Huron Produce, purveyors of the Suntastic brand of tomatoes, is literally using the sun to guide their growing methods as well as expansion plans.
“One of our models is, ‘We follow the sun,’” says Shawna Dalrymple, brand manager for Suntastic, which is based in Exeter, Ontario in Canada. “We celebrate that we grow in Ontario and then go to warmer climates when we can’t grow in Ontario.” This model has led the company to migrate westward to Colorado, Nebraska, and soon, Texas.
Dalrymple says that tomatoes get the best nutrients from natural sunlight. Their model of following the sun also means fresher produce for consumers, since the harvest from the greenhouses doesn’t have to travel very far, which is also in keeping with one of their biggest priorities: sustainability.
“One of our goals is to reduce our carbon footprint so we can get anywhere within a day,” she says.
Tomatoes on the vine
Huron Produce started at its Ontario location in 1968 with 11 acres of tomatoes on the vine and has grown to 197 acres, adding peppers, long English cucumbers and many other gourmet greenhouse items. Perhaps it’s their tomatoes that are most impressive, at least to look at; plants up to 40 feet tall dwarf over the tallest of people entering the greenhouses.
They focus mostly on tomato on the vine production for grocery stores and other retail outlets, all grown hydroponically in their Primus-certified greenhouses.
“Ninety-five percent of our tomatoes go to the produce section,” says Dalrymple. That other five percent is misshapen fruit and it doesn’t go to waste.
“Any that aren’t so pretty go to processing,” she says. “Some also go to schools and food banks, so we eliminate waste.”
Currently, they focus on growing mostly beefsteak varieties, grape tomatoes and a cocktail type called Flavorino. Dalrymple says they do a great deal of research and trials, mostly with grape and a limited number of heirloom tomatoes.
For many years, the family-owned company has sold their produce under the Huron Produce moniker. Recently, they’ve shifted more focus to the Suntastic brand. Their website is currently being revamped and they’re investing in a new logo to reflect the change.“Suntastic has always been our brand but came under Huron Produce,” explains Dalrymple. "What we've chose to do in our rebranding is lead with our brand."
One of our goals is to reduce our carbon footprint so we can get anywhere within a day.” — Shawna Dalrymple, brand manager, Suntastic
Suntastic has been utilizing social media as well as getting involved in the community to keep their brand in front of customers and to inform and educate. Dalrymple says they currently use Facebook and Instagram to connect with customers and share recipes. They also include their website address on their packaging to direct people to their online resources. Their current marketing strategy focuses on the consumer and the importance of taking care of the planet.
“We really focus our website on being consumer-driven,” says Dalrymple. “We want to inform the consumer, so we’re an education site.”
Their marketing doesn’t stop there, however. To stay viable, a company needs to communicate up and down the supply chain. Suntastic does this the old-fashioned way by meeting face to face with their customers.
“We do trade shows and believe in building relationships through site visits and one-on-one conversations, says Dalrymple. “We feel it is extremely important to get to know our customers and work directly with them to understand their business. Transparency is the key.”
Sustainability: more than a slogan
The proof is in the pudding, or perhaps salsa in this case. Suntastic practices what they preach by doing things like heating with biomass, a waste product from the lumber industry. Company officials say the company diverts 7,000 tons of wood waste from area sawmills that would have otherwise ended up in local landfills.
Water is recycled. Beneficial insects are released in the greenhouse before they can get established and bumble bees buzz happily and quickly about the houses, pollinating the tomatoes at an efficiency rate of up to 10 percent more than would the average honeybee. Greenhouse crops grow in shredded coconut husks, a renewable product that can be recycled after use and used as potting soil in flower beds.
Sustainability can also be seen in Suntastic's packaging. They’re constantly researching ways to make their packaging more than something that gets tossed in the garbage after use; much of what the tomatoes are sold in can be recycled or is compostable.
“Sustainability has been one of our biggest concentration areas,” says Dalrymple. “We want to be sure everything we do is as friendly to the earth as possible.”
Don’t sweat the competition
Dalryrmple says that it’s not the competition, insects or disease that is their biggest challenge.
“The greatest challenge here in Ontario is the weather,” she says. “But we have a good handle on it in terms of keeping the greenhouses at a certain temperature.” When the days turn shorter and much cooler we can continue growing in their houses out west. They’ve added another 400 acres for winter production.
As for the competition, Dalrymple says they’ve got a bit of an advantage in that they don’t have direct competition on a day-to-day basis with other growers. The closest large-scale grower is over an hour and a half away in Leamington, Ontario, Canada, says Dalrymple. She also says they’re a “big small company” that does their own thing and doesn’t look over their shoulder at the competition.
“We don’t get too shook up about the competition,” she says. “We stay true to our values and are community oriented, very family oriented. We’re all about hiring great people, our customer service is fantastic; we like to stay innovative and keep things fun.”