by GEOFF DALE
A 65,000 square-foot food processing facility set to begin operation in Norfolk County in May will establish the year-round availability of Ontario fruit and vegetables, says one enthusiastic producer.
Brenda Lammens who, with her husband Raymond, owns a 50-acre asparagus operation (with cash crops) near Langton, describes the unique venture as ideal for marketing locally grown products and helping growers to increase their production flexibility over a full 12-month period.
Lammens, who is also chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, says the facility’s individual quick freeze (IQF) process will give growers the chance to freeze the product at the peak of harvest and provide consumers with a user friendly and nutritious product.
“This isn’t like regular freezing where the product often comes out of the package in large clumps,” she explains. “The vegetable or fruit is frozen individually, so the end result is easier handling.”
Lammens says the buy local marketing initiative “was always a challenge for growers because many of us only have a six to eight week window with perishable products and little chance for value-added efforts. The IQF process “will let us work at having a 12-month supply, with better tasting, fresher and more nutritious products than those coming in from offshore.”
The Delhi-based Naturally Norfolk Inc. that is spearheading the $5 million project (on Tuesday, the province announced it would be contribute an additional $1 million from the Rural Development Program), is owned by Jim Irvin. Irvin, also the company’s president and chief executive officer, says the facility is being tooled up to accommodate all 28 commodities represented by the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
Equipped with a fruit and vegetable processing line with slicing and dicing capabilities and an energy-efficient freeze drying-line, the facility is expected to create 48 jobs immediately with up to 85 more within the next five years. It will process more than eight million pounds of raw fruit and vegetables in frozen form in its first year. Irvin says the facility will be able to process multiple products daily.
“We are out there developing new markets and set to service existing markets.
He adds that the goal is “zero negative impact” on existing businesses and to be “respectful” of others. “We have no intention of stealing from or infringing upon existing markets already out there.”
Working alongside Irwin is Dr. John Kelly, vice-president of the Ontario Fruit and Vegatable Growers’ innovative arm – Erie Innovation and Commercialization.
Kelly says Erie Innovation formed through an alliance of several partners including OFVGA, Ontario food processors, and tobacco growers, OMAFRA and Norfolk and Oxford Counties. Diversifying products grown on the sand plain areas of the South Central Ontario Region, extending grower opportunities year round and enhancing the buy local proposition is its mandate.
He says Erie Innovation unveiled a pilot project using the Naturally Norfolk’s IQF freezing process at this year’s Royal Winter Agricultural Fair. The pilot involved incorporating frozen asparagus in several dishes and presenting these to some well-known chefs. They “responded very well to the appearance, taste and nutritious value of the vegetable,” he says.
Norfolk County’s tourism and economic development manager, Clark Hoskin, says the project “offers lots of opportunities for other parts of Ontario to get involved in.” BF