This is a story of a business enterprise. It started on the 12th of September 1913, when four prominent Niagara Peninsula fruit growers met at the home of Mr. Alonzo H. Culp to discuss the formation of a co-operative fruit company.

Besides Mr. Culp, who was to become the first president of the Co-operative, there were in attendance at that meeting Mr. Ezra Honsberger, Mr. Norman P. Moyer and Mr. Melvin Honsberger. In addition to these growers was a Mr. Walter M. Gayman, a local school teacher who joined the group and became the first managing director of the company.

Writing their own by-laws, these pioneers applied for a government charter. The authorized capital was $10,000, consisting of 400 shares valued at $25.00 each. Five men subscribed to shares to the value of $2,100 and arrangements were made at the bank for $500 credit. It is of interest to note that the total original organizational expenses amounted to just $14.00.

 

With this foundation, Vineland Growers' Co-operative was ready for business in the spring of 1914.

 

The year 1914 was not only a gloomy one throughout the world but also for the fledgling co-operative. The volume of business did not amount to that anticipated, and in addition, there was a peach crop failure because of a freeze-out during the winter.

The result: The books of Vineland Growers’ Co-operative showed a loss of $1,600 at the end of the first year’s operation. The directors met to decide the fate of the company. Unhappy, but not discouraged, the original four members paid in $400 each to wipe out the deficit incurred during the first year and three new members were taken into the company, bringing the number of members and directors to eight.

While the Co-operative has expanded its operations throughout the years and diversified, it has from the beginning bought and sold the fruit and vegetables of members and non-members, as well as handling a complete line of growers’ supplies. These include wire and fencing, containers of all sorts, fertilizers, spray materials, feeds and seeds, hardware, coal, oil and many other articles required in the production of fruit and vegetables.

On the 8th day of June, 1914 Vineland Growers' Co-operatives first business transaction occurred when five crates of strawberries were received from the farm of Melvin Honsberger. This first shipment was forwarded to G.W. Duncan in North Bay and Clemes Brother in Toronto. The amount of the sale was $14.63.

As time went on business improved and it wasn't long until the Co-operative was paying dividends of seven per cent per annum on stock held in the company. As a matter of fact the dividend became so attractive that people were holding stocks in the company long after their families discontinued fruit growing. This was discouraged and interest paid on stocks was gradually reduced until 1930 when interest payments ceased altogether.

Since that time the Co-operative has made a "patronage return" to its members based on the amount of business transacted through the company during a fiscal year. Sales and patronage returns have shown a steady increase with the odd exception from 1915 until the present day.

The history of Vineland Growers' Co-operative closely parallels the development of the co-operative movement in Canada. The original directors and those who have followed throughout the years have been steeped in the spirit of co-operation, coming as they did from hardy Pennsylvania stock that immigrated to Canada in the early 1800's, when barn-raisings and other co-operative activities were commonplace.

Although these early Pennsylvania families have provided the nucleus for the Co-operative, other progressive settlers from the British Isles and Europe came to the area following the First World War and have made a significant contribution to the development of Vineland Growers Co-operative Limited.

From the four founding members and the original managing director in 1913, the company has grown steadily. In 1919 there were 28 members; in 1924, 33 members; in 1929, 41 members; in 1934, 51 members; in 1939, 64 members; in 1943, 76 members; in 1964, 90 members.

Shrewd management, thrift and integrity, combined with the ability to co-operate with one another during good times and bad, plus instinctive business sense, have been key factors responsible for the success of Vineland Growers’ Co-operative.

Always desirous to share the prosperity of the company with employees, Vineland Growers’ Co-operative Limited has throughout its history valued the contributions of the employee group and provided them with liberal benefits. In 1948, for example, the Co-operative was one of the early agricultural organizations to introduce an attractive pension scheme for employees.

Achieving success was never easy for Vineland Growers’ – it involved sacrifices from its directors and members on many occasions.

