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Co-op celebrates century

Penny Coles

Niagara Advance

Vineland Growers’ Co-operative, a success story that began 100 years ago, is celebrating a century of buying and selling local fruit and vegetables and growers’ supplies.

The local co-op, with more than 300 fruit and vegetable growers as members from across the peninsula, threw a party for 1,000 people to celebrate, inviting members, retailers and suppliers, says Dave Lepp, director of operations.

Lepp has been an employee of the co-op since it took over St. Davids Produce in 1996, of which he was a partner. He was asked to stay on for a year, and has been with Vineland Growers ever since.

“It keeps me in the agricultural industry, working at something I love,” while providing stability over the years for himself and his family.

The co-op began in Vineland with four local growers, and has grown to include offices and acres of cold storage warehouse space in Jordan and Virgil, two production facilities making baskets and boxes for fruit and vegetables, and retail outlets providing grower supplies.

It now buys more than half the fruit grown in the peninsula, and employes 28 people full-time, many who have been with the co-op for more than 20 years and some more than 30, says Lepp. During the harvest season the number of employees grows to more than 60 people, with the addition of seasonal workers.

When its celebration was in the planning stages, says Lepp, board chair Phil Tregunno decided to ask Joe Pillitteri, who grew up in a local farming family and runs and agricultural business of his own, to MC the event. Pillitteri is well-known for his skill as an entertaining MC and stand-up comic, a love of his and a hobby—he performs for many worthwhile causes, taking no payment for himself but lending his talent to fundraising events.

He agreed he’d do it, but asked for a donation to KidSport Niagara, a local charity that helps ensure kids who can’t afford registration fees and equipment costs are able to participate in minor sports.

“I usually perform pro-bono for charity and I mentioned to the organizers that I would be happy if they would simply donate $200 to KidSport Niagara in lieu of payment to me.  They agreed but suggested $1000 would be more appropriate,” says Pillitteri.

Lepp says the celebration was perfect, with great weather, at the beautiful Staff Winery on the top of the escarpment.

“Everything was perfect,” he said.

“We were even able to convince Kathleen Wynne, the premier of Ontario, to stop by for an hour or so.”

In her speech, she used the phrase ‘good things grow in Ontario’, a catch-phrase of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food to help promote products grown in Ontario, and with a little prodding, says Lepp, she led the guests in a rousing rendition of the jingle.

“It was fun, it was a good evening,” says Lepp, “and a chance to help out a local charity.

KidSport Niagara, a chapter of KidSport Ontario, has issued more than 135 grants totaling $33,000 since it was established in the region.