Helping tender fruit growers navigate challenges

There is no shortage of challenges facing Ontario’s tender fruit growers. The farmers who produce peaches, nectarines, plums, cherries, apricots and table grapes are dealing with extreme weather fluctuations, pressure from imported products, lack of land availability and a need to meet growing regulatory requirements.

Navigating those challenges has been made easier through Ontario Tender Fruit Growers’ success in accessing support from funding programs administered by the Agricultural Adaptation Council (AAC) to help its approximately 260 members get the best products possible to the consumer.

“As an organization, we try to make growers’ lives easier with everything we do and AAC’s support has been huge for us,” says General Manager Sarah Marshall. “There is no way we would’ve been able to undertake all of the initiatives we have on behalf of growers on our own.”

After an early spring frost devastated tender fruit crops in 2012, the industry launched a bud hardiness project for close monitoring of winter and spring hardiness of tender fruit varieties to establish temperature ranges where significant bud damage is expected. And low temperature alerts let growers manage wind machine use to mitigate low temperature damage.

To help remain competitive in the face of lower priced imports, the industry undertook a business action plan in 2014 to outline the priorities for its future and guide research and innovation activities.

This has resulted in a project to develop cold chain best management guidelines, collaboration with industry partners to commercialize new varieties faster, and continued investment in Fruit Tracker, the industry’s software platform that includes automated data collection and reporting for food safety, pest management, packing and shipping, traceability, worker training and cost of production.

According to Marshall, the current process to bring a new variety to market takes more than 15 years, so rapid commercialization of new varieties will let growers meet changing consumer demands much more quickly.

“Focusing on quality and optimum shelf life will increase demand, allow growers to expand their current plantings, and help to develop export markets,” she adds.

A separate project evaluated the economics of high density pear plantings to help growers achieve the biggest yields of large sized fruit on less land.

And to help growers meet regulatory requirements for worker safety training, a project with Ontario Apple Growers, Ontario Fresh Grape Growers and Workplace Safety and Prevention Services saw the development of an industry-specific on-farm hazard prevention program.

“AAC’s support is vital for us. For example, Fruit Tracker is such an important program to save growers time and help them with traceability and we wouldn’t have been able to afford to do that on our own,” Marshall says. “The makeup of AAC’s board and their understanding of the sector are so important; it’s a structure unique to Ontario and it just works.”