Asparagus grower Rebecca Compton knows when it’s time to call a friend. Or two.
Last year, she found herself in the eye of a perfect storm. The growing season of competitor U.S. regions was late and asparagus was flooding the market, flattening prices. Besides her own 60 acres near Delhi, she was the newly elected chair of the Asparagus Farmers of Ontario. The bottom line? The profitability of an industry with farmgate value of $30 million was at stake.
“There was too much crop at low prices,” recalls Compton. “The increase in transportation costs as well as minimum wages going to $14 per hour didn’t help.”
The local asparagus season is a precious six to eight weeks in length. So time was not on their side. Compton and her fellow directors called an emergency in-season meeting on May 29, inviting wholesalers and growers to face the market turmoil together.
“Putting all those people in the same room at the same time was risky,” says Compton. “It could have totally blown up. But instead of looking at each other as competitors, they came together as collaborators.”
Former chair Ken Wall offers some perspective. A series of unfortunate events impacted the Ontario market. Two states – Washington and New Jersey -- experienced cold springs and came into the market at end of April, about three weeks later than usual. Peru air freighted an unexpected six million pounds, double normal patterns, into Miami and Tampa. All the usual markets for Ontario asparagus were plugged – western Canada, the American mid-west and the eastern seaboard.
This unprecedented situation was compounded by record volumes in Ontario. Wall recalls that in his own Sandy Shores packing house, volumes exceeded the norms of 125,000 to 150,000 pounds a day. “We were blown away by the volumes of 250,000 to 300,000 pounds in a day – there was no storage space. We were jammed.”
The result was that asparagus growers had to mow down some of their fields for lack of a profit in the marketplace. “2018 was a big, ugly year,” says Wall.
When the season ended, Compton and her board analyzed all the factors and came up with a consensus view – to enhance market penetration here in Canada. It was based on Wall’s travels to Germany where the population consumes five pounds per capita in the spring stretch from April to June. In contrast, North America consumes 1.7 pounds per capita over 12 months. Going forward, Ontario’s 95 asparagus growers intend to grow the market domestically.
To that end, the association held a strategy development workshop in July 2018. A Fresh Asparagus Advisory Committee was struck in March 2019 that included some new players such as representatives from a local retailer, Foodland Ontario and the Ontario Produce Marketing Association.
“I’m more optimistic than most and willing to try new things,” says Compton. “All of these folks don’t normally talk together but we were impressed with the information sharing that happened.”
The 2019 season is now well underway with normal wholesale prices of $60 to $70 per case (28 lb). The association plans some new as well as expanded marketing initiatives. The strategy is to leverage friends in the produce circle who are already supportive of the “local food” movement.
In-store sampling will be on offer for 40 days at Toronto locations. Online recipe videos will be available throughout the season. Local culinary colleges are participating in cooking challenges.
The popular Asparabus tour that brings food writers and bloggers from the Greater Toronto Area to an asparagus farm will be expanded from 24 to 50 seats this year. Welsh Brothers, who grow both conventional and organic asparagus will be on hand to demonstrate field picking and packing.
In other words, don’t take consumers for granted. Remind them of the taste and health benefits of local asparagus.
These are challenging times for Compton, who is in partnership with her parents Ed and Sandy DeHooghe. She’s a full-time mother to four-year-old Sable and two-year-old Anson while managing the on-farm retail outlet: Big Red Barn. Her husband operates an off-farm business.
Compton’s career path was not preordained, because she grew up as a seventh-generation farmer. In fact, her undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of Western Ontario. She topped up the degree with a Masters in Communication. Her career took off in Alberta’s oil patch with jobs in human resources, marketing and communications. After five years of ever-increasing responsibilities, she listened to the drumbeat of her heart calling her back to the farm.
“It took leaving the farm to really miss it,” says Compton. “I realized that agriculture is my place and that food and feeding people are my calling.”
Rebecca Compton’s story is not unusual these days. As the 2016 Census of Agriculture proved, there is a rising new generation that has highly educated female farm operators. Many are under 40 managing complex agricultural operations. In 1996, females represented 25.3 per cent of farm operators. By 2016, that proportion had risen to 28.7 per cent, accounting for 77,830 female farm operators in Canada.
Coaxing these women into leadership positions is important for agriculture. “Rebecca is a bright light with communications skills par excellence,” says Wall. “We’ve encouraged her to bring her kids along to meetings. If we don’t, we’ll scare away the next generation of leadership.”
Karen Davidson, editor of The Grower, goes "Behind the Scenes" of this cover story and speaks with Rebecca Compton, chair of Asparagus Farmers of Ontario. They discuss her background and leadership approach to tackling industry issues. Listen here.