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April 01, 2014
Planting seeds, mixing fertilizer, sweeping floors, shaking hands and writing orders: that’s how an infectious love for the produce business started for Martin, Peter, John, Albert and Jack Streef while being mentored by their parents. Three generations later, the Streef family has been cultivating the success of Streef Produce Ltd (Streef), an Ontario-based grower, packer and wholesale produce distributor. Now in crop year No. 38, Streef is gaining ground in new markets and transitioning ownership to the next generation of junior partners.
“We’re a unique operation in the sense that we have a growing and a wholesale marketing division,” shares Jack Streef, president of Streef. “We started as growers, but we’ve developed into the wholesale business. We know what it is like to be a grower-producer and our local suppliers are aware of that. They’re comfortable working with us because they trust that we’ve been in their shoes and they know we’re going to get them the best return on their products.”
Over the years, Streef has vertically integrated all aspects of the business. “We do everything from our own planting, growing, packaging, trucking, sales and delivery,” adds Jack. “We do everything from beginning to end to give our clients the best service possible. We base our success by doing what we say we’re going to do.”
Starting Small and Turning a Dream into Reality
Considering the extent of Streef’s full-scale operation now, it’s hard to believe the company started as a small 15-acre vegetable farm. “When my older brother Martin, who’s now passed away, graduated from high school our father, who had a small hobby farm, encouraged us to work together because the job market wasn’t so hot,” recalls Peter Streef, site and wholesale manager of Streef. “We started with 15 acres, only farming several acres by hand with the help of one small tractor. That’s where our roots began.”
In 1977, after some encouragement from their father, Peter and his brothers purchased a 100-acre farm to expand the garden business. “I was only 18 years old at the time,” he reveals. “My mother had to cosign for our three younger brothers, because they were not of legal age yet.”
The first year in business the brothers harvested 5 acres of potatoes, sweet corn, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli with little equipment. “By the early 1980s, we were supplying 15 local markets a week and we continued to do that for several years until our wholesale client base fully developed in Toronto,” recounts Peter. “Once the wholesale business took off we started focusing on that.”
“It started out as a dream and we’ve made it into a reality,” adds Jack. Today, Streef remains based in Princeton, Ontario, with 54 full-time employees. “We add another 60 to 70 hands for seasonal help,” notes Peter.
Good, Healthy Food in the Wholesale Market
From small 15-acre vegetable farm to national wholesaler, Streef’s operation has grown by leaps and bounds over the last couple decades. “At one point, we were up to about 5,000 acres, but we’ve scaled back a bit,” says Peter. “We’re currently farming 2,700 acres across four counties and we also market approximately 8,000 acres of produce for other farmers. We also have a 40,000-square-foot cooling facility and a processing warehouse.”
In 1998, Streef officially took the next step, moving into the wholesale market. “About 15 years ago we purchased a wholesale commission house at the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto,” recalls Peter. “Today we grow, pack and distribute produce from our operation near Princeton, but we also run a full-scale wholesale business at the Food Terminal where we offer produce from all over the world. Most products come from within Ontario, but we import and export all over the Eastern Seaboard and North America.”
While Streef is capable of sourcing and distributing the best the world has to offer in produce, Peter says the company focuses on putting local products first and foremost. “Our goal is to produce good, healthy food in Ontario,” he ensures. “In the summer, we’re working with 90 percent local produce. In the winter, it’s more like 40 percent, but the minute local produce is available we switch back to that. Our No. 1 focus is to bring produce into the market place and support local producers.”
Streef also acts as a go-to for industry resources. “We’re an information center for local producers,” adds Peter. “We’ve been in this business for a long time and we talk to a lot of people.”
A weekly trip to the farm sets price quotes for the coming week at the Food Terminal. The brothers review the crops and markets as a basis for price quotes that Streef emails to clients. “We pretty much cover the whole vegetable line,” explains Jack. “We’re growing potatoes, green and yellow beans, sweet corn and peas. We also produce soybeans and hard corn to complement our crop rotation.”
