December 8, 2016, Niagara Falls, Ont – Andrew and Jennifer Lovell of Keswick Ridge, NB, and Dominic Drapeau and Célia Neault of Ste-Françoise-de-Lotbinière, QC, have been named Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers (OYF) for 2016.
These two farm families were chosen from seven regional farm couples across Canada at OYF’s national event last week in Niagara Falls, Ont.
Both families have dreamed of owning their own farm since they were young and were not afraid to make changes and embrace technology along the way. Their entrepreneurial spirits and adaptability has made them successful both on and off the farm.
“All of this year’s regional honourees have shown us their incredible passion for agriculture,” says OYF President Luanne Lynn. “It was extremely difficult for the judges to make their decision, but ultimately our winners stood out for their state-of-the art thinking and commitment to the future of Canadian agriculture.”
The Lovell’s story is different than most because neither of them grew up on a farm. In 2012 they purchased their farm, River View Orchards, with roots tracing back to 1784, and created a diversified you-pick farm market operation. It wasn’t an easy start as they suffered $100,000 in damage in 2014, but they persevered and adapted their plans until they were able to begin full production again. By offering fence and trellis construction services and building attractions that brought more than 1,400 visitors to their farm, they were able to carry on with the farm they have always dreamed of.
Drapeau and Neault are third-generation dairy and field crop farmers who are not afraid to make changes and embrace technology. Raised in a farming family, Dominic got involved in the family business at a young age. When he was 16, he was performing artificial insemination on cows and developed his management skills by taking over the herd and feeding responsibilities. In the barn they use genomic testing on young animals, motion detectors for reproduction, a smart scale on the mixer-feeder and temperature probes close to calving. In the fields, the farm uses a satellite navigation system for levelling, draining, seeding, fertilizing and spraying. With these innovations over the last four years, they have enabled the farm to increase overall yields by five to 10 per cent each year.
“The national event in Niagara Falls this year was a great opportunity to showcase all of the great contributions to Canadian agriculture,” says Lynn. “All of the regional OYF honourees really went outside of the box and pushed the boundaries this year.”
Every year this event brings recognition to outstanding farm couples in Canada between 18 and 39 years of age who have exemplified excellence in their profession while fostering better urban-rural relations. The Lovell’s and Drapeau/Neault were chosen from seven regional finalists, including the following honourees from the other five regions:
- Brian & Jewel Pauls, Chilliwack BC
- Shane & Kristin Schooten, Diamond City AB
- Dan & Chelsea Erlandson, Outlook SK
- Jason & Laura Kehler, Carman MB
- Adrian & Jodi Roelands, Lambton Shores ON
Celebrating 36 years, Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers’ program is an annual competition to recognize farmers that exemplify excellence in their profession and promote the tremendous contribution of agriculture. Open to participants 18 to 39 years of age, making the majority of income from on-farm sources, participants are selected from seven regions across Canada, with two national winners chosen each year. The program is sponsored nationally by CIBC, John Deere, Bayer, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through Growing Forward 2, a federal, provincial, territorial initiative. The national media sponsor is Annex Business Media, and the program is supported nationally by AdFarm, BDO and Farm Management Canada.
November 11, 2016, Toronto, Ont – The late Jas. C (Jim) Bartlett plus Robert (Bob) Switzer and John Willmott were officially inducted into the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame at a special awards banquet on Nov. 6, 2016 in conjunction with the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair.
“This year we are celebrating three outstanding ambassadors for Canadian agriculture who channeled their passion and leadership into significant advancements for our entire industry,” said Herb McLane, president of the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame Association. “They are visionaries within their sectors of the industry, and share a drive and dedication to work endlessly and tirelessly to make a lasting difference in the landscape of Canadian agriculture. Their work continues to benefit the horticulture and livestock industries, and the communities where they live.”
The late James (Jim) Bartlett – nominated by Dow AgroSciences – devoted his career to advancing the Canadian horticulture industry. Jim was born into the family business – N.M. Bartlett Inc. – and from an early age worked alongside his father, Norman. The Bartlett business blossomed under Jim’s leadership to become the only national horticultural crop protection distributor in Canada. Jim served as president for 17 years until his retirement in 1987, bringing the next generations into the family business.
As the family business grew, Jim advocated tirelessly for the horticulture sector on cross border importation. He championed the first minor use registration of pesticides program in Canada in 1977, and was an early promoter of the need for new crop protection products to serve the small acre crops that make us Canada’s diverse horticulture industry. Jim was chair of the national organization now known as CropLife Canada, and helped created the CropLife Ontario Council. He helped bring what is now the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention to Ontario.
Jim was a visionary, passionate advocate and a respected voice in Canadian agriculture. Eight of his grandchildren are involved as the fourth generations of Bartletts in the business. Jim passed away in 2011, one year shy of the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Bartlett family business.
The Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame Association (CAHFA) honours and celebrates Canadians for outstanding contributions to the agriculture and food industry. Portraits are on display in the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame gallery, located at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. The CAHFA also publicizes the importance of inductee achievements to Canada. The association was organized in 1960 and is administered by 12 volunteer board of directors located across Canada.
Earlier this year, Willowtree Farm opened the doors to its new 8,300 square foot building, a beautiful, well planned, authentic, and inviting building featuring a 4,300 square foot retail market. To those who are not in the know, it may look like an overnight success story, but this story has been in the making for more than 25 years.
