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Ontario government rewards on-farm innovation

Rewards on-farm innovation

October 3, 2008  By Fruit & Vegetable

Two Ontario farmers received the province’s top agri-food innovation awards.

Two Ontario farmers received the province’s top agri-food innovation awards.

The recipients were recognized under the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence, a $2.5-million, five-year program (now in its second year) established to recognize innovators who contribute to the success of Ontario’s agri-food sector.


The 2007 recipients were:
Premier’s Award of $100,000 – William Nightingale, of B & C Nightingale Farms (LaSalette, Ont.)
Minister’s Award of $50,000 – David Freeman, of Freeman Farms (Meaford, Ont.)

B & C Nightingale Farms won the Premier’s Award from the 2007 Premier’s Award for  Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.  Pictured from left to right are Leona Dombrowsky, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs; Carmina Halstead and  Billy Nightingale, with their parents,  Bill and Caroline Nightingale; and Dalton McGuinty, Premier of Ontario. 

B&C Nightingale Farms – LaSalette
William Nightingale travelled to Europe to research – first-hand – the benefits of covering vegetable crops with high tunnels. When he saw 20,000 acres of fresh vegetables flourishing under canopy, he was convinced the idea would help grow a better product and greater yields back in Ontario.

He was right.

The high tunnels, modified to withstand Ontario’s climate, have extended the farm’s growing season by several weeks, doubled cropping opportunities, decreased insect and disease pressures, and resulted in a quality, consistent product.

The Nightingale family was so impressed with the technology, they formed their own company – Tunnel Tech – that makes and markets high tunnels to other growers. The farm not only sells the system, it also provides valuable technology transfer in the form of research data on varieties, yields, use of plastics and irrigation, and demonstration days.

Freeman Farms – Meaford
David Freeman knows how to capture value by freezing Mother Nature’s gifts. Freeze-drying plant material has been shown to preserve the quantity of the active component found in plants for nutraceuticals.

Freeman has worked extensively with the University of Guelph to develop freeze-dry technology, and as a result, his farm’s first project is to manufacture garlic powder with allicin – the key ingredient responsible for the broad-spectrum of anti-bacterial activity in garlic.

Freeman has also built a state-of-the-art, large-scale, good management practice (GMP) certified processing plant to freeze dry botanicals such as garlic, blueberries, herbs and other plant material. Its equipment is the first of its kind in Ontario. The plant also meets standards for processing pharmaceuticals for humans, which opens the door to exciting new opportunities for the future.

The ability to produce freeze-dried fruits and vegetables of this standard can potentially enable other Ontario farmers to partner with feed and pharmaceutical companies to produce nutraceutical supplements and whole foods.

Regional winners
The innovations of 55 regional winners also received recognition, receiving $5,000 each. Among the recipients were many
provincial fruit and vegetable producers. They included (in alphabetical order):

Blueberry Hill Estate ­– St. Williams
Blueberry Hill Estate’s tourism project introduced by Dale Vranckx in Norfolk County will turn its existing farmers’ market into a major tourist destination by adding an agri- and eco-safari, an education centre, a winery and distillery offering tastings and tours, and an outdoor expo. All this will be topped off with tunnel technology in the blueberry patch. Covering the blueberry patch with tunnels will make a completely sealed enclosure, eliminating pest problems, improving berry quality and increasing yields of organically grown fruit.

Freeman Farms was awarded the Minister’s Award from the 2007 Premier’s  Award  for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence. Pictured from left to right are  Dalton McGuinty, Premier of Ontario;  David and Lynn Freeman; and Leona Dombrowsky, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

Brooymans Farms – Port Stanley
Brooymans Farms knows good things come in small packages. Rene Brooyman was one of the first farmers to plant #9 dwarf rootstock apple trees in Ontario. He began sharing his knowledge with other apple growers by hosting tours and educating them on how to manage and achieve high yields in this type of orchard. Today, his is one of the most visited farming operations in the province for this crop speciality. Most commercial apple orchards in Ontario are now on the #9 rootstock. Growing shorter apple trees has reduced labour and spraying costs by 50 per cent, and resulted in higher yields and better returns. The equipment innovations and practices the farm uses have been proven over the years and continue to attract significant attention.

