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The long road from harvest to market

Halifax isn’t that far from the farm—so why is it so hard to get local produce at the grocery store?

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Photo: Nova Scotia Tourism Agency

Photo: Nova Scotia Tourism Agency

Halifax isn’t that far from the farm—so why is it so hard to get local produce at the grocery store?

At the mouth of the Shubenacadie River in Hants County, Jim Bruce has almost half a hectare of greenhouses, growing herbs like chives and basil. He doesn’t grow enough to supply all of Canada and that’s OK. He doesn’t want to.

“We’re not interested in being a business that has one customer,” says Bruce. Twenty-five years ago, his company, Riverview Herbs, supplied Superstore and Sobeys. Then both retailers switched to centralized ordering—one big warehouse supplying all of each chain’s outlets in Atlantic Canada.

“Within several years of each other, [Superstore and Sobeys] brought us in and said ‘look, you’ve either got to supply all our stores in the country and drop your prices, or we’re going to have to move on,’” says Bruce. “So we said, ‘that’s not the type of growing we do.’”

Since then, Riverview has dropped out of the big retail business—supplying just a few Superstores that kept control of what produce they sold—and making up the difference selling at farmers’ markets and smaller grocery stores.

In the meantime, the “local” movement appeared—a call to return to local food to save money, boost the economy and increase health. But Bruce thinks that’s the last thing a big grocery chain wants to sell.

“I think some will try to show off their local pumpkins or whatever, during the season, but essentially that’s window dressing,” says Bruce. “It’s not what they’re interested in doing, not what they make money doing, and quite frankly, I think if they had a choice, they wouldn’t do it.”

Sobeys

  • 84 stores in the Maritimes
  • Atlantic headquarters: Stellarton, N.S.
  • Nearest distribution centre: Debert, N.S.
  • Works with small farmers, 2,800 products grown or produced in Atlantic Canada. Allows deliveries to individual stores.

Shauna Selig is the communications manager with Sobeys. She says the chain has never dropped its back-door policy. People interested in selling produce to a Sobeys can walk in, meet the manager and pitch their produce. “We have some farmers that supply direct to stores, and they may only supply two or three stores,” says Selig, adding that these farmers drop off things like maple syrup, corn, dulse (dried seaweed, if you haven’t tried it) and apples. “For us, there’s no farm that’s too small, as long as a farmer is willing to follow the food safety requirements that are in place and the quality of their product is up to our standards.”

There’s a misconception that you have to be able to supply the whole chain, and go through Sobeys’s distribution centre near Truro—she swears that’s not the case.

“Why would we ship something from Cape Breton, through to Debert, just to go back to our stores in Cape Breton?” she asks. “We have Eyking Farms in Cape Breton. They do ship through Debert, but they also ship directly to the Cape Breton markets, because it makes sense.”

Pete’s

  • Three stores, 20 years in business
  • Headquarters: Halifax.
  • Works directly with farmers, up to 50 per cent local at peak season.

Farmer Jim Bruce thinks Pete’s, owned by businessman Pete Luckett, is probably more willing to support local farmers “because he lives here.”

“He’s even got a farm, so he’s much more part of the community than Empire Corporation, or Loblaws,” says Bruce.

Pete’s size matters, when it comes to sourcing local produce, says the store’s produce procurement director, Dwayne Buttler. Pete’s claims to offer 40 to 50 per cent local produce in peak season.

“We have quite an advantage, because we’re not the size of Loblaws or Sobeys, so we can react very quickly,” says Buttler, who’s worked for Pete’s for 17 years. “We don’t have to go through any big process with a big head office.”

Even now, Buttler says he’s working with local farmers, planning a season with even more local produce. “We’ve always supported the local as much as we could, and now it’s getting that much better all the time, because there’s more farmers that are growing crops that are outside of the norm,” he says.

And when he can’t find something he wants on the shelves at Pete’s, he asks a farmer to grow it for him. In the last few years, Pete’s has locally sourced some products it used to import, like eggplant, hot peppers, oriental greens (like Chinese cabbage and bok choy) and even sweet potato. “The relationship is what’s really helping it, where farmers are growing specific to our needs, things that we used to import,” says Buttler. “We do get lots of requests for local, and we try to have whatever’s available that’s local and good quality… if we can get it, we’ll do it.”

