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Warren fruit producers embrace surge in veggie sales

Boreal Berry Farm and Winery products on shelves in 800 stores across Ontario

Greg and Mira Melien had been producing frozen fruit under their Boreal Berry Farm brand for a little more than two years when a customer suggested branching out into vegetables.

Skeptical at the outset, market research quickly told them there might be something to it, and they dove right in.

Since the Meliens started packing and shipping Ontario-grown frozen vegetables and vegetable blends from their Warren farm a month ago, their business has exploded – in a good way.

“The orders that we’re getting are just absolutely insane,” said Greg, who, with Mira, co-owns and operates Boreal Berry Farm and Winery in Warren, about 40 minutes east of Sudbury.

Sourced from farms across Ontario, the vegetables are frozen on site, packaged into 1-kilogram bags and shipped to clients, province-wide.

This growth in demand translated into a need for upgraded machinery, additional packing space, and more warehousing capacity, all of which is in progress.

Greg is hopeful of eventually sourcing the raw product from producers in the North.

“We tried, but nothing in Northern Ontario is big enough to really supply any sort of volume,” he said. “But I’m working on it.”

Over the course of its near decade in business, Boreal Berry Farm and Winery has transitioned from a small orchard and commercial winery to a leading Ontario producer of locally sourced frozen fruit and vegetables.

Landing their first contract with the Québec-based grocery chain Metro in 2018 was the breakthrough that changed everything, Greg said.

Under its Locally Sourced program, Metro partners with local food vendors in seven regions across Ontario.

The program is designed to showcase local products in its stores and, in turn, strengthen relationships with local food suppliers.

Metro first approached the Meliens to be part of the initiative while they were exhibiting in the Northern Ontario Agri-food Pavilion during the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto. Their 400-gram bags of frozen fruit and fruit blends soon made their way onto Metro shelves at stores around the province.

“It was critical,” Greg said of the program. “Without that, I truly don’t believe we’d be doing what we’re doing now.”

That initial distribution contract with Metro led to a similar agreement with Nova Scotia-headquartered Sobeys, in addition to the many partnerships they’ve established with smaller, independent food stores throughout the province.

Boreal Berry Farm products are now in 800 stores across Ontario.

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Though business was already brisk before COVID-19 hit, Greg said the pandemic ushered in a renewed demand for locally produced fare.

“All of a sudden, people were looking for, not just organic, but they wanted local stuff,” Greg said. “We kind of fit that bill perfectly, and so it was just a natural fit.”

May marked the peak of their busy season. The Meliens and 12 employees were running three eight-hour shifts a day, seven days a week packing fruit, just to fill orders.

Business was bustling, but there were some growing pains.

Social distancing protocols meant that harvesters and packers had to be spaced out, which reduced the number of employees that could simultaneously be working.

They had to move freezers outside and bulk up on gowns, masks and gloves. They even installed a new gate to put a stop to visitors, who were arriving regularly in hopes of touring the winery.

“We had to really lock down our facility here and say, absolutely no; I’m sorry, but we’re closed to the public,” Greg said.

As the Meliens gear up to appear at the 2020 virtual version of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, scheduled for Nov. 10-14, Metro will once again showcase Boreal Berry Farm products as part of its Spotlight on Local program.

Now in its second year, the initiative celebrates local food and beverages being grown, produced, or manufactured in Ontario.

Registration is free of charge.

Greg said being part of the Spotlight program not only promotes their brand, but it also helps educate consumers on the importance of purchasing from local producers.

Food is fresher when it travels shorter distances. But it also supports the livelihood of Ontario growers, who reinvest in the economy, creating jobs and strengthening the province’s food system.

“That’s part of our mandate that we’ve set personally for ourselves,” Greg said. “It’s to try and educate people that there’s a big difference in buying local versus buying something that’s not local, and things like (Spotlight on Local) help.”

Boreal Berry Farm products are also featured on the recently launched Ontario Made website, a reference guide for shoppers wanting to support Ontario manufacturers, and Greg said the Ontario Made stickers will start to appear on their bags of fruit shortly.

With demand continuing to grow, the Meliens have hired a sales team to go after additional contracts, with a goal of growing their market share of fruit and vegetable sales in Ontario.

The farm currently employs five, and Greg is looking to add a sixth to the crew.

All this change means that Boreal Berry Farm and Winery is quite a different operation from the one that launched in 2011.

But for the Meliens, change has meant progress and prosperity.

“If you had asked me 10 years ago if I’d be packing fruit, I’d say, ‘What are you talking about?’” Greg chuckled.

“But you go where the business is.”