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Joe Sleiman, president and owner of Accu-Label Inc., which sells the paper-based labels that are fixed to fruits and vegetables.Terri Michienzi/Accu-label

Located near Windsor, Ont., just steps from the Detroit River, Accu-Label Inc. couldn’t get much closer to the United States, which accounts for half of the market for its fruit and vegetable labelling and handling products.

But from the time the company took its first foray south of the border 18 years ago, it has always been mindful of how to bridge the gap between the two countries to find new opportunities there.

Accu-Label sells the paper-based product, or price, look-up (PLU) labels that are fixed to fruits and vegetables, while its sister company, Ag-Tronic Control Systems Inc., makes the equipment that creates and applies them. Ag-Tronic also provides other packaging and automation technology for the agriculture industry, with demand especially growing in the U.S., which has a much longer growing season and wider market domestically and abroad for its fresh fruits and vegetables.

“As a Canadian firm, we are laser-focused on serving our neighbours in the U.S.,” says Joe Sleiman, president and owner of Accu-label and Ag-Tronic. The family companies started in 1991 in Leamington, Ont., which is known as the tomato capital of Canada. Mr. Sleiman, an electromechanical engineering technician, started out by making technology for greenhouses, including handling and labelling machinery. Today, the companies operate out of a plant in Lakeshore, just east of Windsor, that has 25 employees.

Mr. Sleiman moved into the U.S. market but quickly learned that the buy-local mentality there meant that “customers wanted a U.S. entity to service them.” In 2001, he set up Accu-label International Inc. in the Detroit area, just about a kilometre and a half away as the crow flies. “It’s literally across the river. … You can throw one of those little airplanes with notes across or send smoke signals or flashlight signals,” he quips.

The company also stationed a couple of employees in the western United States to service its customers in California and Washington State, but that was increasingly inadequate for the “support America-made” mindset and the growing market there, he notes. Accu-label and Agtronic have now set up a partnership agreement with a global distributor called Orora Packaging to help it compete more effectively in the U.S.

The companies’ experience in the United States is much like that of its Canadian customers in the food and agriculture industry. Joseph Sbrocchi, general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, says there is a growing U.S. demand for the tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers that the association’s 225 members produce. They are responding both by exporting – more than 60 per cent of their products currently go south of the border – and setting up greenhouse operations in the United States.

He says the U.S. presence makes financial sense, with transportation costs “going through the roof,” and the fact that Canadian growers are known for their greenhouse expertise and superior vegetables. “It’s not necessarily about ‘Making America Great Again,’ it’s more about sound economics and supplying the increasing demand for the product,” he says.

Mr. Sbrocchi sees a time when Canadian growers will supply the demand for greenhouse vegetables in much of the top third of the U.S., with the middle third coming from U.S. sources and the bottom third largely from Mexico.

He says that in the renegotiation of NAFTA (the former North American free-trade agreement), the growers’ main request of the governments was to “do the current situation no harm.” The resulting United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) “really delivered on that. … It will allow certainty, and that certainty is for the existing growers here and those making builds into the U.S. market. It’s good for the industry as a whole.”

On the other hand, the trade hostilities with the United States have brought some increased costs in terms of tariffs on steel and aluminum, which affect the cost of building new greenhouses in Canada, Mr. Sbrocchi says.

Accu-Label’s Mr. Sleiman says the tariffs have also increased some costs of new machinery at his companies. He feels that the recent acrimony over the tariffs “took us back a step.”

But he is encouraged by the USMCA deal and hopes that things will return to normal..

He is also hopeful that the company’s business will increase rapidly in Mexico, where avocado production is extensive, and the production of greenhouse vegetables is also increasing.

The future promises new opportunities for Accu-label. Its variable-data, print-on-the-fly labels for fruits and vegetables have a growing market, given the increasing emphasis on food safety and traceability in the U.S. and other foreign markets. “A lot of exciting technologies are coming along,” says Mr. Sleiman, including blockchain codes that show the exact tree that a piece of fruit or the exact plant that a tomato came from.

Mr. Sbrocchi, of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, says that “food safety is the bedrock” of Canada’s sales of food products to the U.S., both those exported from Canada and those where Canadian companies have set up operations south of the border.

“Canada is the most trusted food producer in the world,” he says.

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