While produce retailers tend to look for the most attractive product, Pete’s tries to place more importance on where it’s harvested. “If the quality is still as good—maybe the apple’s a little smaller, maybe something’s not as shiny, so in those circumstances, we’ll still buy local over import,” Buttler says, adding that it’s ultimately about giving customers what they want. “I think one of the biggest things is for the consumer to ask—not just for us to promote it.”

Farmer Clem’s

  • 50 years in business
  • 7 locations (5 in HRM)
  • Almost exclusively local produce, buys mostly from small farms.

Vernon Blois grew up on a farm and when he was still a teen, he started Farmer Clem’s. Now the farmers’ market-style fruit and vegetable stand has five locations in Halifax, specializing in local produce.

“Our customer comes looking for local product, so we’re filling a niche that’s out there,” says Blois. ”There’s a segment of the market that wants to find local produce as often as they can.”

Now 63, (with Clem’s recently celebrating 50 years in business), Blois says sometimes there is only one thing standing between oblivion and survival for small farms. “A lot of smaller farms in Nova Scotia and the Annapolis Valley depend on retailers such as us because they can’t produce the quantity that larger stores like Sobeys or Superstore would actually require to supply them,” he says.

Other than the few spring and summer months where Farmer Clem’s becomes a maze of bedding plants and ornamental trees, his little cabanas are typically filled with fruit crates and bushel baskets of local produce—anything that grows in Nova Scotia can be found here, for a good price. Even in January, the Bedford Highway location still has crisp apples, pears, carrots, turnips, and even more delicate greenhouse crops like peppers.

It costs a little more to buy local produce. “We don’t go for the lowest dollar,” Blois says. “[Selling local] gives us a bit of an edge over some of our competition… The more time a product spends in trucks and refrigeration, the more it tastes like cardboard.”

There are only a few produce managers that farmer Jim Bruce deals with in this province. They’re at Superstore. “There’s a couple of them who actually buy from us,” he says. “They’re holdovers and they have enough seniority that their bosses allow them to do it.”

Atlantic Superstore

  • Atlantic headquarters: Halifax, N.S.
  • Nearest distribution centre: Lakeside, N.S. (main one in Moncton, N.S.)
  • 56 stores in the Maritimes
  • Some direct deliveries, 60 local “vendors.”

Mark Boudreau is a spokesman with Loblaws, Superstore’s parent company. He says the chain has some “Direct Store Delivery vendors”—seven in Newfoundland—but Boudreau wasn’t sure how many here on the mainland. He does mention Atlantic Superstore has 60 local “vendors.”

He says the scale Superstore operates on doesn’t really allow for contributions from too many small farmers. “I think Pete’s or Farmer Clem’s would have a lot more flexibility on that kind of stuff,” says Boudreau.

It’s less noticable in summer, but off-season, one notices a dearth of local produce at Superstore. Imports abound—apples from places you didn’t know grew apples and, in terms of local produce: root vegetables. “I think the problem is that [Superstore] is totally based in Toronto, and Sobeys is only a little bit based in Toronto, and I think some of the buying decisions get made up there,” says Rupert Jannusch, whose Ironwood Farm has sold organic grape tomatoes to Sobeys for the last seven years.

Lori den Haan, on the other hand, says it’s up to each producer to make the arrangement with retailers of any size work. Her husband Lyle’s family owns den Haan greenhouses in Lawrencetown, which has about three hectares of modern hothouses. Half grow the tomatoes you see in Superstores across Atlantic Canada, and the other half grows English cucumbers.

After 50 years or growing vegetables, and dealing with large retailers, she says, at least for den Haan’s, “there’s not really a lot of significant challenges.” The farm upgraded recently, adding the cucumber space, on the strength of their business with Superstore. “It’s really just being organized and projecting correctly, and just having all your apples in line,” she says. “Getting organized is really the key.”

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