Prairie growers focus on year-round products

Margie Comaling adds lids to jars of raspberry jam at the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre in Saskatoon.  |  William DeKay photo

Small-scale producers selling locally grown produce are starting to compete side-by-side with California vegetables on store shelves throughout the cold prairie winters.

The Prairies are famous for shipping massive amounts of food and food ingredients around the world, but many prairie residents are used to importing fresh fruits and vegetables to get through winter.

Now, locally produced, year-round fresh fruit and vegetables are becoming more available.

“Over the past five years across the western Canadian prairies there’s been substantial growth of producers looking at (alternative) crops or innovation and looking at the consumer trends that are actively changing due to the growth of the local movements across Canada,” said Bryan Kosteroski of the Prairie Fresh Food Corp.

The corporation was created in 2012 by local producers wanting to supply Saskatchewan-grown vegetables to Canadian retailers. It now has 18 members in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Federated Co-op Ltd. was the first major retailer to form a partnership with Prairie Fresh Food. FCL markets it under its Home Grown Saskatchewan brand, which has created a stable outlet for fresh produce.

Kosteroski said through programs like ADOPT (Ag Demonstration of Practices and Technologies), there’s been substantial investment across Western Canada by provincial and federal governments to see what varieties of seeds, as well as types of vegetables and fruits grow well on the Prairies.

“You’re seeing a lot more collaboration, a lot more partnering with producers across the Prairies, working together and developing alliances and working together and developing innovation for today’s and tomorrow’s consumers,” he said.

Kosteroski describes it as a pull strategy, in which demand by consumers for locally grown, fresh products has created a chain reaction, where specific products are promoted and drawn through the industry’s sales channel, which often produces loyal customers.

“You’re seeing farmers’ markets expanding and that’s great. But you’re also seeing major Canadian retailers buying more and more, and demanding more and more fresh vegetables and fruits from Western Canadian producers.”

Sustainable, high-value crops like vegetables grown at the urban edge are becoming more common.

Compared to conventional crops, they are also among the most profitable uses of farmland with more gross income per acre.

“The consumer’s a winner. They’re getting that local product. Pricing is aligned with any other pricing (and) paying fair market value for the product.

“The loser here is the American and Mexican vegetable producers because Canadian supply is getting longer and longer throughout the year,” Kosteroski said.

“When you can go buy a western Canadian grown radish in November in the store, what is that telling you? There’s innovation happening. You’re seeing more and more fresh vegetables going longer and longer every year and sooner and sooner every year in the seasons.

“You’re also seeing an expansion of greenhouse operations in Western Canada. In the not-too-distant future you’re going to be able to buy local vegetables year-round in Western Canada. And that’s the growth. That’s the drive of value change at the pull strategy.”

Spring Creek Garden near Outlook, Sask., is a founding shareholder of Prairie Fresh Food Corp.

Since starting 18 years ago, Dan and Chelsea Erlandson have slowly expanded from four acres in the late 1980s to 244 acres of mixed vegetables.

The largest vegetable producer in Saskatchewan (excluding potato farms), Spring Creek Garden retails directly at eight farmers’ markets weekly throughout the province and commercially sells produce at wholesale in Western Canada through FCL.

However, their farm operation is considered small when compared to the province’s conventional crop growers.

“My banker just told us our 240 acres is equivalent of like a 6,000- to 8,000-acre grain farm. It’s always hard to explain to people. So this is now a way I can relate to people that are more entrenched in grain farming,” Dan Erlandson said.

In a typical year, Spring Creek Garden grows more than 20 garden vegetables. Carrots, cabbage, broccoli, sweet corn, brussels sprouts and pumpkin are the biggest sellers.

Year-round sustainability encompasses the entire operation and mode of thinking.

“We see sustainability as a whole picture. It’s not just being close to the market. We define it in how we use fertilizer, how we do our water management, our pest management, how we use our labour source and the packaging we use. All these things are what wraps up into our idea of sustainable,” said Erlandson.

