December reminds me of determination. Perhaps it’s in the intonation, in the gravity that we lend to both words. December is a hard month, a month when the crunch of frost under boots in cooler corners of the world evokes resolute purpose. It seems naturally aligned with the early risers, the hard workers, and the go-getters that our industry counts as its own.
We carry resolve in spades.
More often than not, we put our whole person into the very thing we can’t live without: fresh produce.
For Gwillimdale Farms, a vertically integrated company bringing fresh root vegetables to market, I feel that resolve falls short when describing the commitment displayed by its Owners.
“It was 2008 when John and Cristina Hambly decided to buy their first packing line,” Quinton Woods, Sales and Operations Manager, begins. “The trend was showing that they weren’t going to be around for much longer if they continued down the road they were going. So, they had two options: either quit or go full-steam ahead.”
This is where determination sparks into fight and tenacity presses the gas pedal. John and Cristina did not turn away from their operation. Instead, they put everything they had into purchasing the packing line, marking a pivotal moment for the future of Gwillimdale Farms.
Over the next few years, the grower/packer/shipper would continually invest back into its operations. In 2012, Gwillimdale bought its first semi-automated packing machinery, and this gave the company the chance to compete with other packaging facilities.
“We were able to unlock our products’ extra potential in a way we were never able to do before,” Quinton explains. “Now, I would say, we’re probably the largest vertically integrated business in Canada. Some people are bigger growers, some people are bigger packers, but I don’t know of anyone who has a substantial investment in all three categories the way that we do.”
Gwillimdale now has three full production lines: a fully automated onion packing line, carrot line, and potato line. At peak production, the grower can produce 250,000 pounds of vegetables in a single day.
“Retailers want that direct farm relationship, especially since consumer-driven trends point toward shoppers wanting to know who the farmer is and where the product is coming from.”
Quinton Woods, Sales and Operations Manager, Gwillimdale Farms
“We’re actually in the process of a start-up on this automated packing line for onions. We’ll be able to provide twice as many onions per day, moving from three loads to six loads—possibly even eight loads—a day of finished product. This will allow us to compete a lot more efficiently across the Northeastern United States and then down into the Southeastern United States—like the Florida market.”
Aside from carving out footholds for itself in the United States, additional operations in Mexico ensure that Gwillimdale has year-round production.
“We have our Mexico program as well, which is continuing to develop with different SKUs and new packaging products. We’re marketing out of Mexico year-round and out of Canada eight months of the year. We can typically hit all markets, all the time,” Quinton comments.
In addition to providing high-quality onions, carrots, potatoes, and beets, Quinton notes another level of value that Gwillimdale brings to buyers.
“Retailers want that direct farm relationship, especially since consumer-driven trends point toward shoppers wanting to know who the farmer is and where the product is coming from,” Quinton remarks. “That’s allowed us, as a vertically integrated company, to excel. It puts pressure on our competitors and accelerates our growth within the Canadian and American retail space.”
Quinton has witnessed the growth of Gwillimdale first-hand, having joined the company in 2011 as a co-op student. Determination is an apt description of this aspiring ag leader as well, who developed Gwillimdale’s CanadaGAP® program within eight months of starting.
“From there, I took on plant supervision responsibilities while still functioning a full course load in school. In March of 2012, the Owners asked me if I would like to take over the sales department because the salesman at the time had left. I was essentially selling carrots from my college classroom.”
We pause to chuckle over the image—not your typical college kid’s side hustle! But, it encapsulates the grit and persistence I see over and over again within our industry.
“Every challenge is different...There’s no better feeling than walking into the grocery store and seeing your package on the shelf, knowing that you’re feeding people healthy, nutritious food..”
By the time Gwillimdale had become a year-round operation in 2014, Quinton was developing procurement programs and grower partnerships with farmers in Georgia, New Mexico, and California. As he took on his current role as Sales and Operations Manager, Quinton and the Gwillimdale team also invested heavily in marketing and sustainability as a way to continue differentiating the company in the Canadian grower market.
“The biggest thing is simply progression. If you’re standing still, you’re falling behind. It’s all about evolving the business and maintaining currency in an ever-evolving industry,” Quinton comments. “It’s evolving at a pace faster than your competition so you can continue to grow.”
Throughout our conversation, as we weave between words and phrases like progression, expansion, and the natural ebb and flow of this ever-changing market landscape, we naturally speak of COVID-19, an event whose repercussions are impossible to ignore.
“In the first few weeks of the pandemic, the retail demand for cello carrots, beets, parsnips, and onions was huge. Alongside this came a staggering demand for frozen veg, which allowed us to reallocate our foodservice products to the processing market,” Quinton expresses. “We took COVID-19 as an opportunity to invest, to automate, to do new and unique things, to change our packaging processes, to become more efficient, and to hire more staff so that, when everything rebounds, we’re there to capture the opportunity.”
An exponential year for changes is an accurate summation of 2020. But this shifting landscape is precisely why Quinton was initially drawn to the produce industry, and why he continues to be charmed by its dynamism every day.
“Every challenge is different,” he shares, as we settle in to discuss one of my favorite elements of every Snack story: the why. “There’s no better feeling than walking into the grocery store and seeing your package on the shelf, knowing that you’re feeding people healthy, nutritious food. There’s nothing more rewarding than that.”
As I write this, the chill of winter has yet to affect the irrepressibly sunny climes of California. December seems a far-off conclusion to an otherwise hectic year. I know that winter will soon give way to a new year, a fresh start. As inevitable as the changing seasons are, so too is my belief that companies like Gwillimdale Farms will continue to drive us toward a brighter future.