It all began with Rod MacKay. Always a farmer at heart, Rod bought the land where the market is located, just outside of Port Perry, Ont., when he was 19. Upon graduating from the University of Guelph, Rod became a full-time dairy farmer for more than 20 years. He also met, fell in love with, and married Marlene. Marlene grew up on a strawberry farm and was passionate about the tasty berries. In 1979, Rod surprised Marlene by planting four acres of strawberry plants. She was thrilled and started selling her beloved strawberries out of a wagon on the side of the road. Gradually, the number of acres of strawberries grew and other fruits and vegetables were introduced.
In order to sell all this produce, Marlene explored the concept of going to farmers’ markets. She was a true marketer at heart and thrived in this setting. As the acres of produce grew, so did the number of farmers’ markets they attended. At its peak, Willowtree was participating in 15 markets throughout the Greater Toronto Area. In 1990, Marlene and Rod decided to build a proper market building on the farm.
As the focus on fruits and vegetables continued, there was less time for the dairy cows. In 1993, the herd was sold.
Marlene and Rod had two sons – Jordan and Alex. From a young age, they helped out at markets but did not see a future for themselves on the farm. For several years, both travelled the world for business and pleasure but eventually returned when they were needed and settled back on the farm. Jordan and Alex perfectly complement each other’s strengths. Alex is passionate about growing great food and Jordan is a marketer by nature and enjoys dealing with the details that come with selling food.
As both sons married, the farm needed to support three families. They started growing more produce, going to more farmers’ markets, implementing a Community Shared Agriculture program, developing a maple syrup operation, and raising sheep. Today, they grow more than 30 crops on approximately 600 acres.
In 2015, Marlene passed away from a rare form of cancer. But her dream was only just beginning to blossom.
Working with John Stanley, a direct marketing consultant, a plan was developed for a new market building. Willowtree desperately needed more space and a better venue from which to sell the meat that was raised on the farm. Jordan had participated in OFFMA’s bus tour to England in 2011 and was inspired by the on-farm markets that also had a fresh meat counter.
“If they could do it, so can we,” he thought.
One of the key features of the new market is a fresh meat counter and a full-time butcher. The certified kitchen prepares fresh and frozen entrees as well as baking. By adding these elements, the family made the commitment to be open year round. This was a critical decision that enabled them to hire key staff on a full-time basis. It was also a big shift in their business model.
Both Jordan and Alex’s wives are involved in the market on a daily basis. Neither one came from a farming background but they both have an incredible work ethic. Definitely an asset if you marry a farmer. Kelty’s responsibilities include both field and retail work. Alyson has a great flair for design and can be found merchandising the products in the market.
Everyone has been able to build on strengths and work towards a common goal. But how do you keep all the balls in the air and make sure you are moving forward as a team? Communication is key. They have family meetings on a regular basis, approximately twice a month. Rod is still the patriarch but he has accepted the fact that his sons bring new ideas to the business and has allowed them to try out their ideas, whether they are in the field or the market. The meetings are attended by all five family members, plus their bookkeeper, and chaired by a person outside of the business.
“It is important for everyone to feel in the loop and included, especially for a family run business where the lines between business and family can easily become blurred,” said Jordan.
There is still much learning that needs to happen with an expanded operation of this size but the McKays are well on their way to becoming a direct farm marketing success story.
Jamie Quai is very much a hands-on guy and the blue-purple stains around the cuticles of his fingernails can attest to that.
Just the day before being installed as Ontario’s 61st Grape King, he’d been cleaning up after pressing Concord grapes at the family winery where he is co-proprietor, vigneron (French for grape grower) and winemaker. And while he was scrubbed up and wearing his new Grape King blazer for the event, it’s almost impossible to remove the telltale stain of the grape variety that’s better known as a juice grape than for making wine.
That was at the end of September. In mid-month, he had been named Grape King at a luncheon in St. Catharines, Ont. to launch the Niagara Wine Festival. A second crowning ceremony was held at his 22-acre vineyard, Quai du Vin Estate Winery (roughly translated as “dock” or “port” of wine) near the north shore of Lake Erie, some 30 kilometres south of London Ont.
Winters can be long and cold and that means the soil stays colder longer – some seven to 10 days longer than in Niagara, Jamie said. That puts blossom time outside the dangerous frost period, a question he fielded when asked by a panel of three academic judges why he didn’t have wind machines, like growers in other areas, to ward off a late spring frost.
“The heavy clay soil presents it’s own challenges.”
While growers in other areas may have no cover crop between the rows of grapes, or only between alternate rows, Jamie has a permanent grass cover crop that competes for nutrients with the grapes.
“Excessive (leaf) growth is as bad as too little,” he said.
Another thing the judges had to consider is his donation of trial plots for Ontario ministry of agriculture and food research.
“The doors are always open. We’re the benefactors of someone else’s (research) contribution to the industry and like to move that forward.”
From the front window of the winery, he points across the road to a large neighbouring cornfield.
“My grandfather waited to buy this land and made growing grapes and making wine his retirement project,” he said. “He knew grapes could only be grown on the ridge we are on, and that it was suitable for more than gravel pits.”
The top line of that ridge can barely be seen from the back of the winery – which fittingly is on Fruit Ridge Line – past rows of blue Concord and white Niagara grapes and other varieties associated with making sparking wines (Aurore, New York Muscat). There’s also hardy red wine Baco Noir and Marechal Foch which are French hybrid varieties, and red Merlot, as well as harder to grow Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris white vinifera varieties. As well, he grows Ehrenfelser, a German white grape variety that’s a cross between Riesling and Silvaner. It’s not grown extensively in Ontario, but is widely grown in the Okanagan winegrowing region of B.C.
Redi Quai and wife, Louisa, came to Canada in the early 1950s and for 15 years he worked as a subcontractor pouring cement basements for new homes and buying and selling houses on the real estate market.
