GARDENS OF THE NORTH

With its diverse geology, strategic geographical location and surprising
climate—thanks to the impressive St. Lawrence River—the province of Quebec,
located in eastern Canada, offers undeniable horticultural advantages.

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QUEBEC FRUIT
AND VEGETABLES

Though Quebec is known as “Little California” in North American farming, its horticulture is nevertheless fragile. Despite the area’s advantages, Quebec’s fruit and vegetable producers still face sizeable drawbacks. Among others, they must compete with large-scale farmers in the U.S. and Mexico who, though they admittedly do face some constraints, can still produce on a massive scale and at a lower cost per unit sold.

Quebec can be found in the eastern part of the continent. The area’s climate is a boon for the growing of several types of vegetables and makes the area competitive since extreme heat waves preventing production from July to September in the giant agricultural areas of Arizona, Texas and California eases the pressure on other markets during that time.

$500 MILLION

Keeping the horticultural industry economically sound and encouraging the next generation is a sizeable challenge in such a competitive market. Yet, Quebec horticulture generates a yearly commercial value of over $400 million in fresh vegetables (including potatoes), plus an additional $100 million in greenhouse produce.

CONCENTRATION

Centralization in food distribution is a considerable challenge for Quebec’s fruit and vegetable producers. In all of Canada, just three companies focus their strategic operations in a single location.

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Many horticultural producers look for other markets for their harvests to maintain acceptable profitability and a business that can be passed on to the next generation. Some look to Asian vegetables, without totally abandoning the more traditional vegetables that have historically been delivered to Quebec’s big food chains. But for many of these farmers, the rules established by these chains create working conditions that are, for all practical purposes, unbearable. Their requirements compromise harvest production and packaging practices, under pretexts that are sometimes arbitrary or opportunistic. They ignore the reality of agriculture, which can’t be compared to other industries.

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Unlike other sectors, our industry deals with fresh produce coming out of the field mere hours before delivery and has to contend with the pressure of risky weather. Add to that the fact that some buyers take advantage of farmers’ small blunders, penalizing them financially. What’s more, payment times can be as long as 90 days or more. None of these conditions solidify this economic sector. Instead, we must work together to reach a fair sharing of risks and profits.

Ferme des Pionniers de Saint-Laurent, located near the city of Quebec, Canada, grows onions on about ten hectares, alongside potatoes, its dominant crop. While potatoes are sold in bulk, onions are marketed directly by the owners who sort and package them from November to June. With 120 hectares (300 acres) of land in cultivation, this farm is a small-to-medium business. Thirty per cent of its surface is specialized and 70% is used for rotational crops. This type of business can support one family, or possibly two with a few innovations. The owners report that onions sell fairly well, but their business is nonetheless precarious since they only have one buyer. However, their geographical location close to the urban centre of Quebec gives them an advantage, as does their status as the only specialized onion farm on Île d'Orléans.

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ASIAN VEGETABLES

The production of Asian vegetables meets the specific demands of importers. The endpoint for these vegetables is New York’s China Town, which is home to over 800,000 Asian Americans. This fabulous market also has its challenges, however, including successfully growing vegetables such as Chinese cabbage, parsnip and okra in Quebec’s climate.
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NEW PRODUCT

It is also capitalizing on a new product that is certified pesticide-free and marketed under the brand name Bleuet Boréal Sauvage.

Paradoxically, Quebec has seen some of its agricultural businesses grow into front-runners in the Quebec and Canadian vegetable sector. Jardins Cousineau has become the Canadian leader in broccoli production, while VegPro International sells its baby greens down the East Coast of the United States. Several other large farming businesses, such as Guinois, Gibouleau or Notaro, to name only a few, have played a key role in developing Quebec’s agricultural influence.

The same can be said for berries. For example, the company Bleuets sauvages du Québec Inc., based in the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region, in the northern part of the province, sells frozen Quebec-grown wild blueberries in over 20 countries. This ISO-9001:2000–certified company relies on a professional team working in the fields and processing facilities, and has its own high-tech lab. It is also capitalizing on a new product that is certified pesticide-free and marketed under the brand name Bleuet Boréal Sauvage.

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Green peas, beans, sweet corn, carrots and broccoli: This rainbow of colours flows into the Bonduelle processing plants in Quebec, across the rest of Canada and in the U.S. This European food processing and frozen food giant is now well established in North America, including in Quebec, which gave the company its first toehold on the continent. Quebec produces very large quantities of so-called industrial vegetables, which are used extensively in the HRI network and are found in the refrigerators of mega-groceries. Customers, however, are not very aware of these vegetables, even though they consume a lot of them. For farmers, the crop diversification offered by Bonduelle could stand to be enhanced to further consolidate the industrial vegetable sector.

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THE JEWEL OF BERRIES

The main competition for Quebec’s strawberry growers unquestionably comes from California and Mexico, given that these areas market their strawberries over a longer period, which overlaps with Quebec’s season. And northern yields can’t hold a candle to those of the southwest. One trend that has partly compensated for this trade imbalance is the rise in popularity of local produce—a true advantage for Quebec’s berry industry.

28,000 HECTARES

Wild blueberries are cultivated on over 28,000 hectares in Quebec, accounting for a berry harvest of about 60 million pounds.

On the heels of some food-related errors that caused food poisonings, and even deaths, food safety standards were defined and measures were applied. No one will disagree that the entire food production chain must be secure: It’s in the interest of public health, of course, but also of the industry’s economic health since fruit and vegetables are generally consumed raw.

In 2003, the Canadian Horticultural Council implemented a fruit and vegetable safety program, which is controlled by farmers rather than imposed by retailers. Prior to this program, retailers were calling for more control methods to help them respond to customer concerns.

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Producers now have every reason—not the least of which being to reassure potential buyers—to register for the CanadaGAP Certification program. Involving very tight oversight and audits throughout the production season, the process may seem labour-intensive to some. Meticulous record-keeping during peak production can also be a chore, especially for small businesses with few labourers.

However, becoming certified is a positioning tactic for horticultural businesses who face increasingly fierce market competition. These efforts should be firmly supported by government bodies. At stake is no less than the future of a whole economic sector in Quebec and Canada and one that’s just waiting to develop.

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