Grower co-op at the core of business for Norfolk fruit farmers

·5 min read

Deep within an unassuming storage facility in Simcoe, millions of apples are having a slumber party.

A few weeks ago, they were hanging off trees in Norfolk County and other Ontario farms. Now they’re sealed inside oxygen-deprived rooms, packed in giant bins and snoozing in a depressurized atmosphere.

Lowering the temperature and cutting off oxygen to the fruit slows the release of ethylene gas and halts the ripening process. It’s a high-tech system that ensures Ontario apples can appear on grocery store shelves all year round, said Lisa Herrewynen, operations co-ordinator with the Norfolk Fruit Growers Association (NFGA).

“If we’re doing our jobs right, that apple should be as fresh coming out of storage as it is coming off the truck,” Herrewynen said.

Storing a million bushels of apples — about 40 million pounds — is just one service provided by the NFGA, a growers’ co-operative founded in 1906 that packs and distributes 12 per cent of all the apples commercially grown in Ontario, along with smaller quantities of pears, strawberries and blueberries.

“We store it, we pack it, we sell it, we ship it,” Herrewynen said. “The growers look after growing the best apples and we look after all the business decisions.”

At harvest time, the association’s loading docks are rarely quiet. Five NFGA member farms in Norfolk County — along with 25 other Ontario growers — supply a steady stream of fruit to the pack line, where each apple begins a winding journey that will see it scrutinized every which way by observers, both human and mechanical.

Apples are notoriously thin-skinned, so they bob along water-filled conveyor belts to keep from knocking together and getting unsightly welts. Hardier varieties like Empires can move at a steady clip, while pricier fruit like Ambrosia and Honeycrisp glide at a stately pace.

“You need to find a balance between peak efficiency and treating the apples as best you can,” Herrewynen said.

Dozens of workers guide the apples on their way, helped by automatic sorters and robotic arms that gently place bagged and tagged fruit into storage crates.

Inside a command centre overlooking the 50,000-square-foot pack line, an employee analyzes 20 images taken of each apple by a high-tech camera that can measure to the millimetre and detect the slightest defect.

A different scanner shoots light through each apple in search of internal bruising or a watery core — which lessens the sweetness — while workers in masks and hairnets check for bruises, discoloration and rot.

“There’s something to be said for the human eye to look and pick out things the computers miss,” Herrewynen said.

Just before they’re packed, each apple is coated with food-safe wax for added protection against bruising during transit.

“It makes it look nice on the shelves and gives it that little shine,” said Herrewynen.

A typical day sees 750,000 apples run through the line, destined for major grocery chains in Ontario, as well as customers in Western Canada, the United States and Israel.

Only the best apples make it to the store, but no fruit is wasted. Lower-grade apples are turned into applesauce, juice, cider, pie filling and apple chips, while others end up in Norfolk County’s signature apple cider doughnut, which are sold in the association’s retail store.

“It’s still going to become something delicious,” Herrewynen said of each rejected apple. “You’re just not going to find it on the store shelves.”

The smallest apples from the orchards are a popular addition to school nutrition programs locally and in the Greater Toronto Area. To limit waste even more, rotting fruit that can’t be processed is sold to livestock and hobby farmers for use as animal feed.

Each bin of fruit gets a unique bar code when it arrives, meaning every apple can be tracked from the orchard to its final destination. That level of traceability helps with food safety and allows the association to tell farmers what varieties sell well, which could influence future planting decisions.

Member farms also get advice from NFGA “scouts” who evaluate fruit while it’s still on the trees and advise farmers about managing pests and preventing disease.

“That part of the program, with the scouts, allows us to make educated decisions about how we’re going to apply things in the field throughout the season. It’s an added set of eyes in the orchard for us,” said Casey Cleaver, whose family’s 130-acre Simcoe-area farm, Cleaver Orchards, has belonged to the association for over 100 years.

Herrewynen said the association’s dedicated employees know the business from skin to seeds. That includes people like Karen Vidler, a quality control expert who has spent 43 years analyzing apples. Measuring firmness, starch content and ethylene level indicates the fruit’s ripeness and suitability for storage, which helps farmers choose what orchards to pick next.

“It’s their decision in the end. They kind of trust that I know what I’m doing after all these years,” Vidler said with a smile.

At the end of each season, NFGA staff crunch the numbers on how each variety sold and divides that year’s profits between the member farms.

“Honestly, I don’t think we’d succeed without the association. It’s always been an integral part of our business,” Cleaver said.

“While they manage the packing, the marketing and the shipping, we can really focus on producing good fruit.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator