Saturday, June 28, 2008

From crisis can come opportunity

There is an old saying that the Chinese word for crisis is comprised of the words for "danger" and "opportunity." That's not at all true, but it does point out what happens when we are faced with a challenge. We can let it overcome us, or we can confront the challenge and turn it towards our favour.

Such is the situation faced by tender fruit growers here in Southern Ontario, in particular the Niagara Peninsula. Yesterday, the last Canadian canning plant shut down. While it was turning a profit, it was said the equity owners felt it just couldn't compete in a global market anymore. Be that as it may the fact is a lot of trees are going to be pulled out in some of the best agricultural land this country has to offer; and in a world where we're being encouraged more and more to buy locally grown food this is a slap in the face for that.

Does that mean the end of fruit growing in Niagara and even more urban sprawl? Maybe not, if lessons are to be taken from the grape growing industry.

For a long time, in fact right up to the introduction of free trade, the wine industry in Ontario was moribund and the stuff they produced was -- put it bluntly -- weak compared to imported wines. When free trade came along a lot of vines were pulled out of the ground in fear it was game over, with the most obvious buyer the Gallo Brothers. But then a funny thing happened.

Someone figured out that if one carefully monitored the vines' growth, and also in part because of global warming, it was now possible to grow vinifera grapes -- the European variety -- in Canada. So the labrusca and riparia vines were pulled out and new vinifera vines put in. As well, stricter quality control standards were put in and a genuine effort was made to make wine that actually tasted like, well, wine. And it was shown that in micro-climates that have cooler weather than what exists in Europe, some vine varieties were more robust and therefore the flavour of the grapes having much more impact.

There is still quite a big concern that we're still drinking wines that say they're Canadian but are in fact blended with foreign grapes. But our Canadian wines are competitive, and are becoming a favourite choice of palates both here and abroad. Much of our stuff is actually better than what they grow in Bordeaux or California, even the blended table wines.

Who would have thought back in the late 1980s we've have over 120 wineries in Ontario? It's happened. In fact, some of the wineries are takeover targets. That would simply not have happened if the vintners just threw in the towel 20 years ago.

If the wine business can do it, so can the tender fruit growers. One has to make the right kind of focus and decisions about how to do it. We've proven that we have some of the best fruit in the world, so it is simply a matter of focusing on what works while ensuring genetic diversity. The "Green Belt" which the fruit growing areas lie outside of need to be included, along with the wineries, to stop them being swallowed up.

But from this crisis can come an opportunity. It may even be possible to create an environment where canning plants flock here. That would be welcome.

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