Jean-Bernard Van Winden is used to crossing the lines. As a lettuce and onion grower on the southern shore of Montreal, he excels at exporting 80 per cent of his produce to the United States. Based on the muck soils of the St-Rémi area, the operation funnels its produce through the border crossing at LaColle. In total, the farm is just four hours from Boston and six hours from New York.
About 80 per cent of the lettuce production south of Montreal is exported to Boston, New York and other stateside cities. The quality of the leafy greens — disease and insect-free -- is undisputed, but competitiveness is stymied by cumbersome regulations.
It’s a compelling story of competitiveness in a business that’s never been easy since Van Winden and a friend bought the farm for $250,000 in 1979. Not daunted by high interest rates, they delved into high-value crops. Like so many other Canadian farmers, their confidence was borne out of a family history surviving war-torn Europe where Van Winden’s grandfather had farmed the muck soils of Delft, Holland and where his father had barely survived as a prisoner of war.
That instinct for survival has served them well. Today, they grow 375 acres of iceberg lettuce, 125 acres of romaine lettuce, 110 acres of carrots, 115 acres of onions, 60 acres of Chinese cabbage and 60 acres of leeks. Both Van Winden and his partner each have two sons on the farm.
“We’ve always been proactive in research and technology,” explains Van Winden. “We were the first to wrap and pack in the field, and first to sell lettuce in bulk to value-added/processing facilities.”
Growth in the last 15 years has been in the value-added segment: ready-to-eat, bagged, lettuce mixes, food service. The fresh market, while stable, is actually softening as consumers want more convenience in their leafy greens. Working with a marketing group, Veg Pro International, the Van Winden farm has contracts to supply Fresh Express, Dole, Ready Pack and others.
While the U.S. market is lucrative, the demands are stringent. “There is absolutely zero tolerance for insects or defects of any kind,” says Van Winden. Through Veg Pro International, they have access to the packing facilities that are compliant with food safety criteria of the California Leafy Greens Agreement. CanadaGAP provides the auditing services.
For all the mechanization and technology invested in the operation, Van Winden still bumps into barriers that money can’t remove.
“Crop protection is a hot topic and one which I have passionately advocated for many years,” says Van Winden. “It is critically important to be in a competitive position with the U.S. If we are to compete with California, then we must have access to the same products and tools. We must have complete harmonization and equal and simultaneous access to products.”
“More buyers are demanding reduced-risk products and we cannot have access to the products later than our competitors in the U.S. This is particularly an issue for value-added products and ones where there is zero tolerance for insects and disease.”
Regulatory burdens are frustrating access to the northeastern U.S., a marketplace of 100 million people. This doesn’t make economic sense when perishable produce should find the closest markets, fuel efficiently. There’s no reason not to be competitive, even with a dollar at par.
In addition to restricted access to crop protection products, Van Winden is concerned that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) is pulling out support to world-class research at the Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec station.
“There have been significant cuts which have absolutely astounded us,” says Van Winden. “We have entered into research contracts with AAFC, have contributed financially and as an industry with $60 million for lettuce in Canada. This is absolutely unacceptable.”
Fears are that research at Saint-Jean will continue for 2012 but will be shut down for 2013. Without breeders such as Sylvie Jenni developing new cultivars like Hochelaga that can resist disease and pests, the prospects for competitiveness are diminished.
To continue grower-focused research in muck crops, Van Winden favours a partnership with AAFC. “Private models are expensive to establish and manage and industry does not have the resources to replicate the McCain, Pepsico and Frito Lay models.”
To address these competitiveness issues, Van Winden encourages the Canadian Horticultural Council to keep focused on pesticides, research, innovation, plant health and untangling regulations. His trucks cross the U.S./Canada border every day, but it’s those invisible barriers that siphon profits in the long-term. The hope is that the Regulatory Cooperation Council – the prime minister’s initiative to reduce regulatory burdens with the U.S. -- can remove those trip wires.