Sweet Potatoes R Us. Has anyone trademarked that yet?
Nick VanBerlo and his family would be the natural inheritors of that name, since they dominate the grown-in-Canada marketplace with 1,200 acres in two provinces: Ontario and Quebec. Since 1997, the Simcoe, Ontario-based business has proven all the naysayers wrong about the tropical crop that needs heat to grow and a cool place to cure.
The 25 million pounds of sweet potatoes are marketed under one trade name: Berlo’s Best. And national grocers have taken notice. Sobeys and its FreshCo banner, for example, have been partners, putting in orders for its Ontario and Western distribution centres.
“We’ve been doing business (with the VanBerlo family) for eight years now,” says Steve Churchill, director of fresh merchandising, FreshCo. “We’ve had double digit growth every year.”
There’s more room for expansion, says Churchill, because foodservice operators and restaurants have put sweet potato fries and other products on their menus. Sweet potatoes are flavourful and versatile. Families want to replicate that experience in their homes.
As luck would have it, the VanBerlo family has partnered with Mother Nature in a unique micro-climate that favours sweet potatoes in most years. Despite a cool, wet spring, the 2019 season blossomed into an unusual combination – a hot summer of 30°C temperatures and frequent rains.
“There is no manual for what we do,” explains Nick VanBerlo, director of sales and business development. “We learn every day and conduct our own research and development.”
The slips for planting originate in North Carolina, usually of the popular Covington variety. Due to niche demand, the VanBerlo’s are also growing Murasaki, a purple-skinned, white-fleshed variety which boasts a nutty flavour. This “super specialty” has been grown for four years, with all the usual headaches of a more delicate, finicky variety. The Murasaki offering is indicative of the customer service and willingness to fill consumer demand.
Churchill underlines the importance of the rapidly changing demographics in Canadian society and serving the appetites of south Asians in particular. More Asian vegetables are required such as okra, karela, Chinese eggplant and various squashes.
For growers to tap into these trends and grocers’ needs, it’s important to be communicating about a year’s program in advance.
“Communicate consistently,” advises Churchill. “We have to be partners to be sustainable.”
It may appear daunting to approach a national grocer to be a produce supplier. But there’s one sentence of advice to get you started.
“If you can’t tell your story in a minute and how you’re going to solve my needs, then you’re not ready,” says Churchill. “Growers who are prepared know their unique selling proposition.”
Nick VanBerlo has earned that winning relationship by offering to bring in sweet potatoes from the U.S. to fill the year-round demands of FreshCo. He’s now working with growers in North Carolina (600 acres) and Mississippi (200 acres). This business model is not without its own risks. The same growing recipe doesn’t work in the southern states. There’s an art to growing sweet potatoes and then getting the right skin set in the curing rooms.
The biggest challenge in Canada is to find labour for the operation that is packing and shipping year-round. At peak time, 100 seasonal agricultural workers are on deck. The marketplace is signaling the opportunity for growth, particularly in the value-added sector. Pet food is one example. But VanBerlo is cautious about growing too fast in a capital-intensive and labour-intensive operation.
“For us, this is not an experiment,” says VanBerlo. “This is our livelihood. We’re doing our part to feed the country with locally-grown sweet potatoes. We have the responsibility and the dedication to pull this off.”