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Ted Eng was born on a farm in the Greater Toronto Region, as one of many children in a large Chinese family. He decided to take over the family farm, going from 80 to 120 acres of organic vegetables in the early 1990’s. Since then, Ted has established one of the most successful organic businesses in Ontario. He also grows produce for the GTA’s ethno-cultural markets. These experiences informed Ted’s presentation which was on the challenges farmers face in growing and marketing specialty crops.
One of the realities that farmers face is an economic reality. Ted notes that it is extremely difficult for new farmers to start from scratch. Even in his case, where he bought the farm from his parents, he still has mortgage payments to make. The difficulties that farmers currently face with low farm incomes can make it risky to invest into new markets, but doing so also has the potential to boost farm income levels.
Ted notes that farmers to proceed with caution. Producers need to do their own research into markets, as he did, through both internet research and trial and error. One of the biggest obstacles that Ted found was the lack of research and support on the side of the government. Some of the structural issues facing farmers include losing money to distributors (such as the food terminal buyers) and the difficulty in getting into big market chains. Not only that, Ted explains that is difficult to compete with Asian food imports when overseas labourers are paid low wages.
The problem, Ted explains, is that there is no ‘middle’ that exists in the food chain in Ontario. There needs to be a middle that works for farmers– many small and medium-sized farms just can’t compete in the large supply-chains. This should include medium sized companies and a focus on local, not export-driven commodities.
On a positive note, Ted believes that the ethno-cultural markets may offer increased profit potential for farmers. For instance, when he started growing greenhouse Bok Choy for example, he increased his profits significantly. Ted also believes that ‘organic’ can be a selling point in multiple markets, a point which has also been voiced by halal certifiers, who note that ‘organic’ meets the specifications of halal standards.
Other things farmers can do to improve their market opportunities include extending the season by growing food in greenhouses and developing food storage units. Ted himself has benefits by starting to market on farm and using smaller distributors to market his produce locally. As Ted explains, it is these types of entrepreneurial and innovative methods that allow farmers to succeed in entering new markets.