Though the recession has affected sales of organic produce in Quebec, large local growers continue to increase organic acreage to meet the demand.

“Organic companies are thriving,” said Anthony Fantin, vice president of Veg Pro International, Sherrington, Quebec, which is working toward growing organically. “But from visiting stores and talking to produce managers, it looks like demand is only great in areas that haven’t been hard hit by the economy.”

Robert Beauregard, director of negotiations for Montreal-based Metro supermarkets, said he’s seeing a definite slowdown in organic sales in Quebec after several years of growth.

“The hard-core organic customer isn’t a problem,” he said, “it’s the soft customer who wants to eat healthier and try organics but finds the cost prohibitive in this economy.”

Christian Chouinard, head of product development for Loblaws and chairman of the Quebec Produce Marketing Association, said the growth of organics has been incredible and will increase in the future, but it remains a small part of the chain’s business.

Chouinard said the company is expanding its local organic offerings this summer with cauliflower from grower Maraichers Bec Sucre in St. Isidore, Quebec, and it has a strong relationship with the Symbiosis brand, which represents seven major Quebec organic growers.

Pat Calabretta, senior director of merchandising and purchasing for Sobey’s Quebec, said he is 100% committed to local producers.

Organic items thrive in Quebec

“When there’s local we buy it,” he said, “whether it’s conventional or organic.”
 
On the producer’s side, the key to success is to offer a full line of organic produce, said Martin Cousineau, sales director of Les Jardins Paul Cousineau & Fils Inc., St. Constant, Quebec.

“Everybody wants organics,” said Cousineau, Canada’s largest broccoli producer, “but if a customer is looking for a variety of organics it’s difficult to sell them two skids of broccoli.”

To supplement his line, Cousineau is doubling organic broccoli production this year to 150 acres and is adding green and red leaf lettuce, iceberg, cauliflower and celery.

“Eighty acres is a trial for us,” he said. “If it goes well, we’ll expand and add a few new organic vegetables every year.”
The time involved to grow organic, however, remains prohibitive.

“It costs a lot of money and it takes five years to convert fields,” said Cousineau, “but we hope to have 300 more acres next year ready for organic if the customer wants it.”

Another challenge has been to maintain a consistent supply of product.

“Sometimes we have a lot and some weeks we don’t have any,” he said. “But we’ve learned fast and we’ve improved 300% in the past three years. Our supplies were pretty consistent last year, but we need to improve more.”

Finding organic products to keep bugs and disease at bay is another barrier for growers dealing with Quebec’s damp climate, Fantin said.

“A lot of products used in the U.S. are not available in Canada and we don’t have anything to use in our rich organic muck soil,” he said.

Though Ottawa has put some products on the fast track for approval, he said those that haven’t been used in Quebec before are extremely expensive and may require five to seven years of government testing.