The Norfolk Fruit Growers Association: Always Improving to Enhance Member Operations

James E. Johnson established The Norfolk Fruit Growers Association (NFGA) in March 1906 with the cooperation of 17 charter members. The group envisioned a cooperative operation, combining the forces of local apple farmers to help market goods and share resources. The association was successful and today farmers in Simcoe, Ontario, are still reaping the benefits of higher acreage and better yields.

Tom O’Neill, general manager of NFGA, holds a degree in agriculture from the University of Guelph and has been with the association since 1983. “I used to do custom farming,” says O’Neill. “I answered an ad in the newspaper in 1983 and became the manager in 1991.” O’Neill has since been integral in boosting output at the association’s facilities. Since shifting to his current position, NFGA has seen several equipment upgrades to make sorting and packing more efficient.

“The association started as a marketing organization for growers,” explains O’Neill. “Now we’ve grown to offer storage and packing facilities to enhance the marketing organization for our members.”

Services and Equipment

NFGA operates on a 17-acre campus in Simcoe. The facilities include offices, storage and packing and retail buildings, which are developed on 12 acres of the site. Storage facilities at NFGA offer 102,000 cubic meters of space with varying options. Growers can utilize cold storage, controlled-atmosphere storage, low-oxygen storage, common and dry storage.
Additionally, the buildings hold somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 million bushels total. Every room is monitored for temperature, oxygen level and carbon dioxide levels to keep apples in optimum condition for sale.

Top-of-the-line sorting and packing equipment allows NFGA to quickly process apples, automatically sorting the fruit into 18 different sizes and grades. Utilizing a system of computers, cameras and analysis software, the machines divide the goods up based on input. “A camera takes a color picture of each individual piece of fruit to determine size, external defects and color,” explains O’Neill. The system includes individual fruit-labeling capabilities and apples come out on the other side with an appropriate sticker, ready to be packed up and shipped out.

In 2010 the association added sorting technology ahead of its main sizer, which allowed the use of new technology to presort color, size and external defects using color and infrared cameras before the fruit went to the main pack-line. “This technology allowed growers to achieve a labor efficiency on-hand sorting in the orchard and use modern technology in the pack house to replace this sorting,” explains O’Neill.

The association works with growers to market, sell and export apples across the country and around the world. “Our apples are sold in chain stores and wholesalers in Canada and the United States, but we also export to Europe, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Central America, the Caribbean and South America,” says O’Neill. While all sorting, packing and marketing is performed in-house, NFGA uses third-party transportation for moving goods.

Core Business

Members of NFGA benefit from pooling resources, but still face the same challenges as other farmers across North America. Changing weather patterns have hit farmers hard, affecting output and prices. “We had a major crop failure here due to frost this April,” says O’Neill, surveying the 2012 growing season. Maintaining overhead and trying to turn a profit off of a smaller selection of products has been difficult, but O’Neill and the team are taking steps to absorb the blow. “We’re taking a look at other things we can do,” he says. “We’re trying to source some of our apples from outside of our membership.”

The association operates with 10 members, all of whom are local apple farmers. The members grow many varieties of apples with the main seven varieties being Empire, McIntosh, Northern Spy, Gala, Idared, Red Delicious and Golden Delicious. Members continue to renew their orchards and have extensive new plantings of Gala, Ambrosia, Honeycrisp and Northern Spy varieties to meet market demand.

NFGA helps farmers to keep yields up while maintaining industry quality standards through orchard visits, field studies, as well as fruit monitoring and testing. Quality-control staff monitors growers’ orchards throughout the season as part of an Integrated Pest Management Program. NFGA offers an integrated pest-management program to members, which involves monitoring, testing and crop management to keep disease and pests out of the fruit. The system has been in place since 1979, but is constantly changing with technology.

“It is part of our focus on our grower members,” says O’Neill. “We offer services for pest management, including updates on innovations in pest management. Today we use nonchemical control methods in the orchard to prevent insect damage on fruit, as well as traditional methods.”

Fruit is tested prior to harvest to determine the optimum time to pick using several maturity indices, including internal ethylene production. Once the fruit is picked and brought to the association, NFGA continues to monitor and test the product to ensure proper storage. Factors like ethylene, sugar/starch ratios and pressure affect where apples will be stored and for how long before they are packed and shipped. The lengthy process helps to ensure high-quality fruit, bringing better margins to members and the association alike.

A network of secure, reliable partners helps NFGA keep up services for its members. “We have an electrician and a plumber in town for the basics,” says O’Neill. “Our most important relationships are with equipment manufacturers. A good supplier will help you keep your equipment running and be available when you have questions.”

Relationships are key at the association, and O’Neill feels his team has built several partnerships that will keep NFGA in the game for a long time. “In agriculture, we’re in a good trend,” he explains. “The apple industry has had a tough go for the last 10 to 15 years, but things are turning around and it looks like they’ll continue to improve. Technology is allowing us to keep doing better.”

In 2016 the association will celebrate 110 years in the business. “We’re one of only a few co-op grower operations left in our market,” says O’Neill. “We’ll continue to stand apart from competing companies because we keep the focus on our members.”

O’Neill predicts a small celebration for the team in a few years, but for now NFGA is focused on staying on top of industry innovations. “We’re putting in some new technology for poly bags that will allow us to code everything for traceability,” O’Neill elaborates. The Norfolk Fruit Growers Association is committed to technological solutions in agriculture, setting the stage for another 100 years of cooperative member service.