In a time when many business owners are experiencing myriad challenges to their livelihoods, forcing some to seriously consider the viability of continuing, it can be refreshing to see a local company pushing on with expansion plans despite the pandemic.
Standing at the construction site of Meyers Fruit Farms’ soon-to-be 590,000 square foot greenhouse, about 10 acres under glass, Jim Meyers admits that sluggish Easter sales forced him and his family to push back the timing of their expansion.
“Things were looking a lot better in June, and that’s when we decided to go through with it,” says the vice-president of sales and logistics for the organization. “So far, it’s been a lot more stable. It does change with every season, and there’s still some uncertainty, so we’re very careful with the decisions that we make. But we had a good fall and Christmas season.”
Meyers says the early uncertainty about COVID-19 did put a damper on their outlook, but even with the second wave occurring, they feel confident going ahead with the project. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to continue operating in a safe manner,” he says. “For the most part people have adjusted. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, and it doesn’t mean things aren’t difficult, but we know more about it (COVID) and all the safety measures are in place.”
When completed, the impressive new Stewart Road facility will expand Meyers’ production capacity for potted plants, including kalanchoes, Easter lilies, chrysanthemums and poinsettias.
To make room for the greenhouse, a nectarine orchard on that site was bulldozed.
“It was a difficult decision to make,” Meyers laments. “But we see a lot of growth on the greenhouse side. Being a food producer is something that we take pride in, and we enjoy that part of the challenge. This particular site was the area best suited for this type of project because of its size, configuration, and where the land is located.”
“A larger portion of our business is dedicated to the greenhouse,” Meyers continues. “It’s a four-season market, whereas tender fruit, it’s one season, one crop. The nice thing about having both is that it’s a nice complement to each other. The greenhouse demand is not very high in the summertime. It works out well for our labour force and our farm to have a good balance.”
Meyers says his labour force has included seasonal workers since the inception of the program, back when his grandparents, Jim and Clazina, who started the business in 1955, were at the helm. The year-round nature of that portion of the business, though, means they also hire a number of local people to keep things running all year. In their peak season they employ more than 100 people.
Jim is the third generation of the family, following his father Fred, president of operations, and aunt Elly Hoff, who is the vice-president of human resources and administration. Elly’s son Aron took over the role of vice-president of production in 2006, about a year before Jim joined the leadership team after graduating with a political science and history degree from Western University. Neither cousin was new to the family farm on Irvine Road, as they spent much of their early years growing up amongst the orchards and greenhouses there.
The 40-year-old Meyers is proud that local contractors are involved in the construction, and is excited about the possibilities the expansion brings. “It will be a modernized facility,” he explains. “An important part of any greenhouse is the movement of product. This greenhouse will be using conveyor belts for the first time. We’ve tried a few pieces of other technologies at our home site, but now we’re able to apply them here on a larger scale. This (new facility) will hopefully allow us to take opportunities that might be able to come our way in the future.”
Besides the new greenhouse space, the Stewart Road location will also house the organization’s packing and shipping operations. As well, their offices that are currently located on Irvine Road will be moving to the new facility.
“We didn’t really have the space for an office expansion at the home farm,” Meyers tells The Local. “Because we will have the shipping here, we wanted to have our offices close by. It actually allows us the opportunity to create an office space that will make for a better environment for the team.”
Those offices should be occupied some time in August, 2021, when the construction wraps up. And Meyers’ two young children and their cousins, potentially the fourth generation of the family to get involved in the business, will begin spending a lot of their time on Stewart Road, just as their fathers did at the home farm.