The Cider Keg – Vittoria
An apple a day keeps the doctor away but branded, value-added apple products keep consumers asking for more. The T & J Haskett farm in Norfolk County has developed a brand for its line of apple products that includes cider, jellies and relishes that can be found on the shelves of a national grocery retail chain. A recently published cookbook featuring ideas for drinks, entrées and meal enhancements encourages consumers to up their apple intake and enjoy the health benefits. These value-added ideas have led to increased apple sales, and a diversified income source that generates income for three households plus staff.

Desert Lake Gardens – Sydenham
Desert Lake Gardens is an oasis of abundance. Owners Pat and Rick Dawson have pioneered an innovative, vertically integrated operation that direct markets and delivers its own, farm-grown organic produce directly to customers via a website, through delivery and a retail shop. The farm offers a wide variety of organically grown vegetables, many of which are specialty items that appeal to a certain clientele and are difficult to find in mass markets. The Dawsons were early innovators in the local foods movement and have created an opportunity for consumers to enjoy a field-to-fork experience.

East-Central Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers – Cobourg
The East-Central Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers formed a strategic alliance to develop innovative technology that will help them compete in the wholesale market. Their fruit-tracker software will help growers meet domestic and international buyers’ requirements for food safety and good agricultural practices. The system keeps grower records up-to-date, generates reports, analyzes pest management strategies and improves integrated pest management practices. It will provide Ontario’s apple and berry growers with the necessary documentation on production practices to access North American and European markets. This innovation is helping Ontario to compete and stand out as a leader in providing the marketplace with safe, traceable apples and berries.

Featherstone Vineyard and Winery – Vineland
You could say he “herd” it through the grapevine. David Johnson of Featherstone Vineyard and Winery takes a novel, environmentally gentle approach to an old routine. He “employs” a small flock of lambs to eat the leaves around the fruiting zone of his grape vines. Growers with standards of excellence remove leaves to produce premium grapes for winemaking. The exposed grape clusters dry faster in the morning, reducing their susceptibility to mildew and the need for spraying with chemicals. Traditionally, growers would remove leaves by hand or by using expensive, specialized machinery imported from Europe. Using the lambs provides an alternative, green approach to vineyard management.

Florence Estate Winery – Langton
Terry and Margaret Marshall are toasting to their future. They have embraced the idea of alternative crops by growing grapes and establishing a winery in Southwestern Ontario’s tobacco belt. The Marshalls showed innovation by modifying tobacco equipment to accommodate grape growing, irrigation, vine staking and harvesting. Their winery is in its second year of full grape production, with 3,000 cases of wine ready for sale this year. With their Florence Estate Winery, the couple plans to attract tourism to the region by conducting tours and demonstrations highlighting the history of tobacco in the area and the unique eco-systems that exist in the property’s Carolinian forest.

Gammondale Farm – Thunder Bay
If you build it, they will come. Susan and Gerald Gammond are constantly adding agri-tourism activities to attract families, students and tourists to their traditional produce farm. On top of growing strawberries, pumpkins, squash and gourds, they offer a variety of fun and educational experiences that promote the environment, healthy lifestyles and nutrition, and agricultural awareness. Activities that celebrate different seasons and holidays continue to bring people to the Gammondale Farm, rain or shine.

Grape Growers of Ontario – Vineland Station
Technology is helping grow better vineyards in Ontario’s Niagara region. The VITIS Vine Management System is a grower-driven, farm management resource that intertwines several tools, including geographical information and global positioning systems. VITIS helps producers match the correct viticulture practices in a given location to maximize quality and determine where varieties perform the best. What started as a web-based farming tool has evolved into a robust crop traceability system. Ontario’s grape industry moved into a leadership role in Canada as the first commodity organization to offer growers a web-based vine management system tool that can also address information needs of other value chain participants.

Hugli’s Blueberry Ranch – Pembroke
Brian Hugli’s Blueberry Ranch works to ensure everyone can enjoy the farm when they visit. This agri-tainment operation offers a high-bush blueberry picking area and giant pumpkin boat races among its activities. The ranch is fully accessible for people with mobility issues from the parking lot to blueberry picking areas, washroom facilities, space on wagons, gift store, ice cream parlour and covered deck.