“He was flipping houses before it became a TV show,” Jamie said.
Redi began growing grapes in 1972, and before he died in 2011, saw his dream of a family winery take root.
In 1990, Jamie’s parents – Roberto and Lisa – opened the winery and it’s being passed on to Jamie, 34, and wife, Kim – a school teacher – and quite possibly their two sons, Gavin, 4, and Nicklaas, eight months.
The Quai family name (pronounced Kwai, like the movie Bridge on the River Kwai) is of French derivation. His great-uncle believed retreating soldiers, or deserters in Napoleon’s army, may have settled in the area of northeast Italy where Redi came from. It’s at the geographic crossroads of France, Germany and Italy, “but shaded more into Germany,” Jamie said.
“More sauerkraut and bratwurst than croissants or pizza,” he quipped.
Jamie studied wine making at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) in St. Catharines, Ont., and gained hands-on experience working in large and small wineries in Niagara over three harvest years. At CCOVI, he taught the engineering side of winery operations as the instructor for the OEVI 3PP21 course from 2007 to 2016. In layman’s terms, the course code means learning how to use pumps, cooling systems, stainless steel tanks, equipment for crushing, de-stemming, and wastewater drainage and storage.
”It’s where the scientific meets the practical (application),” he said.
The Grape King is selected from a handful of growers who are nominated each year by some 500 fellow growers. Except for Jamie Quai and Sal D’Angelo (1999) from Essex County, the king or queen has always been from Niagara. So much so that it’s become an informal competition between growers in Niagara-on-the-Lake and growers in St. Catharines (and Louth), the towns of Lincoln, West Lincoln, Hamilton, and Wellington County.
August 29, 2016, Nanaimo, BC – A young Nanaimo family is bringing a dormant winery back to life, continuing on the dream of the man who planted the grapes decades ago.
As the five acres of vineyards nestled in a hot valley along Nanaimo’s Maxey Road ripen, it is also the fruition of a man’s lifework. The late founder Harry Von Wolff, who planted it all and cleared the land of trees two decades ago. READ MORE
March 29, 2016, Chatham, Ont – A labour of love has brought much success to the Korpan family over the years.
The support of the community has also helped their business grow, as Early Acres Estate Winery was recently selected as the Chatham-Kent Chamber of Commerce entrepreneur of the year. Located on Pioneer Line on the outskirts of Chatham, the store is coming up on its fourth anniversary in June. READ MORE
A shared passion for wine, food and travel ultimately inspired expatriate couple John McLarty and Lisa Law to found Nova Scotia’s latest vineyard and winery, Planter’s Ridge.
Ten years before retiring early as a chemical engineer based in Ontario, McLarty and his partner, Law, repeatedly visited the wine regions of Tuscany and Austria, learning the basics of winemaking and vineyard management.
Retiring in 2010, he and Law began searching the Internet for wineries on the market and came up with Nova Scotia.
“We weren’t even aware there was fledgling wine industry here,” McLarty says.
The couple visited Nova Scotia several times looking for a vineyard and winery site, ultimately seeking the advice of provincial wine industry leader, Hans Christian Jost, as to what to look for.
“Everything felt right about this region,” McLarty says.
In 2010, they found 7.5 acres with a 150-year-old barn and farmhouse. They bought the property from Alan and June Woodworth, the seventh generation of Alan’s family to live on the site. The Woodworths were New England planters who settled there in 1763.
McLarty named the future vineyard and winery Planter’s Ridge after the Planters who settled in the Annapolis Valley following the expulsion of the Acadians.
After purchasing the land, he immediately tile drained the sandy-clay soil and, in the spring of 2011 planted winter-hardy hybrids typically grown in Nova Scotia: L’Acadie Blanc, Frontenac Gris, New York Muscat, Marquette, Castel and Lucie Kuhlmann. On the property’s highest, south-facing slope, McLarty grows a Riesling varietal.
The couple’s main focus is on making blended wines. Blended wines will be more complex in bouquet, taste and texture, McLarty says.
“We think you make a much better wine by blending,” he says. “We tend to make our wines dry to off-dry. We don’t make sweet wines.”
The couple also buys grapes from other local growers and is in the process of buying another vineyard in the Annapolis Valley.
In the spring of 2014, McLarty and Law bottled their first wine, a learning experience.
“The wine is really made in the vineyard from great grapes,” says McLarty.
Planter’s Ridge grapes are hand harvested and closely inspected for disease or damage, he says, adding the fruit is handled gently to avoid contamination from bitter compounds in the stems and grapes, such as pyroxene.
Red grapes are de-stemmed and thinned of immature grapes, which can contain the undesirable compounds.
“It makes for a better wine, but it reduces your grape harvest by about seven per cent.”
McLarty covers the vineyard’s 6.5 acres with bird nets, a management practice that costs about $10,000 but the nets can last up to 10 years.
“If you don’t put on nets, you don’t get ripe grapes because the birds pick the vines,” he says. “Nets are expensive but they are usually key in my mind to making great wines.”
Once the grapes reach his winery – located in the extensively re-modeled 150-year-old barn – they are carefully processed to ensure high quality wine in the latest, top-of-the-line, German-made machinery consisting of four, stainless steel fermentation tanks, a de-stemmer and wine press.
The fermentation tanks are temperature-controlled, McLarty explains, adding he ferments his white wine at 12 C. Without temperature controls, the temperature in the fermentation tanks could range as high as 20 to 22 C, “which blows off the aromatics in the wine and prolongs the finish.”
