‘Red fruit, green farm’

May 04, 2010
Written by André Dumont
"Red fruit, green farming.” If such is the proper translation of the motto (Fruits rouges, culture verte) of Demers’ farms, then perhaps its success can be explained by a sharp production focus, along with smart branding and marketing strategies.

President and general manager Jacques Demers

The family business Jacques and Réjean Demers run in Saint-Nicolas, across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City, has a unique way of bringing fresh berries and tomatoes to the market. It produces strawberries in the field, raspberries under high tunnels and tomatoes in state-of-the-art greenhouses.

All products are sold under the Demers brand. “We want consumers to understand that they are dealing with farmers,” says co-owner Jacques Demers.
The berry farming business Yolande and André Demers started in 1960 has now been in the hands of their sons Jacques and Réjean for 20 years. “It’s been 50 years of family history,” Jacques says. “This is who we are and this is what we want to communicate.”

Les Productions horticoles Demers is well known for its cocktail tomatoes.
Les Productions horticoles Demers is well known for its Bella tomato, a roma-type, 30-gram cocktail variety.
Agronomist and head of production Sébastien Couture estimates energy costs to have dropped by 32 per cent since energy curtains were installed. (Photos by André Dumont)

Demers is renowned for its Bella tomato, a Roma-type, 30-gram cocktail variety. Its vine, beef and cherry tomatoes can also be found in supermarkets across Quebec. The company has a total of 3.5 hectares of greenhouse (two sites in Saint-Nicolas, one in L’Assomption near Montreal), 2.8 hectares of raspberries under high tunnels, and 24 hectares of field strawberries. At the peak of the season, it employs 175 workers.

The size of the business is not typical of greenhouse farming in Quebec, Jacques says. But on a North American scale, Demers is not all that big, says its president and general manager.

Yolande and André Demers were among the first in Quebec to grow strawberries on a large acreage, experimenting with varieties that allowed extending the summer crop season. They namely pioneered varieties that yield tasty fruits all the way into October.

Capitalizing on their strawberry quality reputation in the Quebec City area, the Demers started greenhouse farming in the 1970s. First came cucumbers, then annual flowers and tomatoes, which are now the main greenhouse crop.

Today, the family business continues to innovate. After three years of experimenting, 2010 will mark the launch of a commercial production of raspberries under high tunnels. Jacques figures that within the next 10 years, this is the way pretty much all locally grown raspberries entering supermarkets will be grown.

“We believe we can come up with the same production costs as field raspberries,” Jacques explains. The cost of growing under tunnels is offset by avoiding the losses due to rain and wind (approximately 25 per cent) and a production season extended by several weeks.

Can this be considered greenhouse farming? It’s a very good question, Jacques admits. He believes growing under high tunnel is a hybrid between the field and the greenhouse.

“One thing is for sure: we have an expertise in greenhouse culture that adapts very well to raspberries under tunnels.” Growing above ground, in a prepared growth medium and using hydroponics is nothing new to the company’s staff.

Climate is controlled in a much simpler way (by rolling up the plastic roofing), but “it does the job. All we are looking for is protection from wind and rain.”

Experiments have also been made with strawberries under high tunnels, but the impact on quality and productivity is not as significant as with raspberries. Strawberries already have a better resistance to bad weather and shelf life is not as critical an issue as with raspberries.

According to Jacques, marketing high quality raspberries from tunnels will be a challenge. These local berries will compete with imported ones, at the same time as local field raspberries reach the market.

While his brother Réjean takes care of berry production, Jacques, who holds an agronomist diploma (agro-economics) from McGill University, keeps a sharp eye on marketing trends. “We must never forget our consumer, where he’s going and what he has in mind.”

The business runs occasional ad campaigns, mostly using roadside billboards and bus stop shelters. The goal is to reinforce the brand and to push specialty products, like its “Trio Soleil,” a package with red, orange and yellow cocktail tomatoes.

“Cooking is an art – Express yourself!” says an ad. “We speak intelligently to our consumers,” Jacques says, comparing his ads to those for soft drinks or fast food.

He knows his company must offer different products if it is to gain buyers’ favour. But at the same time, specialty tomatoes are a tricky business, he says.

First of all, any niche product is always more labour-intensive. Second, consumers may find them exciting, but they just don’t know what to do with them. That’s why the “Trio Soleil” comes with simple illustrated serving suggestions.

“Fifteen years ago, we produced orange tomatoes,” Jacques recalls. “They were a beauty in the greenhouse, but on the shelf, they were not selling at all. Ten years later, we came back with colours along with serving suggestions, and consumers were ready.”

At Demers’ newest site (2003), innovation is clearly geared toward going organic. Only the future will tell when the production will be “certifiable,” but close collaboration with Université Laval researchers is giving the company an edge.

“Greenhouse organic production models already exist, but we are working on one that will perform in a way that we will be very competitive on the market,” says Jacques.

In the meantime, the company pursues the “green” goals that go along with the image it tries to project. It already uses forestry residue to heat its largest greenhouse. All is in place to soon be able to filter nutrient solutions in order to re-use the water and the nutrients.

Last year, energy curtains were installed. Agronomist and head of production Sébastien Couture estimates energy costs to have dropped by 32 per cent. “Usually it costs more to heat during the night than during the day, but now, sometimes it’s the opposite.”

Expansion is in the back of Jacques and Réjean’s minds, but not at any price. “There are always people behind company growth,” Jacques says. “It’s important for the owners to be ready and to be able to rely on good staff.”

The company is eyeing an opportunity in Drummondville, where a new greenhouse would be built in partnership with a business that has an excess of energy from biogas. Growth must take place where there will be production cost advantages, says Jacques.

“There are a lot of people in the market (of greenhouse tomatoes),” says Jacques, referring to U.S. and Mexican growers. “But there are opportunities, because consumers want local products and we think we’ll be able to match or beat the prices (of imports).”

André Dumont is a freelance writer and photographer in Montreal.

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