For Great Lakes Growers, the Ontario-based greenhouse operation, mini eggplant has become a key niche product.
According to vice president of sales Jeff Richardson, the company just attended a food service-focused trade show to showcase their full line of products, which includes cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes in addition to eggplant. At the show, eggplant was the star.
“Eggplant is always the leader for people stopping by and asking to learn more,” he says. Currently, the company grows 3 acres of mini eggplant — up from the original half-acre space in the company’s 100-acre plus facility.
“Our mini eggplant is a gem,” he says.
Produce Grower: How did you guys decide to scale up from half an acre to 3 acres? What was the justification?
Jeff Richardson: A lot of it is driven by our partners. It has to go both ways — don’t just grow and ship and force it through. Work with your partners, identify what your needs are. You’re only as strong as your partners. It also has to make business sense. You can have crops — say green beans — that you can grow. But the margins don’t make sense and it doesn’t make sense for the greenhouse side of things. The yields have to justify the return.
PG: What was the impetus to go with a mini organic variety and go beyond just doing traditionally sized eggplant?
JR: We wanted something different, something fresh. And our growers love new things. If you’re doing the same thing constantly, you master it and get really good at it. But having new items spurs growth. We have growers from all over the world that work here and we have consultants in to talk about different crops. One of the crops we discussed in that setting was the organic mini eggplant. We wanted something that was niche, that would set us apart and add to and complement our existing organic program. We also had a partner that was really keen on it, so it all aligned for us to go after this.
PG: What is the demand, from your perspective, for greenhouse-grown organic product?
JR: Our environment is driving the greenhouse space. We just had a flash storm [in Ontario] that hovered over us and caused floods. And you look at droughts in the west, heat across all regions — look at England this year with record heat. You talk to the field guys, labor is a major issue there. Costs are through the roof. ... There are more and more companies reaching out, [such as] berry companies, that rely on field product traditionally and are saying ‘we need help supporting our programs.’ If you forecast out two, four years down the road, the greenhouse space is going to be instrumental in feeding our families.