Les Serres Sagami is going organic

April 21, 2011
Written by André Dumont
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Head of development André Michaud, assistant head grower Sophie Maugeais and head grower Nourdine Ouarti. (Photo by André Dumont)

Stéphane Roy and Serres Sagami are on a mission: changing the way you and I perceive organics.

The greenhouse tomato company Roy rescued from bankruptcy in 2000 reopened last April an all-new 1.7-hectare organic tomato production in Sainte-Sophie, 40 minutes north of Montreal. It is by far the largest organic greenhouse tomato facility in Quebec.

“The future of organics is mass production,” says head of development and marketing André Michaud. “Organics are not a return to the past. We are turned towards the future. We believe organic farming is all about modernization, industrialization and computerization, done in a sustainable way.”

Michaud was hired to help Roy with a $6-million investment that will turn Serres Sagami into a leading supplier of organic tomatoes. Now that phase 1, the construction of a new greenhouse complex in Sainte-Sophie, is completed, Michaud is tackling another Herculean task: selling 850 tonnes of organic tomatoes annually.

The challenge is great, but Michaud is in familiar waters. Up until Roy recruited him, he held key positions in the food retail industry. “Stéphane is very aware that in order to succeed selling his organic tomatoes, we need to have excellent relationships with food retailers.”

Innovative Branding, Pricing And Marketing
Sagami is currently unfolding a strategy that involves innovative branding, pricing and marketing. There are no huge budgets to launch and promote Sagami’s organic tomatoes; therefore, the focus is on building close relationships with supermarket chain buyers.

“We will be telling people: buy our product, because it’s a product of exceptional quality, it’s tasty and it’s locally grown. And by the way, it’s organic,” Michaud says.

The fact that the tomatoes are organic will not be the number 1 selling argument, Michaud insists. Serres Sagami is simply bringing to the market a high-quality local product. Five never-yet-marketed tomato varieties have been selected to be grown in the new complex and the company is confident they will appeal to consumers, both visually and because of their taste.

Michaud and Roy believe pricing will be the key: Sagami’s organic tomatoes will sell at a price closer to that of regular produce than what we are used to pay for organics.

The tomatoes will sell under a new brand, with an identity of its own, in order to clearly distinguish them from regular Sagami tomatoes and other organic produce already available. The goal is to have a brand that will present organics as modern and accessible produce.

Certification By Québec Vrai
The tomatoes will be certified by Québec Vrai and none will be sold in bulk. All will be carefully inserted in made-in-Quebec recycled fibre packaging. Michaud is still working on a concept for supermarket chains to display the tomatoes in a way that will also contribute to change consumers’ perception of organics.

“We want to demarginalize organics,” Michaud says. Organic tomatoes do not belong in a refrigerator, in conditions that alter the product’s quality, he adds. “We want to convince chains to display the product in a way that respects the product and that gives it good visibility.”

Convincing chains to change their ways can be challenging, Michaud reckons. But Sagami knows the tomato business and Michaud had good contacts on the buyers’ side.

Sagami’s original 1.4-hectare plant is located in Chicoutimi, two hours north of Quebec City. The facility uses artificial lighting and utilizes hot water from the nearby Elkem Metal plant.

According to Sagami’s plan, the Chicoutimi greenhouses will be converted to organic production within a year or two.

The third phase of the plan will be to convert the pre-existing 1.7-hectare complex in Sainte-Sophie to organics. The two 1.7-hectare complexes in that location are now heated with forestry biomass and recycled pallets.

A brand-new heating plant with two gigantic boilers started operating at the end of February. It is believed to be the largest agricultural biomass heating plant in Quebec. Its construction is part of Sagami’s sustainable development commitment.

Burning biomass instead of used oil will reduce CO2 emissions by the equivalent of 7621 tonnes annually. The project qualified for a grant from the Agence de l’efficacité énergétique du Québec (provincial energy efficiency agency).

Organics Can Offer A Competitive Edge
Sagami is already a major player in Quebec tomato production, alongside growers such as Savoura and Demers. “Stéphane’s goal is to use organics to position himself where his competitors are not active,” Michaud says.

Roy has been working for years developing an organic production system of his own. The seedlings are grown by Les Serres Lefort in a format designed specifically for Sagami. They are deposited in containers filled with rich organic soil. “Here, we feed the soil and the soil feeds the plant,” Michaud said during an exclusive tour with Greenhouse Canada magazine, days after the first seedlings had arrived.

 The greenhouse is equipped with state-of-the art climate control and irrigation systems. About 30 people are now working inside the new complex, backed by Sagami’s team of three in-house and one external agronomist.

The crop system being entirely new, production costs are expected to be higher, Michaud admits. “We need to develop ways of working with this system that will bring production costs down. Using biomass really helps a lot.” Being close to Montreal adds to the company’s competitive edge.

The $6-million investment is based entirely on Roy’s business intuition that the market is ripe for more accessible organics.

“We have been selling tomatoes for 15 years,” Michaud says. “Now we are organic and we’ll continue selling tomatoes.”

André Dumont is a freelance writer and photographer in Quebec.

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