One of the major steps forward in the progress of the company came in 1948 when the first stage of the original cold storage plant was built. The plant was designed as a pre-cooling plant and was the first of its type in the peninsula. While this represented a sizable investment on the part of the company, the cold storage plant has proven to be a wise investment and served not only the members of the Co-operative but growers throughout the area. Expansion since that time has been regular and significant. For example in 1954, a second storey was added to the cold storage plant, increasing its capacity by one third.

Continually aware of its responsibility to serve members and growers in the true co-operative spirit, Vineland Growers’ Co-operative Limited in 1951 started manufacturing baskets. Throughout the years this phase of the company’s operations has not only provided employment on a year round basis for personnel but more significantly, has assisted local growers in obtaining baskets for their produce at a reasonable price.

One of the oldest co-operatives in the Niagara Peninsula, Vineland Growers’ has continuously bought and sold fruit and farm supplies. Throughout its long history, it has endeavored to maintain the most modern materials, handling practices and methods available.

During the summer months the Co-operative has shipped the fruit of the region by rail, truck and aircraft to marketing centers both in Canada and the United States. On several occasions the Co-operative has even shipped fruit by sea and air to the United Kingdom.

As in the first 50 years of operation, the Co-operative continued to see improvements, to benefit the members. In 1965, Vineland Growers expanded its operation to St. Davids, purchasing an existing warehouse from the St. Catharines Growers’ Co-op. This site operated until 1976 when it was closed and the property was sold. This was the beginning of many major improvements which included the Jordan Station and Fonthill facilities over the next many years, to keep up with the ever changing times. In 1974, the retail outlet at Jordan Station was replaced with a new steel structure that eventually became the head office, complete with a retail outlet and chemical storage. Then in 1978 a new store and warehouse was built at the Fonthill location.

In keeping with the facility improvements, the Jordan Station site was a flurry of activity during the 1980’s. It began with major upgrades to the Cold Storage Plant, costing approximately $133,000 and purchasing of the former Canadian Canners property, which had burned in 1977.

Administration was relocated from Vineland Station to the new office in Jordan Station. Other improvements at Jordan Station included a new building to store fertilizer and corrugated products and the first computer system for the office. In addition, the loading dock in front of the cold storage was expanded and a water pumping station was installed to service the members that live outside of the town water system. In 1987, facilities for basket making were installed in Jordan Station and a folding, gluing machine was purchased for two and four litre paper baskets, along with equipment for attaching wooden handles to the baskets.

In 1989, West Lincoln Orchards in Beamsville was purchased, increasing business and membership.

Vineland Growers have always been innovators and leaders in the agricultural community throughout Niagara and continued to do so. When Central Sales Marketing was dissolved in 1991, the Co-operative re-established its own marketing with “Vineland Brand” fruit. In doing so, the Co-operative created strong alliances with major chain store customers throughout Ontario, Quebec and the Eastern Provinces of Canada. With the increased volumes of fruit, additional containers were required. In 1994 a second basket gluing machine was purchased. Being progressive and finding a need to reduce the labour of attaching wood handles to baskets, along with the intense labour of moving the “Tub” baskets, Vineland Growers designed, developed and produced the plastic handle for the corrugated basket, which continues to be an industry standard. In an effort to reduce costs to the members, the first automated tray forming machine was purchased. This eliminated the need for additional labour at the farm to hand fold the shipping container and at the same time reduced the cost as the glued tray requires less paper.

In 1996, Vineland Growers expanded to the east end of the Niagara Peninsula by purchasing the Virgil facility of St. David’s Produce. With this purchase came many prominent growers, increasing the early season volume of fruit. Also in the same year, 2 punnet netting machines were purchased to help market the large volume of plums. With the use of netting machines, plastic punnet containers were introduced to the Niagara fruit industry.

