Not long ago Bryce Lobreau would have scoffed had someone told him he’d be growing a field of vegetables one day.
The Pipestone-area farmer was focused on building up his cattle herd, to become what is now Manitoba’s largest organic livestock feeder, and expanding his land base, now at 5,000 acres of mostly hay land and improved pasture, plus 1,000 cropped acres. He was also going organic.
He began the switch to certified production in 2009 to add value to the farm and open up new production potential.
He just never would have thought that would include growing squash for a vegetable processor. This is southwestern Manitoba, where the soil is light and sandy, summer is dry and winter is long and harsh.
“Nobody grows vegetables around here,” says Lobreau. But later this fall he expects to harvest 100,000 lbs. of butternut squash grown on 15 acres he’s planted under contract for Canadian Prairie Garden Puree Inc.
The Portage la Prairie-based company buys fields of vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, pumpkin and squash, as well as soft fruits and pulses, to process into shelf-ready purées sold to the food ingredient industry.
The company’s founder and chief operating officer Kelly Beaulieu has contracted six million pounds of organically grown vegetables from Manitoba growers this year. They’ll be looking for more as the organic side of their business grows, said Beaulieu. Buyers of CPGP purées began inquiring a couple of years back about its potential to produce organic lines of product. The demand is intense and it’s about to get a lot more so, Beaulieu said in an interview earlier this summer at her offices at the Food Development Centre where the processing plant is located.
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“Eighty per cent of our business will be organic this year. We’ve got some conventional but most of our contracts are going to be organic,” said Beaulieu.
“We’ll be looking for a lot more production from the (organic) growers and more growers coming online,” she added.
Her goal is to double that production to 12 million pounds again next year, and continue expanding beyond that.
“My capacity here is 50 million lbs.,” she said, “and the market is there. The market is always growing. One of the things we’re doing is filling a gap in the marketplace.”
To meet her initial six-million-pound goal this year, Beaulieu has contracted with about 35 varied growers with certified acres this year, including organic market garden operators and larger-scale vegetable producers already producing organic horticultural crops. Both were able to capture this opportunity because they already possess the storage, labour and know-how to grow these crops.
But she’s also working with this new bunch of first-time growers too, mostly grain producers who, like Lobreau, never grew vegetables before. Beaulieu and her staff sat down with those interested in this over the past winter to discuss their mutual needs.
“They came to us with their capabilities and we would match that up. We had good discussions about what their capabilities were,” she said.
“We have no qualms about working with a small guy as long as he can make the delivery.”
Lobreau planted his 15 acres with a corn planter, direct seeding them May 28. He put in nearly double the acres required according to the variety specifications, not knowing how well the variety will yield in a Manitoba climate.
At mid-September Lobreau said the field looked pretty good and the squash was maturing but this is a variety suited to growing conditions of the southern U.S. and frost could take its toll.
“The biggest issue is we’re not sure how big our yield is going to be because of time to maturity,” he said.
But there’ll be other learning curves too. He needs extra pairs of hands to harvest and has contracted some labour out of Brandon to help with it. He will deliver the squash to CPGP after being washed with specialized washing equipment he’s purchased.
In other words, it is not a crop as easy or as simple to produce as it might sound.
“I’m calling this a pilot project this year,” he said.
Potential new revenue
That’s what Ian and Linda Grossart are saying about their new pumpkin patch too. They own HowPark Farms near Brandon where they raise grass-fed cattle and have been growing cereals organically for a decade.
The Grossarts put in an acre of pumpkins for CPGP and have their fingers crossed as to how mature the plants of the variety (Dickenson’s Organic) they hand-planted June 12 actually get.
“That’s maybe a little bit of a challenge for us, but they (CPGP) have demand for this kind of pumpkin so we said we’d try it,” said Ian Grossart. “I think it’s a great opportunity if things work out.”
It has the potential to become another revenue stream for their farm, he said adding there’s also considerably less involved growing vegetables for a processor because final appearance isn’t critical as it would be if they were growing for direct-to-consumer markets.
Laura Telford, Manitoba Agriculture’s organic specialist said she’s urged growers trying this for the first time to view the year as “an experiment.” It’s a year to figure out if the cash value of these crops will make it worthwhile to invest in the production capacity to grow these crops, she said, noting vegetable production takes not only specialized know-how, but extra labour, storage and other farm infrastructure. If this looks positive for more new growers, it will be an important development for Manitoba’s organic sector, she said.
“Vegetable production adds a lot of value to the land over grain production. So we could see some more profitable farms. It also adds an element of risk reduction because we’re talking about a diversification strategy. And I think much of the land in Manitoba is very good at growing vegetables.”
Beaulieu said she’s excited to be working with all her organic vegetable suppliers.
“We’re working on a partnership arrangement with the growers. Both of us are in this. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement. We’re going to give them the opportunity to sell all their crop, and they’re giving us the opportunity to market that product.”