Independent retailers and wholesalers have some hard-nosed advice for the Association of Quebec Produce Growers, who took Quebec chain stores to task in June for imposing new and higher fees on everything from deliveries to pallet rentals.

“If growers pay, it’s the beginning of the end for them,” said Marcel Paré, a chain store veteran who’s now president of Magog, Quebec-based Groupe Epicia stores.

“But if they stand up and say ‘No, we won’t do it this way,’ the chains won’t have any local items to promote,” Paré said.

He also faults Quebec growers for producing too much of the same crop.

“If the market says they’re going to buy 10,000 boxes this year and you produce 13,000 or 15,000 boxes, at the end of the day the price will be lower,” he said.

Jean-François Chenail, president of Montreal-based wholesaler Chenail Fruits and Vegetables, empathizes with the growers but said they need to become better businessmen.

“The only way to survive these days is to manage your operation costs,” Chenail said.

To do that, a grower can’t afford to deliver four pallets of strawberries to Metro, he said.

“He needs to work with four to five other growers and have one person deliver those four pallets of strawberries with other produce to reduce costs.”

Today’s growers should also consider working with a wholesaler, he said, like everyone did 25 years ago.

“We’ve got all the traceability systems in place,” he said. “They can drop it at our place, and we’ll sell it for them.”

George Pitsikoulis, president of Montreal-based Canadawide, also has some tough-love advice for growers.

With costs going up for everyone in the produce industry, he said growers need to figure out how to recover that money.

“If it costs you an extra dollar to grow, pack and ship your product, you’ve got to find that money somewhere,” he said.

Guy Milette, vice president international and business development for Montreal-based wholesaler Courchesne Larose Ltd., said wholesalers also can offer growers stability and a refuge from the daily grind of “If your price is good I’ll take 500; if not, I won’t buy any.”

It’s hard being a small local grower, Milette agreed, but they have options.

“They can have their own sales team of three or four and spend half a million dollars in salaries and fees to sell their product,” he said, “or they can make a strategic alliance with companies like ours and hire one or two people to take care of the daily business.”

Courchesne has formed alliances with 38 local growers this year, he said, up from 22 last year.

Milette said as Quebec growers get bigger, they’re slowly becoming like growers in Chile, Mexico and California.

“Our deal with them runs from the first day of summer to the last day,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll price them a little more aggressively, but for the grower it’s important to know that he can move his crop.”