Updated: Leamington's Lakeside Produce expanding, adding 203 jobs

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Windsor Star/Sharon Hill

LEAMINGTON With an eye on massive markets in Asia, a produce company with a long history is using a provincial grant to help fund a $7-million expansion that is expected to add 203 jobs by 2019.

The investment by Lakeside Produce is the latest evidence that other businesses have really stepped up since the town’s largest employer — the H.J. Heinz Company — pulled out three years ago, said Leamington Mayor John Paterson. “We have really turned this around.”

A $1-million grant from the Southwestern Ontario Development Fund, announced Tuesday, is helping Lakeside Produce expand its Leamington production facilities at the end of Elliott Street. The money will be used to upgrade machinery used to package and ship greenhouse bell peppers, cucumbers and specialty tomatoes grown by Lakeside Produce in its 35 acres of greenhouses and by other growers in 400 acres of greenhouses.

So far, Lakeside Produce has added a 80,000-square-foot expansion and 40 jobs

Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal, who was in town to make Tuesday’s announcement, praised the company, which owns greenhouses in Mexico and California, for choosing to expand in Leamington — where it already has 312 employees.

Owner and CEO Chris Cervini said Lakeside Produce has been researching special packaging, such as plastic bags with microscopic holes to extend the shelf life of greenhouse vegetables by about 12 days. That will help it export more vegetables to the United States and Asia. He didn’t give specific numbers but said he hopes to more than double the volume of products being shipped as Asian markets open up in the next three to five years.

“We have to be able to take good flavoured fruit and be able to package it properly for longer travel times as we look to grow market share,” said Cervini, the fourth-generation owner of Lakeside Produce.

The company is in discussions with a number of potential partners in the Pacific Rim and plans to add more packing equipment.

“At every stop in China they want food that’s grown right here in Ontario,” said Leal, who went on a trade mission to Asia last April.

Tuesday’s announcement has great economic spinoffs for other greenhouses and the community, said George Gilvesy, chairman of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, who was with Leal on the trip to Asia.

Targeting just one major city, such as Shanghai and its surrounding area, allows companies to reach close to the equivalent of Canada’s population of 35 million, he said. “It was a tremendous eye opener on the opportunities.”

It helps put Leamington ahead of where it was in November 2013 when Heinz announced it was leaving, Mayor Paterson said.

When Heinz closed it had about 650 workers. The workforce at Highbury Canco, the Ontario company that took over Heinz’s Leamington plant, is expected to reach 400 this year. The town has also added 388 non-agricultural jobs in the last year, Paterson said.

Leal noted there are “now hiring” signs up at the Highbury Canco plant. “When a community roles up its sleeves, both the municipal leadership and the business leadership, great things can happen,” he said.

The 203 new jobs at Lakeside Produce will range from minimum wage labourers to higher paid production line leaders, growers and executives. The company wouldn’t reveal the wages for the higher paying jobs.

Paterson said people don’t realize there are high paying jobs in the greenhouse industry and even the lower paying ones are good news for the unemployed and families looking for a second income.

Lakeside Produce was established in 1943 by Tony Cervini, the great-grandfather of Chris, who now runs the company. It grows beefsteak, grape and cherry tomatoes, and organic tomatoes. It is the exclusive grower and marketer of a strawberry grape tomato called the Stramato and is coming out with a new sweet cherry tomato in the spring. It also grows, ships and markets greenhouse cucumbers and coloured peppers.

Much of the produce is shipped to the United States where it is sold in grocery stores, Costco and Walmart.