$1M automation system speeds up Elgin County tomato farm

A new tomato processing system at an Elgin County farm is helping one Southwestern Ontario grower solve the industry's longtime problem of finding enough field workers.

DeBackere Farms Inc., which produces field and Roma tomatoes on 12 acres (five hectares) southeast of St. Thomas, has invested $1 million in automation to ramp up sorting and processing.

“We’re very limited on finding sufficient help on the fields,” said farm owner Dan DeBackere. “But this (processing system) would help create more labour.”

The machinery, made in the Netherlands, will reduce labour costs and speed up processing times. The farm introduced the processing line and a new barn to house it on Saturday.

With four lanes and 16 automated sections sorting the tomatoes, the box gets packed by itself, DeBackere said. The only human labour required is “to put the box on, empty (it), and take it off.”

With the old machine, employees had to walk through the processing line to identify and pack tomatoes into a box – a process that was slow and required more workers, DeBackere said.

“With Roma tomatoes, it would take 10 people to do what three people can (with the new line)," he said.

“We have lots of work, so we're not going to be cutting people's jobs. But this will allow us to do more with less and use people where they're needed more.”

The system has a built-in camera that takes multiple photos of the produce, identifying and sorting it according to colour and weight.

The tomatoes are picked, processed and distributed to customers across the province, including to major food terminals in Toronto and Ottawa. The farm’s main customers, DeBackere said, are the big chain stores: Metro and Loblaws.

Like many producers in Southwestern Ontario, DeBackere said his farm continues to get hammered by a critical labour shortage during the pandemic.

“As we’re growing in size, we’re getting more labour shortages ... We need between 50 and 70 more staff at the facility. You cannot find Canadians to do this work,” he said, citing the seasonal nature of the work, backbreaking labour, minimum wage and long hours as some of the reasons why.

The farm employs 48 foreign workers — all from Jamaica — and four summer students. Ontario farms rely on 20,000 temporary foreign workers each year.

Between 3,000 to 5,000 cases of Roma tomatoes and 1,000 to 2,000 cases of field tomatoes are processed and shipped out of the facility each day. The farm also grows other crops, including peppers, sweet corn, potatoes, melons, beans, pumpkins and zucchini.

Though a long-term investment, DeBackere said he hopes to see the new processing line pay off soon.

“We're looking for all the hands we can to handpick all our produce, so this is just going to help us in the future.”

cleon@postmedia.com

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The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press

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