Bick’s moves its pickles to the U.S.

Can the Canadian cucumber survive without them?
Anna-Liza Kozma
Left with a sour taste
Photograph by Reena Newman

When you trawl the pickle aisle of a Canadian grocery store you’re almost certain to see shelves of Bick’s products and that iconic red-and-green logo. It’s the country’s dominant producer of pickles. At least it used to be. After more than 60 years of processing cucumbers, onions, peppers and beets in Canada, Bick’s has closed its plants in Dunnville and Delhi, Ont., and moved its operations to Wisconsin.

The move has left the Canadian pickle industry adrift, with farmers fretting—worried not just about falling cucumber prices and disappearing markets, but the very fate of the Canadian-made pickle. Marshall Schuyler once grew 600 tonnes of cucumbers for Bick’s per year but has gradually been cutting back in favour of more profitable crops like soybeans and corn. This year, for the first time in 20 years, he won’t be planting any. “The future success of Canadian cucumbers—and many of our processed vegetables—depends on the consumers’ willingness to pay for food safety,” he says, referring to the rise of cheaper foreign imports that picklers like Bick’s are turning to.

While fresh produce has benefited from the buy-local movement, the same can’t be said for canned or jarred goods. “Canadians just want to buy the cheapest product they can,” says John Lutigheid, a former cucumber grower for Bick’s in Chatham, Ont. “They don’t care where their pickles are made. The buy-local movement has been all about buying fresh, which only applies for a few months of the year.”

Bick’s pickles was the quintessential Canadian immigrant success story. After a bumper crop in 1944, German-born George Bick and his son Walter began selling barrels of cucumbers to Toronto restaurants from his Scarborough farm. Within two decades the company was churning out 36 million jars of pickles a year. In 1962, the brand was sold to Robin Hood Flour and then in 2004 to the U.S. company J.M. Smucker’s. Maribeth Burns Badertscher, a spokesperson for the company, cites the need for “greater manufacturing and sourcing flexibility” for the move to Wisconsin, which was completed late last year (resulting in the loss of 150 factory jobs and over 1,000 seasonal farm jobs). “We know Canadian growers can be part of our future supply chain,” she adds.

But Ontario farmers aren’t convinced Smucker’s will continue to pay a premium for Canadian cucumbers now that it’s left the country. Ontario is noted for its high quality but labour intensive cukes, says Mark Wales, a farmer and president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. Typically, the vegetable is harvested not by migrant workers but by sharecropping, where a farmer splits the payment for harvests with local pickers. “We have lost over a thousand of these seasonal jobs on top of all the manufacturing jobs,” says Wales.

John Mumford, the director of the Ontario Processed Vegetable Growers, points to “the double whammy of a high dollar and rising labour costs” to account for the Bick’s closure. But he notes that there are still opportunities—many farmers who lost the Bick’s contract are selling to large distributors, such as the U.S. company Hartung Brothers, which supplies the processed food industry. “While I hate to lose an iconic Canadian company like Bick’s, we still have a huge export market,” he says. Ontario cucumbers are likely still ending up in Bick’s pickle jars (after being bought and sold by firms like Hartung’s).

Still, farmers like Schuyler see only rising pressure brought by cheaper Indian or Sri Lankan pickles. He argues that more flexible and clearer labelling regulations would allow pickle manufacturers to specify a high Canadian produce content and might help consumers make more informed choices at the grocery store. But for the time being, at least, when you bite into a Bick’s, there’s a pretty good chance that it won’t be a Canadian pickle.