The French call it a cornichon. The Brits call it a gherkin. Canadians call it a baby dill.
Cucumbers, the size of your pinky finger, currently sell for $1,400 per ton. And growers in southwestern Ontario believe that field cucumbers are worth growing again after a decade of annual planting declines. The Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers (OPVG) report that field cucumbers earned $16 million in 2022 farmgate value, a record over the last seven years. But many of those raw ingredients go to the U.S. and come back as slabs of dill pickles on a cheeseburger or as relish on a hot dog.
“We sold field cucumbers as far as Texas last year,” explains Dan Froese, a field grower with Froese Vegetables and a director on the OPVG board. He also oversees the Hartung Brothers receiving station located near Vienna, Ontario, accepting hard-harvested crops from about 40 farmers from mid-July to early September each year.
The receiving station is but one of the steps en route to the jarred pickles returning to Canada under various brand names with Vlasic perhaps being the most familiar.
The pickling industry operates on a North American basis. Hartung Brothers, headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, has a raw ingredients division that spans several states and Ontario, with receiving stations in Vienna, Alymer, and Chatham.
Payouts vary by pickle size. After each wagon has been unloaded and graded, the wagon’s owner carefully reviews the grading percentages and load value. It may seem counter-intuitive, but larger cucumbers suited to the foodservice trade, fetch less money. And nubs and crooks -- stubby ends and deformed shapes which signal poor pollination – are destined for relish.
Jeff VanRoboys, a third-generation farmer who runs The Pickle Station and a Hartung Brothers’ receiving station near Chatham, Ontario, is bullish about the future.
“Pickle demand grew during the pandemic,” says VanRoboys. “Pantry items became more valued.”
His grandfather Norm VanRoboys sold the family’s first load of cucumbers in 1964 to Walter Bicks, the founder of Bick’s Pickles, who insisted that a grading station be set up in Chatham. The following year, VanRoboys contracted out two million pounds to farmers in the region.
Although the famous Bick’s brand was swallowed up by J.M. Smucker Company in a 2004 transaction and Ontario pickling facilities were closed for some years, the brand remains invincible. Since 2019, it’s co-packed in Ontario and still in #1 spot as Canada’s most popular pickle brand.
Now celebrating the company’s 60th anniversary, VanRoboys explains that 90 per cent of field cucumbers are hand-harvested. In his area, the business model is to contract temporary foreign workers for premium picking while using machine harvesters for the bigger cucumbers that end up as a pickle slice on a sandwich.
“The competition is very global,” says VanRoboys, with a nod to varying costs of production, especially labour, in Mexico, India and Turkey. “Ontario is a power player in the North American hand-picked cucumber market,” he says. “Despite all the hurdles in securing foreign labour and ensuring government standards are met in housing, the Canadians still corner a market that the Americans have exited.”
VanRoboys explains that there are few opportunities for young farmers to get into a profitable crop on a few acres of land and bring in more than corn and soy commodities. “If you can stickhandle all the labour issues, then field cucumbers are an option,” he says.
There are several niche picklers operating in Ontario. Adrian Jaques, proprietor of Sunshine Pickles, says that his Thamesville business is doing well as the only certified organic pickler in Canada. Besides cucumbers, the company pickles beets, field peppers, onions and jalapeño peppers. The company is also known for its conventionally grown asparagus, that when pickled, is a novel cocktail garnish.
Don Woodbridge, Lakeside Packing Company Ltd. is a purveyor of private label pickles that are sold as far afield as Germany and Australia. His Harrow, Ontario business offers a one-of-a-kind “cowboy candy” that consists of sweetened and spiced jalapeño peppers. These are an example of the locally grown stars that independent grocers love to buy to differentiate their store offerings.
No pickle story would be complete without acknowledging the role of Québec-based Whyte’s Foods Inc, headquartered in Sainte-Thérèse, offering the familiar brands Strubs, Mrs. Whytes and Coronation. Five years ago, the company invested $16.5 million in a plant in Wallaceburg, Ontario. After the company closed its Sainte-Rose plant in December 2022, citing persistent labour shortages, some production and equipment were moved to the Wallaceburg, Ontario plant.
Fifty years ago there were more than 2,000 producers supplying cucumbers to nine Ontario-based pickling operators. The pickle processing era, like the fruit processing era, is long over. Today, a Canadian-grown cucumber is more than likely brined by an American processor, increased pantry demand notwithstanding.
The Grower is Digging Deeper behind the August 2023 cover story titled (click to read) and speaking with Dan Froese, field cucumber grower from Vienna, Ontario. Dan shares his insights on the future of the Ontario processing cucumber industry. Sponsored by Cohort Wholesale.