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New venture to promote local produce

A new produce venture is hoping to cater to wholesale buyers looking for something other than an auction format.

Nelson Wideman, one of the organizers behind St. Jacobs Produce, said the new business should complement the Elmira Produce Auction rather than compete with it. Where the produce auction runs two or three days a week, the wholesale operation would cater to buyers who need produce on a daily basis or don’t have time to attend the auction.

Stuart Martin’s potato packing warehouse on Hawkesville Road west of St. Jacobs is set to become the location of a new wholesale produce business.
Stuart Martin’s potato packing warehouse on Hawkesville Road west of St. Jacobs is set to become the location of a new wholesale produce business.

“There’s two different groups of buyers and sellers,” Wideman said. “Some really like the auction concept and some do not. I see no reason why there’s not room for both businesses working side by side.”

The organizers hope to have the new produce venture up and running in time for this summer’s harvest. About 30 local farmers have expressed interest in the venture, although none have committed yet.

“I’d say that’s a start and we can grow from there.”

The business will cater to anyone that buys wholesale produce, Wideman said, from restaurants and stores to distributors and market vendors. The operation format will be flexible, with buyers able to call ahead and have orders prepared or simply walk through the doors and buy what they need.

Prices at the wholesale outlet will largely reflect wholesale prices in Toronto, with some room for adjustment according to local supply and demand.

They already have a location picked out: a 12,917-square-foot, climate-controlled potato packing warehouse on Hawkesville Road, just west of St. Jacobs. The owner, Stuart Martin, is phasing out potatoes in favour of crop production for cattle.

The idea is to have some produce available year-round – things like potatoes, cabbage, squash and onions – that can be stored through the winter.

“We won’t be selling any imported strawberries in December,” Wideman said.

The business will also sell hanging baskets and bedding plants in springtime.

The new operation has been in the works for three or four months, with Wideman and four others taking on the task of getting it off the ground. The group moved a step closer Jan. 19, when Woolwich council approved a recommendation from planning staff to amend the zoning bylaw for the property. The temporary-use bylaw allows the site to be used for a wholesale produce operation for three years.

Wideman was one of the planners behind the Elmira Produce Auction Cooperative, which launched in 2004. Over the six years it has been in operation, he realized there was demand for another type of produce business.

“I was just seeing too many markets that weren’t being serviced with just the one business. I was hoping if EPAC can keep on serving their group of buyers, the new business would capture some of the markets that were missing.”

The “buy local” movement has boosted demand for local produce, Wideman said, but price is often the determining consideration.

“Sometimes people really want to support local produce, but when it comes down to price and they realize they can get it elsewhere, the temptation is still there to buy for price rather than local.”

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