Located beneath the fermentation tanks is a barrel cellar containing European oak barrels where the red wines are aged for more than 10 months. The barrel cellar, one of only three of its kind in Nova Scotia, is comprised of stone foundation on three sides and glass doors on the fourth, providing the perfect condition for red wine aging, McLarty says.
The barrel cellar is also an ideal rental location for business meetings or small, intimate dinners, he adds. Meetings can also be held in the wine tasting room and reception area next to the wine making room.
Planter’s Ridge wines are available for sale at the reception desk in the barn, plus at local restaurants, farmers’ markets, several Nova Scotia Liquor Commission outlets and a number of private wine and spirit stores.
“Anyone can make wine, but not everyone can make great wine,” McLarty believes.
He has retained an experienced wine industry consultant, Natalie Spytkowsky, from Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula who owns Vines to Vintages, a wine industry consulting firm that has advised some 40 wineries in Canada and the U.S., to help Planter’s Ridge achieve the edge of excellence the vineyard seeks in its winemaking.
Currently, she is consulting and making wine for wineries in Beamsville and Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario as well as Planter’s Ridge near Port Williams, NS.
Mark Haithwaite received the award for his production of Sunrise, Gala, Fuji and Ambrosia on 5.5 acres. In 2014, he averaged 60 bins per acre with 96 per cent of his apples size 88 or larger. Photo Contributed
The 2014 B.C. Golden Apple Award was presented to Mark Haithwaite, a second-generation orchardist based in the Similkameen Valley.
Haithwaite purchased his Cawston property in 1977, moving just a few miles down the road from his parent’s farm in Keremeos.
Working at the local packinghouse, BC Tree Fruits, and with the school board helped Haithwaite to support his family, but his recent retirement has been a bonus for the orchard.
“I’ve always wanted to do this for a living,” he says. “Being retired, now I have had a chance to do it all on my own.”
Haithwaite grows Sunrise, Gala, Fuji and Ambrosia on 5.5 acres of his 8.5-acre property. He designed the orchard so it can be maintained part-time by just three people.
“Mark’s orchard has really gone up a few notches since he’s retired,” says Charlotte Laing, B.C. Tree Fruits fieldperson and award judge. “His orchard is absolutely gorgeous. He has a full crop, with great colour and great size. Particularly with Ambrosia, it’s hard to get good size, which is important for our markets, and still keep the colour.”
Initial nominations for the award are made by field service personnel and consultants and are open to any grower. Field visits are held in early September.
“Pack outs are inspected with great detail over the winter,” says judge Jim Campbell. “It’s always a tough decision for the judges.”
“We look at the yields per acre and fruit quality and size,” says Campbell. “This year, Mark’s yield was 60 bins per acre, with 96 per cent of his apples size 88 or larger.”
Haithwaite was surprised when it was announced he’d won the award.
“I’m thankful for the support I’ve had along the way,” he says.
Jamie Slingerland grows grapes and does it well – so much so that he was named the 2015/2016 Niagara Wine Festival’s 60th grape king.
He’s also on the cutting edge of introducing new clones and growing techniques, a winery fieldman who advises other growers on best growing practices, and knows an awful lot about marketing wine, the finished product.
Taken altogether, Jamie’s well-rounded resume impressed a panel of judges – all industry academics – who selected him from a handful of growers who were nominated by some 500 fellow Grape Growers of Ontario (GGO) members.
At his coronation, Jamie made reference to the first few rows of grapes in the vineyard beside him. They are the first commercial vineyard of Corvina grapes grown in Canada, as well as a few Rondinella and Molinara varieties that are all native to Italy. Grafted on the right rootstock, Corvina has proven to be as winter hardly as Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a workhorse red variety grown in Niagara. Even though last winter was the second cold winter in a row, only 76 out of 40,000 vines in the entire vineyard of many different varieties had to be re-planted, he said proudly.
“I credit this to vine health, not over-cropping, planting the right varieties, a great (growing) location, wind machines and timing (their use) right,” he says.
He believes these things earned him points in three of nine judging categories – overall quality of the vineyard, outreach in the grower community, and the all-encompassing miscellaneous category, which has lately been the best use of wind machines. The other six categories are growing a variety of different grape cultures, controlling diseases, insects, and weeds; soil management, and grape canopy management.
His personal project over the past five years has been appassimento – drying grapes to intensify flavour before fermentation. It’s a premium product that demands a higher price, which is good for wineries. On that note, he invited those at his coronation to try newly released 2012 Pillitteri Cabernet Franc Appassimento.
Jamie is the man in the vineyard for Pillitteri Estates Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. As director of viticulture, he oversees 14 different grape cultivars grown on five farms totalling 120 acres. As well, he buys grapes from other growers for the winery, best-known for introducing Canadian icewine to China. Even after some 18 years, it’s now the winery’s main sales market.
“We made China a market when no one else was there and now sell 60 per cent of Canadian bottled wine and 80 per cent of that is icewine, mostly red,” he says.
It’s a big and growing market to be tapped.
“If even five per cent of the people in China bought a bottle of icewine, it would take us 30 to 40 years to produce that much.”
The appeal of icewine has not gone unnoticed by Chinese investors who have bought a handful of Ontario’s more than 100 wineries as well as family farm vineyards in the last five years. It’s not unlike when the Americans and British bought into the Bordeaux region in France, he says philosophically. But, in this case, it’s a way for business people to get their money out of China that is now going through the growing pains of establishing a capitalist economy and what has lately been a fragile stock market.