“But in terms of giving people the option to buy local year-round, that’s certainly something we think about as well. We are predominantly heavy in the summer months, but we are trying to lengthen our seasons for things like carrots and cabbage and brussels sprouts. And we’re trying to store these things longer so that we can provide the local market with them.”

Spring Creek Garden is invested in an additional 1,200-ton box storage warehouse that allows it to significantly lengthen storage and capacity.

A fully integrated ventilation system uses outside air for cooling while pushing hot air out.

“It allows us to save on our power consumption, to hold vegetables longer and to ship longer. All these types of things and get higher quality at the end of it too,” he said.

Erlandson said the pull strategy has helped diversify his business.

“Because people are demanding this local product, it’s given people like myself the opportunity to grow our business past just direct sales and into the wholesale forum,” he said.

“It’s not an easy thing to get into for sure. We’ve been lucky with our partnership with the Co-op because they did come looking for it. They’ve been a really good partner with us and they have allowed us to make mistakes and they’ve stuck with us through all the ups and downs because I think they see value and I think their customers want what we’re providing in terms of the local products.”

Erlandson said it costs slightly more to produce local vegetables because of the prairie climate, location and relatively small population compared to the United States.

“If people are really demanding it and really pulling it, they’re willing to pay a small marginal amount higher than something coming out of Mexico or California. And that allows us to make the investments so that we can produce that product out of season or at least store it and then be able to give it to people out of season,” he said.

Like Spring Creek Garden, Rod Bradshaw of Beck Farms north of Calgary also started with a small vegetable operation in 1986, five acres to be exact. He saw it as a gamble worth taking.

“We have a million-plus people readily available at either end of Highway 2 within the two-hour drive to Edmonton and an hour drive to Calgary. So without those urban populations, a certain portion of that having high capital or high disposable income, a lot of this stuff (we) wouldn’t be able to do because we’re not low-cost producers based on where we live and the volume of what we do,” Bradshaw said.

He built from the ground up decades before the local fresh movement became popular with consumers.

Bradshaw was a grain farmer when a local processer approached him about growing carrots.

It wasn’t long before he and other grain farmers in the area formed Innisfail Growers, a co-operative where each member specializes in growing a main vegetable crop.

Each operation handles its own planting, harvesting, storage, washing and packaging before delivery to the co-op’s booth at farmers’ markets and commercial wholesalers. Each farm has also built a commercial kitchen for canning produce.

“We’re talking 33 years ago, but we thought that we needed to (each specialize). It was hard to get into the stores or get to the wholesaler. So we took a two-pronged approach and we said, OK, we’re going to draw the product into the system,” said Bradshaw.

Innisfail Growers has since joined other vendors in building the Calgary Farmers Market, which is open year-round.

Bradshaw explains one of his philosophies: “It’s better to have a small piece of something big than all or nothing. So we haven’t been afraid to form alliances or join people in business to drive ourselves forward. And that’s been part of our sustainability.

“We’ve got a two-step chain right now. So we’ve got ourselves putting it into our co-operative, the co-operative selling it and taking the cost out and returning us our costs plus any profit.”

Developing individual canned products has also allowed the group to continue selling its brand throughout the year.

“The big thing about the sustainability is the fact that we have year-round access to markets. We’ve developed products, so we do value adding on all the farms. On our farm we have three lines of pickled carrots. So when the fresh carrots are gone, we still have access to those,” Bradshaw said.

“The big thing is that you need a year-round marketplace. You need to be able to get to customers and whether that’s through an existing wholesale retail chain or whether that’s going to farmers’ markets, but until we got to year-round, it really is tough to be sustainable.”

Kosteroski said a lot more growth is expected.

“The three prairie provinces have seen huge substantial growth in fresh vegetable production and another emerging industry is the fresh fruit industry. But vegetable is leading the charge. It has doubled in the last five years for sure.

“We’re just scratching the surface in the value-added category. The potential in growth of vegetables and fruit is enormous. Right now it’s just the beginning of a new wave,” he said.

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