Portage-based vegetable processor signs on organic growers due to growing demand

“This is a mutually beneficial arrangement. We’re going to give them the opportunity to sell all their crop, and they’re giving us the opportunity to market that product.” — Kelly Beaulieu. Photo: Lorraine Stevenson

Canadian Prairie Garden Puree Products Inc., based in Portage la Prairie has significantly ramped up its organic product line.

By Lorraine Stevenson
OrganicBiz staff

A Portage la Prairie-based processor that created new markets for Manitoba’s vegetable and fruit growers now has her sights set on helping this province’s organic sector diversify too.

Founder and chief operating officer of Canadian Prairie Garden Puree Products Inc., Kelly Beaulieu says the company, which produces shelf-stable vegetable purees for the food ingredient industry, has contracted six million pounds of organically grown vegetables from Manitoba growers this year — and that’s just to start.

Eighty per cent of our business will be organic this year. We’ve got some conventional but most of our contracts are going to be organic. – Kelly Beaulieu

Demand is so intense for certified organic product she aims to double that production to 12 million pounds in 2017 “and then to double that again the year after,” she said in an interview from her offices at the Food Development Centre where CPGP’s 5,000 sq. foot processing plant is housed.

“We’ll be looking for a lot more production from the (organic) growers and more growers coming on line,” said Beaulieu. “Eighty per cent of our business will be organic this year. We’ve got some conventional but most of our contracts are going to be organic.”

It’s also an important development for organic growers in Manitoba, including those who’ve never grown vegetables until now.

“There’s a bunch of grain growers who’ve planted some vegetables for Canadian Prairie Garden for the first time,” said Manitoba Agriculture’s organic specialist Laura Telford.

They’re carving out a few acres a piece to try this because these growers don’t have the storage or labour to handle larger crops.

“Some are maybe doing just six,” she said. “But I was talking to one producer yesterday who’d planted 15 acres of squash.”

CPGP’s foray into organics comes after buyers who liked the company’s conventional products began asking what organic supplies they had too, Beaulieu said.

The plant uses a rapid steam infusion technology that quick-cooks fruits, vegetables and pulses. Her initial plan when she launched the business in 2012 was to utilize large volumes of not quite eye-perfect vegetables farmers couldn’t sell, and which amounted to food waste. However the company’s puree products had strong appeal to baby food makers, restaurant chains and several multinational food product companies, and eventually she began contracting entire fields of production from growers.

Then her customers began asking if CPGP could supply certified organic product.

“A lot of those customers would ask ‘have you got organic carrots, have you got organic broccoli, or butter nut squash,’” said Beaulieu. “We’d have to say, sorry, no we don’t because there wasn’t the commercial volume on it available.”

But it was a clear signal to start looking for it, and after certifying the Portage plant as an organic processor under Organic Producers Association of Manitoba (OPAM) Beaulieu sought out small volumes of certified organic vegetables from Manitoba producers to create samples for interested customers.

Feedback was immediate and very positive, said Beaulieu.

“They said the product was magnificent. They loved the quality of it.”

With purchase orders in hand, Beaulieu then looked to contract supplies from certified organic growers. Some larger-scale Manitoba farms already producing organic horticultural crops were able to step up immediately because they had the storage, labour and know how to grow these crops but she was also willing to work with those with certified acres but had never grown vegetables before. She and her staff met with many producers over the winter.

“They came to us with their capabilities and we would match that up. We had good discussions about what their capabilities were,” she said. “We have no qualms about working with a small guy as long as he can make the delivery.”

As a result, this summer various farmers with organically certified land, but who’ve traditionally grown only grain or raised livestock, are tending small field crops of squash or pumpkin too.

Telford said it isn’t yet known precisely how many acres have been contracted. Various types of growers, including organic market garden operations are involved in this. They can potentially benefit too, she said.

“If you’re growing processing vegetables you’re not necessarily looking for the same quality that you’d have to have if you delivered to a farmers market,” she said.

Telford said she has urged first-time vegetable growers especially to see this year as “an experiment.” It’s a year to figure out if the cash value of these crops will make it worth investing in the production capacity they’ll need to grow horticultural crops, she said, noting that labour needs could be one key issue.

This has the potential to be an important diversification strategy for these farms and Manitoba’s overall organic sector, she said.

“Vegetable production adds a lot of of value to the land over grain production so we could see some more profitable farms,” she said. “And I think much of the land in Manitoba is very good at growing vegetables.”

Beaulieu says she’s excited to be working with all her new organic suppliers.

“We’re working on a partnership arrangement with the growers,” she said. “This is a mutually beneficial arrangement.

We’re going to give them the opportunity to sell all their crop, and they’re giving us the opportunity to market that product.”