So many of us drive by the Ontario Food Terminal just off the QEW in Toronto everyday, not realizing how busy or important this building is to our food supply. Located off of Park Lawn Road, over 2 Billion pounds of fresh produce is distributed annually – this works out to an average of 5.5 million pounds daily! It is the stock market for fruits and vegetables (and also floral) in Ontario and is the largest market of it’s type in the country, the 3rd largest after NYC and LA in North America. Prices are determined by supply and demand and change daily, or even hourly. The existence of the OFT has a direct impact on the price we as consumers pay for our fresh vegetables and fruits.
Vendors open in the wee hours each morning to greet their buyers who represent independent grocers, food service establishments, other farmers markets and even the big grocery store chains. Farmers come in from as far north as Cold Water, from Leamington to the west, from Kingston to the east and Fort Erie to the south; and buyers come from all over Ontario, New Brunswick, PEI, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Manitoba as well as the north-eastern USA! But being in the city is considered essential to smaller businesses who need access to fresh food to compete in this competitive environment.
The majority of the fruits and vegetables sold are locally grown, though imported produce is also important. I think it’s a given that we support local food, but we have to be realistic that there are many things that just don’t grow here due to our climate. Canada is after all a net importer of food, and this is where much of it will come in for distribution. Think bananas, citrus and avocados for a start.
Working in the industry, it is always fascinating to meet the characters who put so much into growing, and supplying our food.
Take Charlie Welsh from Welsh Bros. He is an Ontario asparagus grower based in Norfolk County and a 3rd generation operator at the Terminal, with his family opening a stall there in 1954. Today, his family grows on 100 acres for asparagus and 600 acres for sweet corn, and he kindly educated our group about how asparagus grows.
Did you know that the way asparagus appears as it grows out of the ground, is how it is. Specifically, the thickness of the stalk does not indicate if it will be tender or tough; this comes from weather and speed of growth. So, the myth that thick asparagus is old is just a myth!
Another stop on our tour was to learn from Marcus at Koornneef Produce. Another family business, his grandfather started the business growing peaches and pumpkins. Today, their business is run like a co-op, where many growers will only supply for Koorneef. Together, these family owned, smaller growers are able to work together to supply large chain stores like Loblaws, Longo’s and independents. They emphasis local produce, though they do import for several weeks in the winter months.
Finally we visited J.E. Russell Produce who sells both conventionally grown and organic produce. Our tour guide there, John shared that his business has virtually zero waste. This is because there are so many different buyers who come to the market, there is a place for every quality of product (For example, misshapen or shorter shelf life produce will sell to buyers who are more price sensitive.) Food that isn’t purchased but is safe is shared with food banks like Second Harvest.
The tour wrapped up with a delicious breakfast of Ontario Apple French Toast, and a Frittata made with Ontario grown onions, mushrooms and greenhouse peppers. Thanks to Produce Made Simple for coordinating this educational opportunity to learn directly from those in the business, and to the Food Terminal Board who provided us with the tour on the day.
Learn more about our day out with Produce Made Simple!