Abbotsford Growers Ltd.

Berry processing and packing in Abbotsford, British Columbia
Written by: 
Jeanee Dudley
Produced by: 
Forrest Lancaster

As the agricultural industry changes rapidly, sometimes the structure of a business no longer holds up. In Abbotsford, British Columbia, one business is making a strong recovery after a dramatic change. After more than 60 years as the Abbotsford Growers Co-Op, the organization faced financial collapse. In order to preserve regional resources and continue to serve local farmers, the business changed course, reemerging as Abbotsford Growers Ltd.

“The co-op was established in 1948 and was a major player in our area for a long time,” says Colin Hutchinson, general manager of Abbotsford Growers. “The operation had collapsed financially in the spring of 2014. A group of farmers — mostly members of the cooperative — stepped in and bought it out of receivership and it is now a corporation.”

Bringing back the berries

Over the last year, Abbotsford Growers has reinvested in facilities and equipment in order to take on a new role in the supply chain. The company is registered with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) certified and meets Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) protocols.

The enterprise consists of two facilities — a 26,000-square-foot raspberry building that has been part of the operation since the 1960s and a newer 40,000-square-foot frozen blueberry plant. In peak season, the business has roughly 200 people working at once — all on the processing lines. The year-round staff is comprised of approximately 10 critical operations employees, including Hutchinson. The team is looking for ways to expand the business to guarantee all-year employment for a greater number of people.

“We do fresh blueberries as well as frozen blueberries and raspberries,” says Hutchinson. “We have a freezing tunnel for blueberries and the raspberries are blast-frozen in pails. Raspberries are fragile and have to be premium to freeze. The rest goes into puree for sauces and jams.”

The company serves as an industrial supplier with a target market of food processors and manufacturers. “Our customers include jam companies, yogurt companies, juice companies, fruit dryers, and packers that sell frozen fruit bagged for grocery retail,” Hutchinson elaborates. “Through the years, we’ve supplied Smuckers, Kraft, Danone and other large brands. We ship all over the world — Asia is a big market, but our top three are the U.S., Canada and Australia.”

Up to the challenge

Reestablishing the business isn’t something that has happened overnight, but Hutchinson and his colleagues are up to the task. The business is gradually working up to its former capacity. He explains that the market is primarily grower-driven, so a priority for the company is rebuilding relationships with area producers. The company’s history in the region has been helpful.

“It is a big challenge getting the word out and reconnecting to customers,” Hutchinson contrasts. “It is a new operation to people as many key staff members are different. The last year has been a learning curve.”

Another big change has been a shift in commodities. When Abbotsford Growers was still operating as a cooperative, raspberries were the major crop. Now blueberries dominate the region. Volume is on the rise, which is opening up opportunities for the business and others in the area. “With that change came other processors, whereas before there were only one or two major blueberry companies,” says Hutchinson. “Now there are about a dozen small- to medium-sized operators — we are one of the medium-sized ones. We’ll put out about 10 million pounds of the 150 million produced here annually.”

Abbotsford Growers is on a positive trajectory, exploring growth options as they arise. Hutchinson and his team are examining budgetary delegations for the future — more equipment and expansions are likely for the coming years. The company is also exploring new markets, particularly China where a growing middle class is raising the demand for North American produce.

The company is in the midst of a major comeback in the berry industry. As operations expand, the executive team will be driving growth in new markets and building relationships with both suppliers and customers. The management team is hitting its stride and enjoying the ride. “I have really enjoyed getting to know this industry and contributing to the development of this business,” says Hutchinson. “I have been in the fruit and vegetable business for 20 years and this has been very rewarding.”

With no dearth of possibilities, Abbotsford Growers Ltd. will continue to seek out and pursue new opportunities with both regional growers and global customers.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Cooperators Insurance