Ontario’s 43 farmer’s markets are another sales arena the winery got into two years ago when the sale of wine was allowed as a pilot project by the provincial government. Now, legislation has been proposed to put beer and wine on grocery store shelves and that promises to be another lucrative sales market for Pillitteri wines that are seen less and less on LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) shelves.
“Last year, our LCBO sales were six per cent. This year, it will be three per cent, and next year close to zero per cent,” Jamie says. “It’s a big box entity not fit for a smaller winery
Besides, he believes it makes sense to gravitate to the lowest tax bracket as the profit margin is a lot less selling through the LCBO, where tax is 65 per cent on a bottle of wine compared to just 17 per cent at the winery door, or through direct delivery.
Jamie’s agricultural and ancestral roots run deep in Niagara – almost 230 years – back to the American Revolution. The Slingerland family backed the losing British in the American Revolution and lost some 10,000 acres in New York State near Albany. His ancestors came to Niagara in 1783 and fought with the local Butler’s Rangers militia. In recognition for service to the Crown they were granted 120 acres in Niagara. Over the generations, they grew tender fruit, mostly peaches, and some grapes. His grandfather was the farm manager for Larking Farms, which once owned about 1,000 acres in Niagara, growing mainly peaches.
At one time, Jamie also thought of becoming a farm manager. But he settled on a career with the Ontario ministry of agriculture, as did his brother, Ken, who for many years was a grape and tender fruit extension specialist with the province’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) at Vineland Station. Ken was also a long-time judge in the selection of the grape king.
Jamie served as a fruit and vegetable inspector in Leamington and then Sudbury. He was on a career path that would have taken him to a office job in Toronto. But along the way he met and married Connie Pillitteri, the daughter of winery owner Gary Pillitteri, who Jamie credits with teaching him how to grow grapes.
And, even though at first the young couple didn’t want to farm – Connie had a senior position at a bank branch – they decided to give it a go 30 years ago when Jamie was 27 and had been with OMAFRA for five years. They bought a 20-acre farm in Niagara in 1985. A year later, a severe hailstorm cut a 12-km path through Niagara and they lost not only the financial equity they had in the farm, but also an additional 15 per cent.
They were able to recover financially by severing a lot for housing before that door was closed through municipal legislation and they bought a second farm. There was another hail storm six years later but that time their losses were cut in half and they were able to keep financial afloat with Connie’s salary, Jamie recalls.
When they were offered an amount of money that was way over local real estate market value – “an offer that couldn’t be refused” – the couple moved to a five-acre grape farm.
Jamie credits his father-in-law for the practical knowledge he has gained over 22 years. Gary Pillitteri, now 79 and the 1981 grape king, was first elected Niagara Falls (Lib.) MP in 1993 and entrusted the growing of grapes to his son-in-law while he served
10 years in Ottawa. Jamie thanks him and his mother-in-law, Lena, for the opportunity to help grow a business that’s become the largest family-owned winery in Ontario, providing a livelihood for eight family members.
Connie Slingerland is Pillitteri’s chief financial officer (CFO). Her brother, Charlie Pillitteri, manages worldwide sales while sister, Lucy, handles marketing and building the brand. The Slingerland’s son, Richard, heads sales in Asia, and their son-in-law, Jared, heads European and North American sales.
At Hoity Toity Cellars, innovation and experimentation are a way of life for Gary and Diane Fischer. This probably explains why they’ve won three regional Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence. Not surprisingly, all of the awards are connected, each leading to the next.
The story begins with the Fischers purchasing their 86-acre farm in 1983, creating a pick-your-own operation with strawberries and raspberries, plus farm gate and farmer’s market sales. But in 2007, the berries were removed. The Fischers were ready to realize their dream of entering the wine industry.
The couple planted 25 acres of grapes and have never looked back. They also have two acres of apple trees, and two of lavender, with the rest of their acreage supporting a rotation of field crops. Diane is the general manager and taster, while Gary is the grower, crafts the wine/cider and helps with sales.
“We do a ton of tours,” says Gary. “We really see ourselves as farmers first, who just happen to be making alcoholic products.”
The road to this success came with hard work. Producing grapes in Mildmay, Ont., within Bruce County isn’t easy. The location is at the northern edge of where grapes can be cultivated in Ontario.
“The vines usually survive the winters okay,” Gary explains. “It’s the summers that are actually the clincher. Sometimes there’s just not enough heat and sunshine to get the ripening we need.”
That’s why the Fischers grow more grapes than required for their wine volume target. For all the tweaking, research and hard work that went into making the cultivation of grape vines possible in their region, they received their first Premier’s Award.
About three years ago, Gary began experimenting with making cider. Technically, he says, there is no difference between cider and wine, which are made with the same equipment, controlled temperatures and yeast.
“There is a big difference in how they are consumed,” he notes. “Cider is lower in alcohol, usually between four and seven per cent, and it’s a refreshing drink that’s served in a larger-volume glass, whereas wine is sipped and often paired with food. Cider is served ice cold and usually carbonated, and you can make it from any fruit juice in a few weeks.”
The Fischers had apples for cider, but wanted to see if they could make it using other local fruit.
“There’s a fair amount of pear production in Bruce and Grey counties, so pears were a natural choice,” Gary explains.
Making pear cider proved to be a challenge because it’s difficult to filter the fruit’s gritty protein particulate. Gary tried different techniques with filtering pads and temperatures. Eventually, he achieved success.
Their pure pear cider resulted in the Fischer’s second Premier’s Award.
The third award came from the reality of growing grapes at their northern limit. If there’s a cool summer, only some of the grapes fully ripen. That was the case in 2013, when 55 per cent of the Hoity Toity grapes met wine standards.