Realizing the need for a greater volume of fruit to meet the demands of the large chain stores across Canada, in 2001 Vineland Growers Co-operative purchased the assets of Seaway Co-op Ltd, located in Niagara on the Lake. Again, the grower member base increased. With the increased volume of fruit, meant an increase of containers and more cold storage. To handle the increased volumes, an addition of 14,000 square feet was added to the Virgil site of Vineland Growers. Two new cold storages were added, a fruit shipping area and a container manufacturing area. At the same time as the addition, a Boix tray forming machine was purchased and located in the Virgil addition. This machine was the first of its type in Canada, having the ability to form and glue a corrugated shipping box that has glued in corner posts, to eliminate container crushing.

In 2003 the Beamsville branch was sold, and the operations were consolidated in Jordan Station. Shortly later in the same year, the Jordan Station site was renovated, moving the retail store to the loading dock area; the office was renovated, taking in two levels and increasing the overall square footage; the original cold storage, built in 1948 was decommissioned and converted for dry storage of supplies. The “old” basket plant was then demolished and replaced with three new cold storages with a fruit shipping and receiving area. While this transformation was taking place, all of the container manufacturing was being done at the Lakeshore branch (Seaway Co-op building) and at the Virgil branch. The next year, a UPI Card lock fuel depot was installed at Jordan Station.

As a result of the increased members, volume of fruit and supply sales, Vineland Growers Co-operative Limited was honored with the Top Twenty Percent Award from Growmark Inc. Not only once, but twice, this award was achieved in 2005 and 2007.   

A second Boix tray forming machine was purchased in 2007. This was located next to the original machine in Virgil. At the same time, the dry storage building at Jordan Station was re-purposed into a basket manufacturing and storage facility with five basket gluing machines at one site. Two years later the basket forming and gluing peaked at more than 6.1 million containers and the Mub (shipping tray) production reached a high of more than 1.4 million.

To accommodate the increased volume of fruit, containers and supplies; the fleet of trucks, tractors and trailers have been steadily increased ensure that the members received their containers on time and their fruit went to market in a timely fashion.

Vineland Growers Co-operative was recognized in 2010 by Growmark Inc for Excellence in Business. During this same year the Fonthill branch was sold, plastic baskets with a lid were introduced to the market and a trial use of the RPC (plastic shipping container). As well, the Co-operative had attained 50% of the fresh fruit market share of the Niagara Peninsula. In addition, the Co-operative and its members have met industry challenges such as the Food Safety and Traceability Programs, from the farm to the consumer.

Working closely with the Vineland Research and Innovation Center, the new Sundown Pear was introduced in 2011, which is exclusive to Vineland Growers Co-operative. This new variety of pear has qualities which are more favorable to the Niagara growing region, producing a high quality pear.

As a result of continuous growth over the years, the Co-operative had assembled and marketed more than 1,145,000 cases of fruit and attained Gross Sales of Fruit and Supplies of more than $33.8 million and returned to members more than $1.2 million in Fruit and Supply Volume Discounts, in 2011. The following year, 2012 saw a slight decline in revenue for the Co-operative from the previous year, due to the earliest blossom on record and an early frost, as a result there were reduced crops in most areas of the region.

Throughout the history of Vineland Growers’ Co-operative, confidence and integrity has been key works in the philosophy of operations. This undoubtedly accounts for the fact that at the present time the company is serving the majority of progressive growers throughout the region and beyond, with more than 300 members today. To provide the service to the membership and customers, there are currently 28 dedicated full time employees, many who have been with the Co-operative in excess of 20 years and a few  with more than 30 years of service. During the harvest season the number of employees grows to 60 plus, with the addition of seasonal workers.

Over the past 100 years of continuous operation, there have been many issues and challenges, good years and some not so good, but through the Co-operative spirit of the members and employees, Vineland Growers Co-operative Limited has overcome them. The Co-operative has always strived to be at the leader in the industry through the dedication of its members and will continue to make their mark into the next century.