Gervais is not planning to increase his asparagus acreage at this time but admits if he were to get greater uptake for frozen asparagus from small, local independent retailers in southern Ontario, he would freeze more. Photo by Contributed
Every harvest season, many horticultural farmers face a conundrum. When fruit and vegetables are ripe, the produce must be sold. But because there is so much of it on the market, prices for some things can nosedive quickly. But now, Morris Gervais has found an inventive solution for this problem.
The producer operates Barrie Hill Farms, located near Barrie, Ont. The farm was started in 1968 and Morris’ parents, Adrien and Evelyn Gervais, grew tobacco there until 1979. In 1977, they started transitioning away from tobacco, planting strawberries and then following with blueberries, raspberries and asparagus during the years to come. Over the next two decades, their blueberry cultivation grew to a stunning 40 acres, making the operation one of the largest highbush blueberry farms in the province. Eldest son Morris began to take over management of the farm. In 1998, the Gervais family added peas, and the year after, green and yellow beans.
Morris’ wife, Kendra, home schools their four children, aged 6 to 13. And while their grandpa continues to be involved with the entire farm, over the last few years, Adrien has devoted much of his time to growing giant pumpkins. (A replica of his 1999 champion can be seen at the entrance to the farm.)
“He is over 90, but my father is still a great help to me,” Morris says.
It was during 2011 that Gervais began looking for a place that would freeze some of their blueberries in an effort to open up another sales avenue for the high-value crop.
“I made many, many calls to companies all over southern Ontario, but none of them were interested because it’s such a small amount compared to the other things they freeze,” he remembers. “Then one day, I got a call from Zast Foods. They have a brand called ‘Nude Fruit’ and they wanted my berries. They access fruit from all across the country and have shelf space in the bigger stores. I still sell some berries to them every year and also freeze some of my own.”
The company that would do the small-scale batches was South Coast IQF (individually quick frozen) of Delhi, Ont.
“We started with blueberries, as they are very cost-competitive,” Gervais explains. “I have an automatic harvester and automated sorting. And they are easy to freeze, just become little marbles. We added other berries later.”
In 2012, Gervais toured the facility and got to thinking. The plant was mostly idle early in the spring, and that’s when asparagus is ready.
“We’d been farming asparagus since the 1980’s,” Gervais says. “At that point in time, the only variety available was one that would flower at six or seven inches tall. That meant we had to harvest the spears when they were less than that. But during that time, the Ontario Asparagus Growers Marketing Board (now known as Asparagus Farmers of Ontario) had been investing in a breeding program at the University of Guelph and by the late 1990’s, we had a variety called Guelph Millennium.”
This new variety is all male, and is very productive in terms of pounds produced per acre. The spears are high quality, and don’t branch out until they get around nine to 11 inches tall. This means more of the tender stalks can be harvested and there is more overall volume that’s available to sell.
“Back when we started growing asparagus, we mostly did fresh sales at the farm gate,” Gervais explains. “It was really a good crop, and fresh sales were very strong, and anything left over was shipped to be processed and canned.”
However, in the late-1990s, the only processing plant in the province that handled asparagus closed. It was a shock, and Gervais and the other asparagus growers in Ontario needed to find more markets for the hundreds of thousands of pounds that had previously gone into cans – fast.
“We serviced grocery chains to an extent that had never seen before,” Gervais remembers. “Nowadays, I sell fresh asparagus at the farm gate, in local stores and into big grocery chains. The problem is there’s a glut in the spring and the price falls. That’s the time when if you can freeze it, you can preserve its value. If you can time it all properly, you can get all the benefits of fresh sales and then freeze the rest when the maximum volume of asparagus is on the market. You can then sell it throughout the year at a good price.”
The freezing process for asparagus did not take long to work out, and Gervais had about a thousand pounds frozen in 2013. That doubled in 2014, and for his innovative thinking and hard work, Gervais won a regional Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.
He has large walk-in freezers on the farm, and sells frozen asparagus, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries mostly through farm gate sales, with some going to small local retailers. He says there is huge potential to increase the amount of Ontario asparagus that could be sold as frozen, but points out that the costs involved to freeze, store, and transport product are high.
“It’s hard to compete with places like Peru where labour costs are so much lower,” Gervais notes. “And big companies, like Arctic Gardens, have shelf space deals with the big grocery chains. We individual growers therefore need the provincial government to create an economic offsetting mechanism, so we can compete with places where minimum wage is very low, the climate is better and production is higher.
“The federal, provincial and local governments need to look at ways of doing more to support horticulture,” he adds. “The challenges are serious and there is much to do to try and solve them.”
Gervais is not planning to increase his asparagus acreage at this time but says if he were to get greater uptake for frozen asparagus from small, local independent retailers in southern Ontario, he would freeze more.
Of winning the award, Gervais says: “The recognition is truly appreciated. I will continue to try and keep the operation viable but we will have to see about having a third generation. It would be nice to think that one or more of our four kids could farm here, but there are serious challenges. At the same time, I enjoy working in nature and with the land and meeting the challenges of growing good food. It’s satisfying and rewarding work to plan and plant and take care of the farm over a long time. The things we are growing take many years to establish and I like to think it’s important work to grow healthy food for people. It’s rewarding when you’ve succeeded.
“And it’s very enjoyable to work with customers and provide them with excellent product. Horticulture is a people business.”
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