A mild winter and an unprecedented early spring has Quebec growers celebrating as they planted their first crops two weeks earlier than usual, under sunny skies.

“The quality is so good you can’t believe it,” said Mario Cloutier, marketing director of Les Productions Margiric, Laval, Quebec, who had finished harvesting lettuce by the end of May and expected to deliver his first cauliflower and broccoli to chain stores at least five days early.

The season so far is a 180-degree turn from last summer, which began with a killer frost in mid-May and ended with so much rain that Margaric, among others, was forced to leave a quarter of a million boxes of broccoli in the fields, while peppers never had a chance to ripen.

“Sometimes Mother Nature is our worst enemy,” said Anthony Fantin, executive vice president of baby lettuce producer Veg Pro International, Sherrington, Quebec. “Today, she’s our greatest ally.”

Another factor beyond growers’ control is the exchange rate, which hovered around 95 cents Canadian in mid-June after hitting par April 6.

Even with last summer’s more favorable exchange rate, Quebec shippers only managed to export 29% of their produce, said Andre Plante, executive director of the Quebec Produce Growers Association. That’s well below the magic number of 35%, last seen a decade ago, which tends to keep prices more acceptably competitive.

“It’s going to be tough to keep prices fair, since we’re not expecting to export any more than last year,” Plante said. “But you never know — if something happens in Florida or California, everything could change overnight.”

Locally grown trend

Quebec growers may take some comfort in the fact that the buy-local movement continues to gain momentum at the retail level.

“You’ll see us come out very strong on local this year, with a focus on taste, freshness and innovation,” said Josée Bedard, corporate affairs director for Provigo, a Saint-Laurent, Quebec, supermarket banner owned by Loblaw Cos. Ltd., Brampton, Ontario.

The trendy “L” word even stretches across borders, shippers agree.

“Customers in Boston consider us local because we’re just five hours away — the same distance from Montreal to Toronto — and we offer overnight delivery,” said Martin Cousineau, sales director of Les Jardins Paul Cousineau & Fils Inc., Saint-Constant, Quebec.

Ghislain Guinois, president of Western Harvest Garden, Ste-Clotilde, Quebec, the export arm of RGR Guinois Inc., said the sky-high cost of shipping from California to Boston may also give Quebec growers a chance to supply more produce to the Eastern U.S. this summer.

On the home front, Cousineau said his challenge this year is to achieve better yields and control costs. He would also like to see a dollar a box increase from customers to help cover the rising cost of growing.

New varieties

To remain competitive, many growers are experimenting with new varieties.

Marc-Andre Chenail, president of Fermes du Soleil, Ste-Clotilde, 20 minutes north of the U.S. border, is planting green and red swiss chard, kale, collards and kohlrabi for the first time.

“We’re planning to put some tips and recipes on the bunches and on our website so consumers will know what to do with these healthy vegetables,” Chenail said.

Stephan Dolbec, president of Patates Dolbec, St. Ubalde, Quebec, and current president of the Quebec Produce Marketing Association, said he’s pleased with the performance and taste of exclusive varieties such as Mozart, a red-skinned, yellow-fleshed potato.

Plante said Quebec growers are also experimenting more with Asian vegetables and miniature varieties.

Organics lose momentum

Among large traditional growers, organics remains a sore point.

Last year’s foray into organic broccoli was a money-losing venture, Cousineau said.

“We couldn’t get a good selling price, and we lost part of the crop to disease,” he said.

Instead of giving up, however, he plans to keep the organic land fallow for now and reevaluate the market in the fall.

Cloutier said he empathizes with his competitor, recalling how Margiric tried and failed to produce a profitable organic broccoli crop two years ago.

“There’s not a great demand for organic from Montreal consumers,” he said, “and chain stores want to pay the same money for organic and regular broccoli, yet it’s not the same cost of production. Our project remains on ice as well.”

Bedard said Provigo remains “very committed to organics as a business,” but she admits the chain isn’t seeing the same growth it has experienced in the last few years.