“We decided that when we don’t get all of the grapes to fully ripen, we’ll pick them and freeze them and make something else besides wine,” Gary explains. “These un-ripened grapes still taste great and have some sugars, and they are ideal for making into cider.”
By the end of 2013, Hoity Toity grape cider experimentation was underway, using frozen grape, apple and pear juice. Gary discovered the juice thawing process was critical.
“The syrup comes out first and the ice remains, and it’s the concentrated syrup that we use,” he explains. “Freezing reduces the acidity, which naturally happens on the vine, bush or tree as a fruit ripens and the sugars rise, and acidity is important in whatever you’re making. We’ve found unique ways of controlling the acids and the sugars and getting interesting flavours.”
Almost all sales are at the farm gate, the way the Fischers want it.
“We want to be unique and drive people to the farm,” Gary says. “We want the customer interaction.”
He believes the biggest lesson they’ve learned in making and marketing cider is being true to their vision.
“Stick to your niche. We are very quality conscious. The blending and tasting and tweaking is very important, but to do that, you need good quality up front.”
Most orchards in North America have about 1,200 trees per acre. The Ferri’s have 2,500 to 3,000. Photo by Contributed
To go where no orchard has gone before – that could be the motto at T&K Ferri Orchards in Clarksburg, Ont. Owners Tom and Karen Ferri have taken their operation to the cutting edge of apple cultivation, implementing extremely high-density tree planting. The uniform rows allow for quicker harvesting, less environmental impact, and provide a myriad of other benefits as well.
This is the just the latest chapter in the Ferri family’s exciting history in Canada. It began in 1932, when Nazarino and Clelia Ferri purchased a 10-acre orchard in the hamlet of Huttonville, Ont. Their children worked hard to expand the business to 200 acres, spread over four farms. Over the years, Ferri apples were shipped to many markets in the Toronto area and beyond. Eventually, grandson Tom and his wife, Karen, took over the family business, and in the early 2000s, they made the decision to relocate. The couple purchased a property in Clarksburg in 2005 and began working on the orchard there while still operating an orchard in Brampton.
It was in 2009 – the year they had planned to move permanently to Clarksburg – that disaster struck. In August, a sizable tornado hit the new farm and destroyed 85 per cent of the producing trees.
“We were lucky that most of the renovated portion was left undamaged,” Karen explains. “The trellis system we had put in place proved to be an amazing support to the trees.”
The Ferri’s postponed their move to Clarksburg and extended the lease on the Brampton farm. However, in 2010, while they made progress with their new orchard, another major setback came knocking. They had taken precautions for rodents, but the product didn’t do its job, and in the end, rodent damage resulted in more than 3,000 trees having to be replanted.
By the end of 2011, they had moved T&K Ferri Farms permanently to Clarksburg. But their troubles weren’t over. Like everyone else in 2012, the Ferri farm experienced an early spring followed by many freezing nights, and there was very little to harvest.
“We’re thankful that 2013 and 2014 went well,” Karen says.
Tom does the majority of the work and sets the direction for the farm. His brother. Joe, works in the orchard alongside Tom from spring to fall, and also provides IT support and statistical analysis. Karen manages the office, runs the retail market, looks after advertising, local networking, grass cutting and some tractor driving during harvest.
“When the retail market is running, a niece works in the market and drives the tractor for harvest,” she says. “We have two other full-time employees throughout the spring and summer and about four workers are hired for harvest. We are lucky to have two local teenagers who help during busy weekends in the market.”
Varieties include Honey Crisp, Mac, Mutsu, Ambrosia, Gala, Cortland and Golden Delicious.
Where most orchards in North America have about 1,200 trees per acre, the Ferri’s have 2,500 to 3,000 – a density greater than most tall spindle systems which was chosen to accommodate the orchard’s climatic conditions and soil type. The orchard is the first in Ontario to have a super-spindle system, which is the industry term for high-density planting.
“The plunge was taken because it means less limb training, a true fruiting wall is achieved, and the trees fill their space faster, allowing for full production sooner,” Karen explains. “It takes just three to five years to achieve full production.”
The system also reduces labour costs because handpicking can be done from a mechanized platform moving between the uniform tree rows, instead of being done with time-consuming ladders. In addition, the Ferri’s “beyond-super-spindle” system requires lower rates of crop protection products. The tightly packed trees have less foliage than those in a regular orchard and getting the products on the apples is easier.
“Without the use of the platform, we would need two or three more employees for the summer pruning and hand thinning, and four or five more for harvest,” Karen says. “The chemical cost has been reduced considerably. We’ve been able to achieved return on investment in four to five years with Honey Crisp.”
The Ferri’s say their biggest orchard challenge has been the poor quality of trees received from Ontario nurseries. They’ve dealt with this by replanting or adjusting orchard techniques. In terms of current business challenges, the thorniest is being paid in a timely fashion.
“We’ve been paid in-full anywhere up to 10 months after shipping, and we can be charged storage fees by buyers until they sell the apples,” Karen says. “It’s a baffling system.”
The fact apples can be dumped into the Canadian market and permitted onto grocery store shelves without tariff is also a challenge, she notes.
“Canadian farmers don’t have the assurance from our federal government, as farmers in many other countries do, that cost of production will be covered,” she says.
The Ferri’s also note that some of the funding programs available are confusing to comprehend in terms of what they apply to and how funds are distributed, in addition to being time consuming to apply for.
“Other funding opportunities are based on a competitive model and the aforementioned concerns remain the same,” Karen notes. “Food safety certification programs, such as Canada Gap, are applaudable. But we’re unconvinced the same requirements are secured from apples coming from other countries, such as China. This leaves Canadian farmers at a distinct disadvantage because it costs more to produce Canadian food and imported foods are offered into the Canadian market at cheaper prices.”