Filling a Gap in the Market
Streef has recently started producing asparagus and sweet potatoes, which are grown mostly around Simcoe and Leamington, Ontario. “They prefer sandy loam-type soil,” explains Peter. “We’ve been marketing asparagus and sweet potatoes for years but one of our growers – he’s served us for 15 years – is retiring, so we need to step in to fill the void for our clients.”
With the recent retirement of Albert, Streef has brought on four junior partners. “It’s a chance for them to make their way in the company,” adds Jack. “We’re mentoring the next generation and trying to find new and innovative markets for them to enter.”
After closing the deal to grow its own sweet potatoes, Streef is starting to make way for production, setting up curing rooms and packaging lines. “Our sales department has always marketed them, but we’ve never actually grown sweet potatoes ourselves,” notes Jack.
“With the market trends changing, we’re doing our best to adjust to demands,” continues Jack. “Sweet potatoes made sense, because we’ve seen regular potato consumption drop in recent years. People are making healthier lifestyle changes and they’re more educated in alternatives –things are moving away from your standard meat and potatoes meals. Part of our job is to support these changes and give our customers as many choices as possible.”
Not only do customers want healthier options, they also want efficient options. “People lead a fast-paced lifestyle and they want ready-to-go packaging,” explains Jack. “We launched a pilot project with Walmart to bag beans and it’s gone over really well. Not only is the product more convenient, it also furthers food safety. People don’t want to grab loose beans out of a box where possibly 20 other people have touched them. We’ve had other inquiries from other stores that are interested in supporting this line of packaging, as well.”
Staying Ahead of the Curve
Coming out of a tough drought, Streef has certainly felt the burn of being in a weather-dependent industry. “Bean yields were dramatically down in North America,” shares Jack. “Our sweet corn was smaller by the cob than usual and melons were smaller. That sends prices up due to lack of supply.”
Jack says, like any business, it’s about staying ahead of the curve as much as possible. “There’s the cost of operating and the daily challenges you face no matter what business you’re in,” he reveals. “Implementing new food regulations, traceability systems and food safety programs, have a cost attached to them. Sometimes it feels like its just one thing after another, but it is a necessity to ensure that our product is safe.”
However, the company’s recent ventures have been a nice break out of the usual ebbs and flows of the business. “It’s nice to break out of the same routine,” says Peter. “With the junior partners coming in there’s a new energy. It’s great to be able to work with our kids and we think it’s shaping up to be a great transition.”
The Next Step and the Next Generation
Although it’s not always easy to sit back and let young blood take the lead, Jack, John and Peter agree that Streef is in great hands. Chris, Martin’s son, is assisting Pete with managing the sales, buying and distribution in Toronto, while Jaidin, Peter’s son, is in charge of quality control and shipping and receiving at the market. Jack’s sons, Nathan and Dylan, are working at the Princeton location helping manage certain field crops and equipment, as well as the food safety programs.
“Only time will tell if John’s kids will join the business once they become older,” Peter says. “Family conversations are constantly ongoing to ensure that all the new roles will be filled over the course of our five-year succession plan.”
“The biggest thing with farmers today is to figure out a succession plan, who’s going to do what sort of deal, to make sure that everyone has the same focus and the same common goals,” adds Jack.
“We have to keep an open mind to let them grow and understand the business,” continues Peter. “We’ve got to trust them and give them the opportunity to make mistakes, because that’s the way to learn. They already have the confidence and work ethic.”
Jack says seeing new talent and energy rejuvenates the company and the business moving forward through family tradition is one of the most satisfying accomplishments for Streef. “Coming in as junior partners the boys have really stepped up to the plate,” he says.
Streef continues to build on a foundation of family-centered values and a strong belief in the community that’s allowed it to flourish. “Food is a necessity, but agriculture is also a foundation of civilization and with a strong foundation comes a strong economy,” explains Peter. “It keeps money local, it builds infrastructure and when farmers are doing well and making money, they’re investing it back into the local economy.”
After 37 successful years, Streef has become the family’s livelihood and passion. Streef Produce Ltd remains one of the few grower-wholesale operations, putting local farmers and families first for nearly four decades.
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