Greenhouse Canada

Features Business Grower Profiles
‘Red fruit, green farm’


May 4, 2010
By André Dumont

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"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.

"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.

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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.”

3248-cocktail-tomatoes-269
 
Les Productions horticoles Demers is well known for its cocktail tomatoes.
 
3248-bella-tomatoes-269
 
Les Productions horticoles Demers is well known for its Bella tomato, a roma-type, 30-gram cocktail variety.
 
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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)


 

COMPANY’S PEAK SEASON EMPLOYMENT TOPS 175
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.


NEW THIS YEAR? HIGH TUNNEL RASPBERRY 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.”


ADVERTISING HAS FOCUS ON SPECIALTY PRODUCTS

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.”


SOME PRODUCTION MAY GO ORGANIC

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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