MONTREAL — Montrealers love the challenge of attaining their five to 10 servings of produce a day, with the more local product, the better.

“Our sales are higher in the last year,” said George Pitsikoulis, president of Canadawide and the Quebec Produce Marketing Association, “and it all has to do with more consumption of fresh produce.”

Pitsikoulis said Montreal’s economy has been on the upswing for awhile. “We are fortunate as Canadians that we didn’t go through the same turmoil our neighbors did,” he said.

Mike Bono, vice president of Can-Am Fruits and Vegetables Inc., which supplies Montreal’s high-end restaurants, said his sales are still down 10% to 15%, compared to the sharp 20% to 25% drop last year after the media announced an economic crisis.

“People are eating out, but it’s not the same,” Bono said. “And we’re hoping for a better Christmas. Last year, during the H1N1 scare, people cancelled Christmas parties because they didn’t want to shake hands with anyone.”

Robert Beauregard, who moved from the Metro chain to Agri-Mondo importers this year, praised the media and the chain stores for doing a great job promoting produce.

“Consumers really want to take care of their health,” he said, “and there’s lots of talk in the media about benefits such as cancer prevention. It gives the produce industry a good image.”

At times, however, this summer’s “buy local” campaigns in Sobeys, Loblaw and Metro felt more like “The Show Must Go On” campaign as produce unaccustomed to the summer’s intense heat began to wilt as soon as it hit the shelves.

“Local product was a hard deal, especially for cauliflower, celery and lettuce,” said Pat Calabretta, senior director of merchandising and purchasing for Sobeys Quebec.

“But we had to stick by our growers,” he said. “We won’t take lettuce from California during the local season unless we have to. And the season was good for potatoes and onions.”

Valerie Grenier, sales and marketing director for Savoura, Portneuf, Quebec, said losses were high as the sun beat down on the tomatoes and cucumbers in the company’s greenhouses, which aren’t equipped with air conditioning.

The local deal was also a challenge for wholesalers, said Tony Bono, a partner at Chenail Fruits & Vegetables Inc., which sells to fruit stores, independents and small chain stores.

“Some weeks we had too much, and some weeks we didn’t have enough product,” Bono said. “For example, strawberries usually come in big volume in August, but there was no wave of product this year, and the demand wasn’t there.”

The South American deal went well for most items, Bono said, including minneolas from Peru. Watermelon was fantastic, he said, starting in Florida and finishing in Delaware, then back to Mexico.

The high Canadian dollar and low prices on California crops all summer made it harder than usual for Quebec growers to export product to the U.S., said Andre Plante, executive director of the Quebec Produce Growers Association.

But since summer heat waves destroyed up to 25% of the province’s early crop, he said, in the end the lower yields helped keep prices fair all season long.