Ont. grows good cucumbers but faces processing challenges

CHATHAM, Ont. — Ontario’s pickling cucumber industry is thriving despite the loss of the last two big pickling facilities in the province.


Jeff VanRoboys, owner of The Pickle Station, said the acreage of machine-harvested cucumbers has more than tripled from a year ago and Ontario’s reputation as a premium hand-picked region is growing.


“The pickle world has changed. Until they closed in 2011, Bick’s was the biggest domestic buyer and in the spring of 2012, Strub’s Pickles closed,” VanRoboys said.


The Bick’s facility was owned by the J.M. Smucker Company while Quebec-based Whyte’s bought Strub’s.


VanRoboys said Ontario-grown cucumbers are likely still packed in jars bearing the Bick’s and Strub’s labels, as well as many other brand names.


Much of North America’s cucumber crop is now grown for Wisconsin-based Hartung Brothers. Hartung contracts growers and ships the cucumbers to where they’re needed.


VanRoboys and his family are an important part of that chain.


Along with growing 400 acres of machine-harvested cukes, their grading station is an assembly point for shipments to the U.S. and Quebec.


“My grandfather started with Bick’s, Walter Bick, in the 1960s and so I used to say, eat Bick’s pickles. Now I just say, eat pickles, as long as they’re a product of Canada or the United States,” VanRoboys said.


VanRoboys feels that a burdensome regulatory regime in Ontario may be connected to the loss of food processors and the failure of new processors to locate here. There are also challenges in the areas of high energy and labour costs.


Ontario excels in the area of primary production, he said. Yield and quality are among the best in North America.


In 2013, about 35,000 tons of cucumbers were contracted in the province.


This year, Ontario’s reputation as a growing region has received a boost. VanRoboys said yields have exceeded expectations, quality is excellent and, so far, there has been no sign of the most challenging disease for growers, powdery mildew.


In the case of machine-harvested cucumbers, farmers are grossing nearly $2,000 per acre compared to the expected $1,600 to $1,700, VanRoboys said.


Hand-picked gross returns are far higher since the crop is harvested repeatedly over the course of several weeks rather than with a single machine pass. 


The cucumbers tend to be smaller, the type found on grocery store shelves, and returns can approach $8,000 per acre.


VanRoboys said families with small acreages tend to grow hand-picked cucumbers. Many are members of Ontario’s Mennonite community.