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Being bold and visionary sounds exciting, but at Hillside Gardens it meant stuffing filing cabinets with pieces of paper – lots and lots of paper.

When the owners of the fourth-generation Ontario vegetable farm and packing plant decided a decade ago to implement traceability, there was no off-the-shelf software to do the job. So they used clipboards and paper forms to track mountains of carrots and other produce.

The 450-acre farm in ‘Ontario’s vegetable patch’ (the Holland Marsh area north of Toronto), processes its own produce as well as veggies from upwards of 30 area farms. Carrots are its biggest product, and it typically packs 15,000 to 20,000 tonnes a year, which works out to an average of 700,000 50-pound bags. Every one sports a bar-coded sticker that allows the company, if need be, to unearth a complete A to Z history of the carrots in any bag.

And even the most humble carrot has a lot of events in its life, notes Hillside CEO Ron Gleason.

“For any bag of carrots, you can trace back by using the recall log to find out what seed was used, what fields they were grown in, what sprays went on when, was the pre-harvest interval observed, and what barn it was stored in,” says Gleason, 44.

“It also showed fertilizing and any other chemical applications. For instance, we use a food-grade peracetic acid in our wash, so that would be included. It would have the packaging information and reference the food-safety certificate of the packaging company we’re using. And of course, it would include all of the shipping information.”

Even that capsule description, although a mouthful, doesn’t cover it all. Hillside will harvest upwards of 400 tonnes of carrots in a single day. Prior to traceability, all it needed to do was keep different varieties separated, but now the harvest from each and every field is essentially a different product. And if for some reason something different happens within a field – such as seed from two different batches or a treatment only applied to part of it – carrots from each part of the field must be segregated, too.

And what did Hillside get out of all the extra time and expense?

Initially, nothing. Their customers were happy, but they weren’t paying any more for traceable carrots. Which was why other produce packers weren’t keen to do traceability.

“It was easy to say no (to traceability) in the early days,” says Gleason. “Because only a few people were doing it, buyers couldn’t cut everybody off. But I just decided to focus on the principle of customer service, which is: Find out what your customer wants and then do it.”

Traceability was actually a byproduct of what customers wanted, namely a more robust food-safety regime. The message came across loud and clear from food companies and retailers when Hillside began producing carrot juice in 1999. While carrots aren’t generally viewed as being a high food-safety risk, juice is another matter. So potential customers were asking, if there was a bad batch, would Hillside be able to pinpoint the cause? Although the company exited the carrot juice business in 2004, Gleason was convinced changes were needed.

“I had just started managing the farm then, and I said to my father-in-law (Jim Verkaik), ‘Let’s be pro-active about food safety,’” recalls Gleason. “So we hired a food-safety consultant and she recommended we do full traceability. To do something like that on an old-style farm takes a lot of running around and it meant a lot of paperwork, which was very low on everybody’s wish list.”

Still, innovation is a tradition at Hillside Gardens (hillsidegardens.ca), which dates back to 1934 when Verkaik’s grandfather settled in the Holland Marsh. The farm was the first in the area to automate harvesting of carrots and celery, and built its first packing line in the ‘70s. Although small compared to the big boys in California, Hillside was large enough that the job of filling in all those forms could be divided among several people.

“Everybody took a chunk and it wasn’t too painful,” Gleason says.

Still, it added up. It took about 90 minutes a day to do the paperwork, and since the company packs 12 months a year, that added up to several hundred additional hours of staff time annually. However, Gleason says he was convinced that traceability was eventually going to be a fact of life and it was better to start early than wait until it was forced on them.

He was right – early adoption brought a host of benefits.

A year and a half after Hillside bought all those clipboards and forms, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs invited the company to participate in a pilot project on electronic traceability. The program didn’t just offset some of the costs of moving to software and handheld computers with bar-code readers; it brought in outside expertise.

Traceability also changed the workplace dynamic, says Gleason. First, it brought a new level of organization.

“One of the unanticipated benefits is that having this level of record-keeping has really allowed us to make much better decisions,” says Gleason. “You’re not going out to a field and asking, ‘What variety did we plant here?’ or ‘What spray was used when?’ We know everything that’s happened and once it’s harvested, we know exactly where everything is, which gives you complete confidence whenever you make a sale.”

It also tells him which inventory is nearing the end of its storage life.

“If you lose 1,000 boxes of onions due to spoilage, you’ve just lost a quarter of a million dollars,” he says. “Now, that’s never happened to us and I’m not saying it ever would have under our old system. But when I look at a $60,000 piece of software that helps us better manage our inventory, I know it’s going to pay for itself very quickly.”

There’s also a new attitude among Hillside employees, he says.

“When you train people and give them a new skill, they take pride in that,” he says. “Just like everything else, farming is increasingly technology-driven, and introducing traceability gave our employees new skills in computers and managing systems. That’s had a meaningful impact.”

You can see the difference, too. Work areas are cleaner and staff have embraced food-safety protocols in a way they never did before.

“For example, when we first started using hairnets, people weren’t keen because you look like a dope,” says Gleason. “But now, if an electrician comes in and forgets to put his hairnet on, someone will come over and remind him. The attitude is: You’re on our team today, so you wear the hairnet.”

Traceability also arrived at a time of tremendous growth for the company, which has seen sales triple since moving into specialty products (such as multi-coloured heritage varieties of carrots and beets) and opening a second 400-acre location in Georgia. The company now employs up to 100 people in Canada and another 35 in Georgia.

Traceability, even the electronic version, is still a lot of work, but it’s well worth the effort, says Gleason, adding it also helps with marketing.

“There are times when I think everybody wishes we could do less of this and do more of what we really love, which is growing and packing produce. But we understand it’s now part of the process and, considering the way we’ve been growing, I think our customers feel that way, too.”