Nightingale Farms stands out in the produce farming industry for not only the quality of the fruits and vegetables it grows, but the techniques it utilizes to cultivate its crops. Within the past 15 years, the LaSalette, Ontario-based company has heavily invested in new technologies including mechanization techniques such as automatic picking systems. The company has also invested in greenhouses and high tunnels, both of which allow it to grow produce year-round.
“I’m willing to test or try anything,” President Bill Nightingale Jr. says. “We constantly look for anything new and innovative we can do; we want to be leaders, not followers, even if it costs a lot of money for us to do that. The ability to create niche items and be innovative is what really drives me to work every day.”
The company produces more than 100 SKUs of conventional and organic produce items annually from its 1,500-acre farm. It supplies conventional produce items to retailers within Ontario, and distributes organic items to specialty retailers throughout Canada and the United States including Whole Foods. In addition to growing its own produce, Nightingale Farms packages its own items using equipment including automated tray bagging and packing systems.
Nightingale Farms’ organic items, distributed under the Norfolk Farms brand, include colored bell peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, cluster tomatoes, beans, squash and zucchini. “We have a very extensive organic line,” he adds. “For many of our customers, we’re a one-stop-shop organic warehouse.”
The company is one of the only of its kind in North America to locally grow snow and snap peas. Nightingale Farms in 2016 also plans to grow and market French beans, Nightingale says.
Mechanizing its operations has allowed Nightingale Farms to enhance the quality of its products while keeping its operational costs in check. “Our production costs are through the roof here in Ontario – this is the hardest place other than Europe to grow produce,” Nightingale says, noting provincial requirements including the use of green energy in its operations to be among its challenges. “If we didn’t mechanize, we would never be able to compete.”
Although the company manages high electric and hydroelectric costs as a result of provincial requirements, the province of Ontario assists it with grants to enhance its food safety and traceability efforts. “Food safety in Ontario is heavily monitored and very crucial – without it, buyers won’t even look at you,” he adds, noting the company regularly conducts mock recalls. Produce is traced through every step of its life, “from the seed to the customer’s mouth,” Nightingale says.
All produce is handled in a manner that minimizes damage and potential contamination during harvesting and production. Employees are extensively trained on personal hygiene handling procedures and food safety, and all equipment and tools are cleaned and sanitized daily, the company says.
Nightingale Farms is Pro-Cert organic and HACCP certified. It is also involved in a number of industry and agricultural organizations including the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Ontario Produce Marketing Association.
A Family Legacy
Nightingale Farms is celebrating its 65th anniversary in 2015. The company was established in 1950 by Nightingale’s grandfather Frank J. Nightingale and later led by his father, Bill Nightingale Sr. Bill Nightingale Jr. assumed the helm of the company in 2003.
Although much has changed for the company during its history, the commitment and work ethic of the Nightingale family has not. The family and company will continue to work even harder within the next few years, particularly when it comes to the expansion of its organic lines.
“We’re supplying conventional items in as efficient a manner as we can without really expanding those lines very much, but our organics lines are expanding because we see the consumer demand for that reaching a much higher point,” Bill Nightingale Jr. says of the company’s current focus. “Organic produce is what the customer wants, so we need to follow that demand no matter what.”