The Source for Year-Round Sweet Corn
Sweet summer air – it’s the first thing that comes to mind when walking into the Rouge River Farms’ Gormley facility. Rouge River Farms is an international sweet corn farm with growing, packing and shipping operations in multiple regions, which has humble origins starting at the York Farmers Market 30 years ago.
Originally, two Reesor brothers opened a deli stand at the York Farmers Market selling eggs, cheese, and meat. As the summer season came around at the market, enough customers were asking about sweet corn over the years that the brothers decided to start growing sweet corn to sell. The sweet corn they grew which was picked by hand on summer mornings and brought to the York Farmers Market, was received with great fanfare. With great success at the market, the brothers started selling large quantities of sweet corn to major Canadian grocers. Just like the customers at the farmers market, the reception on a larger commercial scale was a success. With more clients and increased demand for sweet corn throughout the year, growth was inevitable.
Today, Rouge River Farms grows their famous sweet corn in Ontario, Georgia, Virginia, and Florida. This allows Rouge River Farms to supply fresh sweet corn year-round to some of Canada’s and America’s biggest grocers. Across North America, there are three processing facilities like the one located in Gormley, with the other two being in Virginia and Florida. At these facilities, the sweet corn goes through a series of belts and machines which automatically trims and husks the cobs. From there the cobs are graded by hand, where workers determine what will be sold. Finally, the corn is automatically packaged and readied for shipping. There is no waste at these facilities – all trimmings, husks, and rejected cobs are supplied to local beef farmers for feed. Each of these facilities will receive and process the sweet corn from wherever the corn is being grown at that time of the year. The growing and harvesting seasons for Rouge River Farms is like so: between November to the middle of May it’s in Florida; from mid-May to mid-July in Georgia; from mid-July to the end of September in Ontario and Virginia; and finally, for the month of October the corn is in Georgia.
Although the corn is grown across the eastern seaboard and in Ontario, Rouge River Farms corn is on a different scale of fresh compared to the competitors. As with most things today, there is a technology and science behind the freshness of sweet corn. As soon as the sweet corn ears are picked off the stalks, they are placed into crates and rushed to a hydro-cooler, which is essentially an ice shower for corn. Cooling the corn down with air is too long of a process, so water is utilized instead. For about an hour, the corn is washed with water that is as close to freezing as possible (between 1.6-3.3 degrees Celsius). From there the corn is kept at a very cold temperature until it’s sold. This cooling slows the respiration process, which utilizes the natural sugars in the sweet corn as a source of energy. The process ensures that the corn is as sweet as it can be by the time it reaches the consumer’s plate. Keeping the sweet corn in the husk for as long as possible also ensures freshness.
The majority of the sweet corn that is eaten in the cold winter months, are husked and packaged in warmer climates and then shipped to Canada, which adds about 3-4 days before reaching distributors. Rouge River Farms is unique because the corn arrives in Canada (and their two other processing facilities) still in the husk. This ensures optimal freshness, but it also allows Rouge River Farms to package and ship husked corn and ready-prepared cobettes with just a 1-2 day lead time, which allows for flexibility for the large scale buyers, compared to the 3-4 day lead time that competitors require.
Curtis Reesor – VP of operations, who gave us the tour of Rouge River Farms, is still carrying on the family business today. Just like 30 years ago when people were asking for his dad and uncle to grow sweet corn at the York Farmers Market, there is now demand from their large grocer clients to grow another summer favourite – beans. In June of last year, Rouge River Farms answered the call and closed on the acquisition of Magnolia Packing, a green bean grower and packager which had locations in Georgia and Florida and was an 8-month of the year business. Similar to the sweet corn, Rouge River Farms opened a facility in Virginia and is now able to supply fresh beans all year-round.
From two brothers selling sweet corn at farmer’s markets, to an international organization with 600-700 employees at peak harvesting. Rouge River Farms has utilized its tremendous growth over the years, along with strategy, science, and technology to ensure that people across Canada and the United States can enjoy a once summer favourite, sweet corn, all year-round.