Greenhouse grower shifts tomato product line to Ohio; puts Leamington expansion on hold

By Grace Macaluso, Windsor Star (July 5, 2016) – NatureFresh, one of the largest, independent greenhouse growers in Essex County, said Tuesday its plan to shift production of a popular tomato product line to Ohio won’t adversely affect its local operation.

“We will still maintain 130 acres of tomato and bell peppers (in Leamington),” said Chris Veillon, director of marketing at NatureFresh. “We are not diminishing our acreage.”

Last year, NatureFresh rocked the region’s agriculture sector when it announced it was expanding into Ohio, in part, because of concerns over inadequate hydro capacity here.

At the time, CEO Peter Quiring said the Leamington operation, which employs between 300 and 400 seasonal employees, would not be negatively affected by the $220-million, 175-acre complex in Delta, Ohio. He also announced plans for a 32-acre expansion in Leamington by summer or fall of this year. However, those plans have been put on hold “for the time being,” said Veillon.

“It’s not on hold indefinitely. We are 100 per cent focused on selling our Ontario-grown product from our 130 acres in Leamington while also building phase two and three (30 acres) by November in the U.S. Our plates are pretty full right now,” added Veillon.

The grower currently runs 13 acres in Delta.

Veillon said NatureFresh will move production of its popular TOMZ brand snacking tomatoes from Leamington to Delta in the fall to provide year-round shipping to its U.S. and Canadian customers.

“We want to ensure every week that customers who walk into Loblaws or Kroeger get the same product from the same grower 12 months of the year,” he said. “It’s about consistency and quality.”

Unlike the Leamington operation, which runs over a nine-to-10 month cycle, the Delta greenhouse has the capacity to operate year round, said Veillon.

The lack of sufficient hydro capacity has been cited by local greenhouse growers as a key reason for their inability to operate throughout the year on this side of the border and being forced to import produce from the U.S. and Mexico, said County Warden Tom Bain.

The Ontario Energy Board has approved construction of a new hydro line and transformer station in Leamington — a project which is set to become operational by summer 2018. However, Bain said the project wasn’t moving quickly enough to prevent more growers from expanding or moving operations across the border.

“I’m going by what the greenhouse guys are telling me — they can’t sit and wait two years. They’re building now,” he said.

Ceiran Bishop, manager of supply and infrastructure at the Ontario Energy Board, disputed suggestions that the project was being delayed.

“Almost a year ago, the OEB issued a decision ordering Hydro One to start construction within 12 months of the date of the OEB’s decision – July 16, 2015,” said Bishop. “Hydro One asked that costs associated with the project be allocated in a way that differed from the approach in the OEB rules. To ensure the project was not delayed, the OEB set up a separate process to consider Hydro One’s proposed approach within a broader context as well as through the engagement of a broader set of stakeholders. This process enabled Hydro One to proceed with construction while cost allocation was sorted out.”

Site preparation for the project started in March, said Tiziana Baccega Rosa, spokeswoman at Hydro One.

“That includes everything from engineering and design work to any land acquisition that needs to happen,” she said. “We’re in the process of finalizing a tender package to hire a contractor to build the station.”

Veillon said NatureFresh is looking at infrastructure upgrades that would permit its Leamington operation to run all year.

“We are looking at options at how we can economically grow in Leamington year round,” he said.

Original article