During 2015 and beyond, the Ferri’s would like to plant an acre of McIntosh in super spindle, and will be expanding their cold storage to support Honey Crisp requirements.
“We participated in a research trip to Italy recently, and we will continue to watch for new varieties suitable for our area,” Karen says. “Currently, Honey Crisp is one of the few apples which returns a reasonable margin to any apple grower.”
The Ferri’s are beginning to establish their own retail market and would like to work more closely with several local entrepreneurs who use their apples in various products. They also want to continue to expand their involvement with the culinary-agritourism within the Georgian Triangle area (Apple Pie Trail, Grey-Bruce Agricultural & Culinary Association), and work to brand the area for its apple production. They have already hosted an international apple growers’ tour and an international tour guide’s visit, which were both positive experiences.
“We also need to continue to add to our weather mitigation, with one or two more wind machines for frost protection, and we need to do some structural improvements to our lane to better accommodate tractor trailers used for shipping,” Karen says. “Applications for funding support for the wind machine have been repeatedly rejected. But we’re not prepared to give up on our quest, and will apply this year again for funding. We have received some funding support towards structural improvements to our lane. We also require another mechanized platform to deal with our increasing harvest volumes.”
Karen says it’s very pleasing that Tom’s efforts have been recognized with the Premier’s Award for AgriFood Innovation Excellence.
“He is a very hard worker and he is very innovative with improving the efficiencies in apple farming,” she says. “Tom also has a natural intuition about what is ailing a particular tree and is able to take action very quickly. It’s amazing.”
Forbidden Fruit Winery winds along the Similkameen River, the southern-most property in the valley, located just before the river crosses the Canada-US border. Photo by Contributed
This past winter, Forbidden Fruit Winery in Cawston, BC, became the first winery in the Pacific Northwest to win top honours in both fruit wine and grape wine categories in the same competition. Wine Press Northwest magazine held it’s 15th annual Best of the Best competition, which only accepts entries that have won other awards. Forbidden Fruit received double platinum for its 2013 apricot-based Caught Mistelle and its 2011 Earth Series Merlot.
Winery owners Steve Venables and Kim Brind’Amour are no strangers to the podium. The fruit and grape wines they’ve been making for 10 years are multiple award winners. But it’s the organic fruit they’ve been growing for nearly 40 years that brings them the most satisfaction.
“It’s always been about growing food,” says Steve. “I am proud that we started as food producers and we still are food producers.”
The winery takes in only 10 per cent of the Ven ‘Amour Farm crop, while the remaining 90 per cent is sold fresh.
Sumac Road winds down along the Similkameen River, the last turn before Highway 3 begins to climb over Richter Pass to that “other” B.C. fruit-growing valley, the Okanagan. A self described “pony-tailed fruit picker” Steve had been working summers in the valley for five years, pruning and picking, while he searched for the perfect piece of land. His 142-acre farm, plus the adjacent 150-acre parcel he later leased and purchased, is the southern-most property in the valley, located just before the river crosses the Canada-US border.
“There was nothing here but sage brush,” recalls Steve. “I moved down in the spring of 1977 and we grew lots of squash and tomatoes. We started planting an orchard and when we got the well in, we began expanding down the road and up the hillside.”
Kim joined him in 1981 and they’ve worked as a team ever since. The farm is now a series of southwest facing terraces that climb up from the river.
“It was organic from day one, absolutely,” Steve says. “It was our lifestyle.”
He adds: “Early Sterile Insect Release trials in 1979 helped organic growers get a foothold. Prior to that, we were loosing 60 per cent of our crop to coddling moth.”
The original pilot program totally eradicated the moth for two to three years and allowed a lot of organic growers to get into apples and pears.
Some of the conventional growers looked askance at this Forbidden Fruit that came from organic methods.
“But in the early 80s, we saw a lot of commercial growers going ‘Huh, he’s getting $800 a bin and I’m getting two. Hmm … I can do that,’” Steve recalls. “By the time the late 90s rolled around, that $800 bin was down to $250, $300, which is where it’s at now.”
His friends call him a “variety hound” with 60 different tree fruits and six varieties of grapes.
“The model we’ve built, both with stores and our own sales, is to have something different consistently through the whole season, right into the fall. We are full on with Rainer cherries by the 20th of June. People are so happy for something fresh.”
Vista Bella, Williams Pride and Sansa get the apple market going. Steve was the first grower in the valley to bring in white peaches and is known for his Asian pears.
“We are as far south here as you can go. I can get a ripe peach the end of the first week of July and we ship them all out, even though the farmer’s markets are clamoring for them.”
Steve’s favourite apple right now is Tsugaru, the number two selling variety in Japan, after Fuji.
“I’ve been cropping it for four years and it’s huge and dark and sweet. All I have to say is ‘Tsugaru’ and they say ‘Send me all you’ve got.’”
Early wholesales went to Calgary stores.
“Calgarians were right there at the door,” Steve says.
They also supply the Kootenay Coop in Nelson, retail outlets in the Okanagan Valley and have just picked up a distributor on Vancouver Island.
When returns on their fruit flattened, they added a guesthouse for agri-tourism. But they were looking for more diversification.
“We would sit in the guesthouse hot tub during the winter and ask ourselves: ‘What else are we going to do? Did we want to start taking our fruit to the coast to sell at farmers markets?’ We didn’t want that, we wanted to be at home, so we started making wine.
