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Ontario field produce growers have seen their crops planted and harvested a week to in some cases 10 days earlier than normal, and according to Brian Gilroy, chairman of the Ontario Fruit & Vegetable Growers' Association, that makes this year's deal one for the history books.

"It's a funny year that's for sure. It's the earliest year in history that growers have planted and harvested product as far as Ontario is concerned," Mr. Gilroy told The Produce News June 24. "I know one fellow who has been keeping track for over 50 years, and this is by far the earliest he's seen, and if you go back beyond that, it could be the earliest season ever."

Mr. Gilroy, who owns Nighthawk Orchards and grows apples on 32 acres south of Meaford, ON, said that while the province's growers were able to get into the fields much earlier than normal, a frost May 9 caused damage to many of those early crops, especially asparagus and apples.

"The Mother's Day frost was a severe one; a lot of people were negatively affected by it," he said. "The frost knocked the heck out of asparagus, put [growers] out of the market for a week to 10 days. Since then, [asparagus growers] have enjoyed a good marketing season and got good support from retailers. Generally speaking, people are relatively pleased, and the deal is just finishing up as we speak."

Mr. Gilroy said that the frost affected the apple crop worse than at any point during the 25 years he has been growing. But except for some misshapen fruit and some frost rings on one specific variety, his apple crop escaped relatively unscathed.

Growers "away from moderating bodies of water" in the province were not as fortunate and were "the most seriously affected." Though they "experienced the worst," he said, the same results could be found at growers in Michigan and New York state, and he was optimistic that there is "going to be a good number of apples" from Ontario.

Mr. Gilroy said that "tender fruit sounds like they have a good crop. Sweet cherries are being picked as we speak, and the sour cherry harvest isn't far away. The Niagara Peninsula is blessed with being in a 'rain shadow' this week. While the rest of southern Ontario had been experiencing thunderstorms, [Niagara growers] have been fortunate because rain this time of year means splitting of fruit. Peach and pear crops are looking promising.

Mike Ecker, vice president of sales and marketing for tender fruit grower Vineland Growers Cooperative Ltd., told The Produce News June 24 that the Jordan Station, ON-based firm had "a full crop, and was about 10 to 11 days ahead of last year. The crops look good, we had an early spring, and there were no winter injuries. We're anticipating a real good harvest with good quality."

Mr. Gilroy was the most positive about the province's vegetable crop. "A lot of the veg growers started to plant early, and though some lost a bit of stuff to the major frost, it has been a good growing season up until this point with ample moisture and lots of heat for most areas, but not all."

His sentiments were echoed by two major Ontario growers.

Gord Love, vice president of sales and marketing at Burlington-based Ippolito Fruit & Produce Ltd., told The Produce News June 24 that "we're off to a pretty good start. We had a fairly early spring that was drier than normal, so we were able to get in and plant earlier. Some items are a week to 10 days ahead of normal. Now we've been getting rain off and on every two to three days, and that's been working out good. We've been blessed weather-wise."

Jamie Reaume, general manager of Newmarket-based Holland Marsh Growers Association, a major cooperative of about 60 growers located just north of Toronto that combine to produce over 50 crops, said June 23 that "we had a warm April and May, and some crops are two to three weeks ahead of schedule. It's remarkable. The quality has been exceptional, and we're off to a good year so far."

Mr. Gilroy said that the Ontario Fruit & Vegetable Growers' Association is "working hard with retailers to improve the presence of Ontario-grown produce at retail, and we want to work with [retailers] to reduce shrink.

Toronto, Canada's largest city, has one of the world's more diverse populations, and the association is working toward growing new items to satisfy the needs of consumers who "have an incredible variety of tastes and preferences," said Mr. Gilroy. "We will be doing consumer sampling and investigative work to see what it is [consumers] want."

According to a report on the association's web site, Ahmed Bilal, a research associate at the Vineland Research & Innovation Centre, spoke at the association's May board meeting, providing attendees with an update on what is happening in the area of crop diversification.

"In the [greater Toronto area], demand for ethnic vegetables from the Chinese, South Asian and Caribbean communities alone is $61 million per month," the report noted. "Research shows that consumers from these communities are ready to pay more if they can get better quality produce."

Mr. Reaume said that the Holland Marsh Growers Association is looking to diversify its offerings from primarily root crops to include more specialty items.

"There is a growing sense that we need to tap into the marketplace, which wants local items," he said. "I'm seeing a subtle change in the attitude toward what we're growing, and that's a huge change in mentality."

(For more on Ontario produce, see the July 5, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)