$60 mil in lettuce

That's a lot of lettuce!

A Quebec-based agricultural firm is investing $60 million to buy land to grow salad greens and build a packing house in Coldstream. Between 150 to 200 jobs are expected to be created, many of them full-time, when the company begins operating next summer.

Vegpro International Inc. has bought 700 acres of land from Coldstream Ranch to produce the baby leaf greens, then wash and pack them in the proposed facility before they are shipped throughout B.C. and Alberta.

The family-owned firm has been in operation for 20 years and employs 850 people in Quebec, shipping its produce throughout that province as well as into the Maritimes and Ontario.

“I never believed we could deliver a good product, or fresh, from growing on the east coast and shipping to the west coast,” said Gerry Van Winden, Vegpro president and chief executive officer, during the announcement on Wednesday. “That is one of the reasons we are here. You've also got weather advantage over here, but we believe we could do even better than what we are doing at home to develop the market.”

Van Winden pointed out that most lettuce arrives in B.C. from California and Arizona over the winter but he wants to offer a local alternative.

“And not too expensive,” he added.

As well, a section of the land will be set aside for organic produce, a market he expects to expand over the coming years.

“We are going to need a lot of labour,” Van Winden admitted. However, he expressed little worry over finding workers as most of the packing house jobs would be full-time and over minimum wage, possibly $15 per hour. Foreign farm workers might possibly be used to pick the produce.

Coldstream Ranch owner Keith Balcaen expressed delight with the plan and stressed it would not affect the cow and calf operations on his 9,000 acre ranch.

“I like the idea of the family, I like the idea of farming and it's good, solid employment for Coldstream,” Balcaen said. “People want to eat local, healthy, easy and fast to prepare. That's where the trend is going.”

“This is a good use of agricultural land,” said Mayor Jim Garlick. “It's what we want to see on it. Plus it'll be year-round work that remains here.”

Construction of the packing house is expected to start in January, with company operations beginning next June.

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