In agriculture, growers know there is power in numbers. Cooperatives such as Groupe Vegco based in Sherrington, Quebec, help boost the growing and marketing power of member producers.
Groupe Vegco dates back to 1961, when a group of local onion farmers established La Cooperative d’Oignons de Sherrington, which became affiliated with LA Cooperative Agricole de Sherrington. Over the years, several vegetable growers joined the co-op, adding carrots, color carrots, garlic, celeriac, golden and candy stripe beets, parsnips, white turnips and radishes to the group’s product line.
Now Groupe Vegco is the culmination of 14 growers in Quebec. The cooperative itself was incorporated in 1993 when these varying segments of produce agriculture banded together to combine expertise and create a strong agricultural cooperative. The operation serves as a strong link between farmers and customers, providing a source of high quality vegetables through an efficient, value-driven program.
Michel Legault serves as vice president of Groupe Vegco and president of the cooperative’s onion division, Onipro. He has worked in agriculture for more than 35 years. He worked in advertising for many years before buying a farm to grow carrots and onions in 1977.
“Many of our members had already been growing for a long time and some of the farmers are quite large,” explains Legault. “I needed a different life – at that time, peace and love were in the air and people went to the country and started new things. I was lucky that we started in an industrial farm that was viable.”
Legault’s combined experience in growing and marketing make him a powerful resource for the business. He explains that Groupe Vegco serves primarily as the sales, administration and storage arm of the cooperative, with packing facilities, Onipro and Consu-pak, working as subsidiary operations. All three divisions work closely with growers to plan growing and production.
“We grow what is needed and our sales operation understands that it works primarily for our growers,” says Legault. “We sit down at weekly meetings with our growers and sellers to plan ahead for the following weeks. If the market is slow, we slow down production; if the market is strong, we’ll push items that have greater demand.”
Staying ahead in the market
With only a small selection of products, Groupe Vegco deals in high-volume sales. The team serves a number of chain grocers throughout the country. From Quebec, the business sends product out to retailers all over Canada. The business also has a growing market share in the United States. The company ships up and down the East Coast down to Florida and even sometimes the West Indies. Costco is one of Groupe Vegco’s largest clients.
While a smaller product line simplifies the operation, the business is able to provide diversity in services to customers in different ways. “We are big enough to follow trends in packing,” says Michel. “We provide our customers 50-pound order sizes to hold two-pound, five-pound and 10-pound bags. The external package is labeled to provide traceability.”
“Being a grower that is an owner it makes it easy for us to focus on traceability and be efficient,” Michel notes. “We have our own proprietary software that we use to track orders. It allows us to trace packing at plants and records individual bags barcodes off these numbers. We can trace produce back to a row in a field.”
After several recent food safety issues with plants in the United States, traceability has become a growing issue in the agricultural industry. Groupe Vegco’s integrated system provides reliable tracking information and sets consumers’ minds at ease.
After more than 50 years in business, Groupe Vegco continues to improve efficiencies to cater to the needs of retail customers and consumers. Michel and his team are making constant upgrades to facilities to accommodate growth.
The operation has recently made a high-tech upgrade to the onion processing facility. “We are adding a new onion line with cameras that sort by size and quality,” says Michel. “The line is currently in testing for our use. This is as packing line item originally used for apples. The equipment will show the inside of the onion too and pick up low-quality or rotten produce. We are probably the first company in Canada to have this technology; it is a big investment for us.”
Over the coming years, Groupe Vegco will continue to reinvest in technology and other facilities improvements in order to better serve a growing market share.