration for consumers and not price as the government’s research indicates, market forces might yet make Little’s strawberries more attractive to Peterborough supermarket chains than the cheaper imports.


Publication date: 6/26/2008


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