Ten years ago, onion grower Bas Melissant and his family moved to the small town of Norwich in the Canadian province of Ontario. There, he set up MEN’s Farming, a company that specializes in supplying specialty onions for the North American market. We talked to Bas about life and onion growing in Canada.
What made you decide to leave the Netherlands and settle in Canada?
I wanted to start my own business. Canada is a wonderful country with plenty of opportunities. Getting to Ontario from the Netherlands is easy and quick, and our religious background also played a part in our decision. I also wanted to stay ahead of developments in the Dutch agriculture sector. So emigration was a logical choice.
Which of your previous experiences proved most useful for successfully growing and selling onions in Canada?
I had experience in cultivation, organization and the commercial side from my previous jobs in the onion business in the Netherlands and France. It was only in cultivation that we had to start over from scratch. I’d thought I was a good grower, but I made a mess of it at first here in Ontario. We finally got the hang of it through plenty of trial and error.
What challenges do you face when it comes to chemicals and mechanization?
As far as chemicals go, we have a good range of substances available for keeping the crops free of weeds, insects and leaf diseases. In terms of mechanization, we use both European and North American machines. We plant in 2.25-metre beds. In North America we use a digging shaft to loosen the onions. We don’t cut off the tops until the necks are fully dried. Then the onions are placed on a belt and the dry stems are blown upward by a fan and cut with a finger bar. This is absolutely the best system in terms of the onions’ quality and storability. But the capacity is much lower than with regular haulm topping and digging. And if it's too humid it doesn’t work.
What diseases and pests do you encounter, and how do you deal with them?
We’ve got a warm, damp climate here, so we have to stay on top of leaf diseases. Keeping the leaves vigorous using fertilizers and fertigation is essential. Once you get abrasion on the leaves, that’s it: Stemphylium moves in. You need powerful substances and good leaf coverage and penetration. Weed control is really hard here. Some types of goosefoot have become Roundup-resistant, so they’re also hard to control with substances permitted in onions. But by taking an intensive approach we've been able to solve the problem. Some weeds in onion crops, like fleabane, are impossible to kill. We have to remove them by hand. In our hot, dry summers we also get a lot of thrips. We’re able to control them effectively using systemic and contact agents, but it takes constant vigilance.
Which varieties do you use?
All the varieties we plant come from Europe. Only the red [Redwing, Red Carpet and Red Mountain] and pink [Blush] onions are Bejo long-day varieties.
What challenges do you face in terms of laws and regulations?
Canada is a big country. Not many farms exceed the norms for fertilizer and so on. The compliance checks aren't strict. But if you exceed the norms they’ll get you. The rules for permits are a lot easier here than in the Netherlands. We’ve built something every year. If you follow the rules, you can do anything.
Do you have to deal with soil-borne fungi, like fusarium, white rot and pinkroot?
Due to the long-term use of Roundup, many crops have become highly susceptible to fusarium. We spray an organic substance to break down Roundup in the soil. We use very little Roundup in the rotation. Pinkroot is also present in the soil here, which encourages fusarium. On sandy soil where we're growing onions for the second or third time, we fight these soil diseases in the autumn before cultivation starts. We apply a kind of disinfecting tear gas to the soil using an injector while rolling the topsoil at the same time. It's an effective treatment as long as you apply it under the right conditions. Plants that grow well and fast are much less susceptible to fusarium. In the first years we always planted our transplants early. But as soon as we had a night frost they weakened, and we got onion fly maggots in them, and then, secondary to that, fusarium at the entry points. So nowadays we start later in the spring to prevent that happening. I've never seen white rot here, fortunately.
How long is the growing season? When can you go into the field and when do you need to go out?
We start sowing after April 20 most years. In a good growing season the onions mature in four months, 120 days. Remember we’re at 42 degrees latitude, so we have shorter days than the Netherlands [at 52 degrees], which means a longer growing season, with all its drawbacks. This year we sowed our last shallots and pink onions between May 20 and 23. We dug them up the week of September 19 to 24. Most years we finish harvesting around October 20. In 2014 we had trouble with sharp night frosts. The Red Wings were packed tight because we’d sown much more densely than most growers here would. They were completely covered with thick green leaves, so they weren't damaged by the frost. From that field, which is just under 9 hectares, we supplied almost 1,000 net tons in 25-pound [11kg] sacks to customers in Canada and the US for an average of $10 a sack. I'll never forget that.
Do you see yourself ever moving back to the Netherlands?
As first-generation emigrants you always live in two worlds. The mentality of the people, the quality of the products, being close to immediate family – sometimes we really do miss those things. And as you get older I think you're better off living in the Netherlands than in Canada. People in the Netherlands look after each other better. But the business climate for young farmers is much more favourable in Canada. We’ve been able to build a great business here, with a loyal customer base. People appreciate what we do and what we produce. If our boys go into the business with the same enthusiasm as me, there’ll be plenty of opportunities for future development. That’s our hope, and what we’re working toward.
Looking back on all your experiences in the Netherlands and France, is there anything else you're particularly proud of?
Definitely! I like to do things nobody’s done before. And when I’m in unexplored territory I like to see results quickly. It was with that attitude that I started B.A.S., Business & Agri Service (called PPA today). And I was given the freedom to do great things at the contracting firm Van Zielst [SvZ] and at Top Onions. Those companies are still performing really well, and I’m proud to have been able to do my bit, by pioneering the use of four-wheel drives and not seeing too many obstacles. I look back on that time in my life with satisfaction.
How is cultivation different in Canada compared with the Netherlands and France?
In Ontario, if you really want results you have to do everything yourself in terms of cultivation, processing and sales. It’s hard to lease land because every farmer needs their own land for the crops they sell themselves. Because of the small scale of production here, there are no contract workers or crop consultants. Growers who aren’t able to process their own produce sell to bigger parties that supply the supermarkets. We started that way, but after doing it twice I knew there was no future for us in that system. Nowadays we sell our produce in a much healthier way, to all the retailers in Ontario except one. They’re a price buyer. And I’ve never liked working hard for cheap.