by DAVE PINK and BETTER FARMING STAFF
A new factory in Elmira could be turning out dehydrated apple snacks in time for Christmas with the help of a $1.5-million loan from the federal government.
But with unusual weather this spring damaging the province’s apple and tender fruit crops, it’s unlikely the apples used to make Martin’s Family Fruit Farm’s new venture, Martin’s Apple Crisps, will come from Ontario for its first year of operation.
“We’ll look in other parts of Canada, just to support our customers” says company president, Kevin Martin, of how they plan to source apples.
Brian Gilroy, chair of the Ontario Apple Growers, says about 90 per cent of this year’s crop had dropped from the trees by the end of June. About half of what’s left will be disfigured, which means they can’t be used for fresh markets and can only be sold at a discounted price for processing. “It won’t be economically viable to harvest for a lot of people,” he says. “The ability to recapture your costs, even of just harvesting won’t be there.”
Plum and cherry crops have also been devastated and the province’s peach crop is expected to be about 70 per cent of a normal crop.
According to a recent Detroit News report, tender fruit growers in nearby Michigan are also struggling with losses of up to 90 per cent in sweet cherry, tart cherry, apple, juice grape and peach crops. This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced an emergency loan program to help growers cope.
Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who made the loan announcement Wednesday at the Martin’s farm just north of Waterloo, said there are no immediate plans for extra federal aid to the sector.
“The first line of defence is crop insurance,” he said.
However, Gilroy says he’s confident money will eventually be released from the federal AgriRecovery program, which is intended to provide disaster relief to farmers. The federal government shares the costs of compensation with affected provinces on a 60/40 per cent basis.
Gilroy explains the province triggers the program by making a request to the federal government for relief. He says he received a letter on Wednesday from provincial Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin notifying him “that a file has been officially opened and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the province will be working together to assess the gaps in the program.”
“The weather disaster is a fact,” he says. “So they’re just trying to assess how that program will be able to help us.”
That same day, Gilroy met with provincial officials to discuss AgriRecovery. He plans to meet with Ritz on Friday. Compensation can take a long time to sort out, he says.
“The challenge is that it takes a bit of political will to have this program implemented but we’re confident that it’s so severe and so widespread that it does meet the criteria for AgriRecovery and that there will be some support coming to Ontario’s apple farmers hopefully not in the not-too-distant future,” he says.
photo: Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and Martin's Family Fruit Farm's Kevin Martin sample the farm's newest venture: a dehydrated apple snack.
Meanwhile, the Martin’s Family 1,700-square-foot processing plant is already under construction on Donway Court in Elmira and could be turning out Martin’s Apple Crisps as early as November, says Martin.
The loan — about 50 per cent of the money needed to get the plant up and running — comes from the federal government’s $50-million Agricultural Innovation Program (AIP) announced earlier this year.
“This project is a great example of what we’re trying to achieve,” says Ritz. “It’s a product sure to be popular with today’s health conscious consumer.”
Repayment terms are still being negotiated and will depend on the plant’s profitability, says Ritz.
“This is a very significant amount of money and we are very pleased,” says Martin.
Martin operates a 750-acre apple growing operation and a facility that packs apples for about 40 other Ontario farmers.
The crisps will be made from all varieties but a lower grade of apple. The new plant will slice, dehydrate and package the apple snacks, and will slice and package fresh apple slices for the convenience food market. It will employ 30 people to start with, but Martin says it is too early to know how many apples the plant would process.
“It’s a market that needs to be created,” he says. “We’re going to be expending some serious energy over the next several months in branding and marketing.
“This is the first product of its kind to be processed in significant quantities in this province.” BF
With files from Susan Mann