Investment in Niagara tender fruit means lower prices, better quality, farmer says

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A $280,000 investment infusion for Niagara tender fruit growers will result in more trees, vines and a wider variety of high-quality produce, NOTL farmer Phil Tregunno says.

Niagara top-quality fruit already gives farmers an edge over foreign suppliers, but the new program will enhance that advantage, said Tregunno, who is chair of the Ontario Tender Fruit Growers.

“Quality is key. That’s what the local industry thrives on because we can tree-ripen a product here and get it right into the store and the distribution centres the next day,” he said.

The $280,000 is from the Greenbelt Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to ensuring the Greenbelt remains permanent, protected and prosperous.

The money will be distributed slowly and equitably to farmers across the region who apply for it, Tregunno said.

It is expected to result in 75,000 new trees and 10,000 new vines being planted, the foundation said, increasing the industry’s production by seven per cent.

The foundation estimated that will translate into about $10 million in value and 150 new jobs being added to the sector.

Imported fruit is the main competitor to Niagara’s farmers in the Ontario market.

“But, we all know what travel does to perishable fruit,” Tregunno laughed.

“Someone picking green fruit and shipping it 1,500 miles away … It’s a flavour and quality thing.”

This investment will help farmers to plant a larger variety of fruit, specifically kinds that ripen later in the year and give Niagara’s farmers a longer growing season, allowing them to compete longer with foreign growers.

As soon as the growing season is done in Niagara, fruit sales are quickly replaced by international competitors. Growing later into the year thanks to planting new varieties will allow Niagara farmers a bigger slice of the market, Tregunno said.

More Niagara fruit later in the year is also beneficial for the consumer, and not just because it will taste better.

“It’s a world market thing. If we don’t have it and it’s grown locally then it’s coming in from some other country and usually at a higher cost,” Tregunno said.

“If you get more local food it always holds down the prices.”

Tregunno works with the University of Guelph to ensure Niagara’s tender fruit growers are always growing the best crop available.

“As new varieties come out you’ll get growers that say, ‘That’s a better variety,’ or, ‘I can make better use of our equipment or labour force by growing those,’ ” he said.

“And if you’ve got a better product that’s a sweeter, highly colourful variety, that gets picked up in the grocery store better than something that’s an older variety that’s not as bright in colour or maybe is a little softer.”

Tregunno emphasized that the $280,000 isn’t a gift to tender fruit farmers that will make their lives immediately better.

“It’s a 30 per cent investment into the trees, farmers have to put in the other 70 per cent, plus they have to do all the work,” he said.

“It’s an incentive. It helps.”

There is oversight to ensure the money is used appropriately, Tregunno said.

Once a farmer applies for funding from the foundation the money is set aside while paperwork is done and the types of trees the farmer wishes to plant are reviewed.

“We usually use the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs to audit it and they actually go out into the field and make sure that field was planted and contains certain varieties,” Tregunno said.

Tregunno is the president of Tregunno Fruit Farms on the Niagara Parkway in NOTL

His family has been farming for four generations. His grandfather had a vegetable farm in Burlington but the family was slowly pushed by urban expansion down to NOTL.

Tregunno said it was a hard summer for farmers due to the prolonged heat.

“You’re almost getting like a double ripening because it’s hot during the day and the night, which makes you very busy,” he said.

At least this year the farm had an easier time in welcoming back its seasonal workers than in 2020.

“Last year we were short workers that didn’t arrive (due to the pandemic) and this year everyone arrived, which was good. It was a very labour-intensive year with the heat.”

Tregunno expressed thanks for the seasonal workers who came and ensured his farm had a successful season.

“A great bunch of men and women. We wouldn’t be here doing this without them.”

Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report

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