J.B. Puddicombe & Sons – Winona
All aboard! Visitors to the Puddicombe farm get a special treat now that the owners have added an “agricultural” train to enhance their tours. The fruit farm uses the train to entertain and educate students and the public about agriculture and the importance of buying local produce. Adding this new feature has increased interest in the farm, attracting school and wine tours. Young and old, who come to check out the ride, leave with a smile on their face and a greater appreciation for Ontario agriculture.

McCully’s Hill Farm – St. Marys
McCully’s Hill Farm puts out the welcome mat for more than 3,000 students a year, with group tours and weekend events adding to that number. It’s all part of David Pullen’s continuing efforts to educate and motivate people to make positive changes in agri-food systems, in environmental protection and in rural communities. In addition to experiencing the farm’s educational programs, visitors can shop at the on-farm market, where local producers showcase and sell their products. The farm also has plans to establish a Centre for Rural Learning, which will be devoted to inspiring awareness and action on issues related to local food security, agriculture, and the environment.

McMaze – Cedar Fox Farm – St. Andrews
Stephen and Valerie McDonald of McMaze – Cedar Fox Farm in St. Andrews are literally reaping the benefits of their innovation. Stephen McDonald modified his International 400 Cyclo series air corn planter so that he can also use it to plant sunflowers, gourds and pumpkins, among other crops. He spends less time and money planting, even though he now plants more acres to meet the growing local wholesale demand. And yield is up on those acres. All in all, it’s an improved farm practice that boosts the bottom line.

Mill Creek Farm – Picton
Barbara and Neil Vader of Mill Creek Farm are like two peas in a pod. Together, they’ve spent the last 20 years improving the process of growing, harvesting, packaging and distributing fresh peas to grocery stores across Ontario. Their expertise has enabled them to extend the shelf life for fresh, bagged peas from four days to nine days. The Vaders also came up with a marketing strategy that has enabled their business to move into central distribution for four major grocery chains.

River Village Co-operative Market Inc. – Teeswater
There’s a strong sense of community in Teeswater. When the town’s only grocery store closed its doors, the locals got together and decided to form a co-operative that would continue to serve and revitalize the community, and give farmers a local outlet to sell their goods. As a result, farmers and town residents formed the River Village Co-operative Market Inc. In fact, some residents now live in other cities, but continue to support the store with their membership. They all share one thing in common – they want the community to survive. And they’ve combined their ideas and resources to contribute to its success.

Sunnivue Organic Farm – Ailsa Craig
A group of urbanites in Middlesex County developed a unique, not-for-profit agricultural land trust to link the principles of local food systems, community and sustainability that reflected their values. By pooling their financial resources, they were able to buy a farm located in Ailsa Craig, which is close to a large urban centre. Today, Sunnivue Organic Farm produces and sells milk, beef, veal, chicken, pork and a large variety of fruits and vegetables. Volunteers routinely gather to work on the farm. The model is the first of its kind in Canada.

Tree and Twig Heirloom Vegetable Farm – Wellandport
Linda Crago believes in good old-fashioned gardening with a modern twist. Her Tree and Twig Heirloom Vegetable Farm markets heirloom vegetables produced organically for local markets, restaurants and community agricultural shareholders. This grower’s passion for unique plants, horticulture and a “chemical free” lifestyle resonates with today’s consumer trends. Sometimes innovation is about breathing new life into old traditions.

Twin Pines Orchards – Thedford
How do you take one of nature’s oldest gifts and make it a modern experience? Twin Pines Orchards found a way to grow their apples and profits by creating value-added products and expanding their farm to include a variety of event-themed experiences. Mark and Mike Vansteenkiste’s innovative products include different packed apples, preserves, organic products, wines and ciders, which they sell on site and at local restaurants and shops. The farm also conducts art and science camps, an apple festival,and school tours. Twin Pines Orchards’ innovative efforts have created a positive destination for consumers who value the “total experience” as well as the product.

Weninger Farms Ltd. – Aylmer
John Weninger, an Elgin County sweet potato producer, has introduced an infrared dehydrator to his operation – allowing him to become the first producer of sweet potato flour, which has significant nutraceutical benefits. John dries a variety of products, opening the door to new markets for the family farm as it phases out of tobacco production. In addition to filling all the flour orders he receives, Weninger Farms can custom dry most raw food products thus giving farmers the ability to create their own value added products.

Since its launch, the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence has attracted 358 applications.
Growers interested in learning more about applying for the award program are invited to visit OMAFRA’s website at

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