Despite the temperamental weather, Canada puts out a bountiful supply of produce from coast to coast, encouraging locals to eat more often from their own backyard while the seasons allow it.
While it is possible to grow watermelon in some areas of the Great White North, the season is just too short to turn a profit and distribute on any kind of cost-effective scale.
Meet Brian Arrigo, an entrepreneur who wanted to keep it local, but with a twist.
Arrigo, who is from Ontario, saw an opportunity and wanted to ensure Canadian consumers could buy sweet and juicy--and somewhat “Canadian”--watermelons year-round.
“Local watermelons have a short growing season,” he explains. “I saw a gap in availability and quality in the market and began shipping and exporting the fruit from Florida directly back to Canada.”
Arrigo started his career in the family wholesale business at the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto. In 1989, he relocated to Florida to work for a grower, and less than a year later started his own company, Southern Corporate Packers. He began shipping watermelons to Canada under the Yum-Yum brand, inadvertently taking ownership of the watermelon supply chain to our great nation.
“If you’d asked me 27 years ago, I would have never guessed I’d end up a watermelon man,” he reflects. “I started following produce up to Canada, which led me to be on the road approximately four months of the year. I still am to this day overseeing the shipments. I started with import and export work, which soon progressed to a broker, then sales agent, and now we even grow ourselves. Watermelon just somehow evolved to become the focus of the business.”
The majority of products sold by the Yum-Yum brand are grown in its own fields with several partners across the U.S. You’ll find its headquarters in Immokalee, Florida, where agriculture rules the roost.
Yum-Yum sells primarily to big chain stores and wholesalers in Canada and the U.S., and sales are currently close to an even split between the two countries. While sales data for the company is not publicly available, government import data indicates this market is significant: Canadians imported more than $125 million worth of watermelon in 2014. According to the National Watermelon Promotion Board based in the U.S., Canada is the U.S.’ number one export market for watermelon – importing more than 300 million pounds of watermelon in 2015!
Summer is peak watermelon growing season, but truly there’s no off-season for Arrigo’s crew. When watermelons aren’t in season in Florida from November through March, he sources from Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and Dominican Republic and ships it back to Canada. During his slow months, his growers produce corn, broccoli, eggplant, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and squash, to name a few.
“These days people are mostly looking for seedless watermelons. We probably sell 90 per cent seedless to Canadians, the other 10 per cent is good old seeded, and a really small per cent of consumers purchase orange and yellow melons,” explains Arrigo. “Ontario and Quebec are our biggest consumers, but that’s mainly because of population density. It actually amazes me how popular they are on the East coast, specifically in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia; they really love their watermelons there!”
Recently, there’s been tremendous growth in the demand for mini watermelons, especially during the winter months in Canada.
This unique career path has enabled Arrigo to travel and experience parts of North America he never thought he’d see, but it does come at a price.
“It’s hard being separated from my wife and daughters for such long periods of time. While I’m driving up from Florida to Southwestern Ontario to supervise the shipping, my wife Julia usually returns to Kitchener, Ontario with the girls (once they finish school) to run our distribution facility there. This is where our products are packed, shipped, and checked for quality control before being distributed into the Canadian market.”
So the next time you’re at the grocery store considering purchasing a watermelon, no matter the time of year, you can rest assured you're still supporting local, in a roundabout way.
For creative watermelon recipes, visit www.watermelon.org.