“It’s really a value added product,” Steve says. “It’s got good cash flow, and it works because we already have the fruit.” And those multiple varieties pay off.
“We can offer something a bit more exotic than the regular cherry or apple wines. We make a lovely Pear-suasion from our Asian pears and the Japanese plums go into our Plum Noir.”
The family brought in fruit wine specialist Dominic Rivard, now with Muwin Estate Winery in Nova Scotia, who helped them get up to the next level with their wine.
Keeping visitors happy was part of the reason behind grape wines.
“You can see them at the shows,” says Steve. “They make a wide arch around our table. I like the idea that people will drive down off the highway to visit us.”
Sauvignon Blanc, Vidal, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and a small plot of Tannat make up their grape plantings.
“I want to put in more of the Cabs up against the bank,” says Steve. “The heat really develops the sugars, but it is a waiting game in the fall before the acids will drop because of our cooler nights. I end up with a bit more alcohol content in the wine.”
Steve and Kim’s children have been involved with the wine from the very beginning. Son Nathan is now the viticulturist and wine maker after attending Okanagan College. His red seal carpenter certification comes in handy around the farm and family houses as well. Daughter Tesha is the social media person and is farming small-scale crops, such as asparagus (for which the valley was noted 30 years ago) on river bottom soil up the valley.
Forbidden Fruit produces around 2,000 cases a year, ranging from about 30 for a Tannat-Malbec blend, up to about 300 cases of Sauvignon Blanc. Most other varieties range between 150 to 200 cases.
“We are noticing that there is a lot of competition out there (299 wine licenses says the BC Wine Institute) and you need to be on the ground in Vancouver and Victoria. We do have an agent and we do pound the pavement, but I like to go more grass roots.”
Steve favours Rotary wine festivals across the province.
“I can tell people our story, pour our wines and tell them where they can buy them.”
These are the people who will stop on their way through the valley, or will make a special trip over from the southern Okanagan. However, he does admit that 35 wine shows last year were not keeping him at home.
Last summer, a change in BC liquor laws opened up wine sales at farmers markets and they have been pouring and selling wine, along with their fruit, in Penticton.
“We’re pretty lucky with pests,” says Steve. “We don’t get much mildew, we don’t have scab, and we don’t have brown rot, which the Okanagan can have with its higher humidity. The river is always moving here and we get lots of wind.
“I’m what you call a low impact organic grower. I’m still back in the 70s.”
Steve will put out oil if he has a really bad outbreak of scale and perhaps BT for twig borer and he finds it important to apply sulphur to the grapes.
“But if it’s not kicking me economically, I live with it. I’ve got to the point in my business where I can deal with challenged fruit, either in the winery or seconds for the canning market.”
His biggest problem is poison ivy. Although it doesn’t affect the fruit, it is hard on the workers and impossible to control organically.
“We have to dig it out with a mini excavator, but that only works when we are replanting.”
A new sweeper allows them to clean up the ground before harvest.
For the time being, they are staying out of the VQA program.
“They don’t recognize fruit wines and we kind of left it that way,” says Steve. “For me, what’s better than VQA is 100 per cent BC certified organic. We list in private and government liquor stores, but we are kept out of the 15 or so VQA stores.”
Future crops include the Wendy strawberry from Nova Scotia.
“We would be able to get it out of the way before the cherries.” Steve says. “I’m interested in planting some of the Austrian Gruner Veltliner, and I’m also tempted by Tempranillo. But sometimes Kim tells me I bring too much stuff home.”
The land near Hillier, Ont., where Harwood Estates Vineyard is situated had no power when it was purchased. With one of the owners being an electrical engineer and solar power being as efficient as it was, it was natural for the operation to look into an off-grid solution. Photo by Contributed
Running a business of any kind off the grid is an accomplishment in itself. But for the owners of Harwood Estate Vineyards, it’s only one of many they have achieved over the last seven years.
Being off-grid is one of several significant ways that Harwood differs from all or most of the wineries in Ontario and beyond (it’s Canada’s second off-grid winery). The owners – couples Don and Judy Harwood plus Kerry Wicks and John Rode – employ organic cultivation practices, capture substantial amounts of rainwater and use many energy-efficient approaches, which together have recently won the operation a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.
The winery was started in 2007 with the first Harwood wines being introduced in 2009. There are currently 10 acres under cultivation and the grape varieties harvested and grown include Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, St. Laurent, Frontenac Gris, Marquette, La Crescent, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay. Harwood Estate offers 13 wines and has won 16 awards so far, with their Friends Rosé 2013 vintage earning a medal at the Intervin International Wine Competition before it was even released.
The land near Hillier, Ont., where the winery is situated had grapevines already planted on it when the couples purchased it, but the property had no power, even though the main building is only about 300 metres from the nearest hydro line. As they looked into getting electricity installed, the Harwood team were floored to find out a connection would cost about $28,000. With Rode being an electrical engineer and solar power being as efficient as it was, it was natural for them to look into an off-grid solution.
“For a few more thousand, we were able to install what amounts to our own solar electricity substation,” Rode says. “We finished it in 2008, and have no ongoing electricity bills other than some backup fuel.”
Part of the system is set up to produce three-phase power, which is required by big machines.
“We could even run a press we used to share with another winery, a big World War Two press that took a lot of power,” Rode recalls. “Now, we have a smaller, more efficient press, but it’s good to know we have that much generation. Overall, however, we have to keep a close watch on electricity use.”
What does this mean in practical terms? Not doing major tasks all at once, especially in the fall.
“For example, if the winemakers are pressing grapes, retail folks are not running the dishwasher,” Wicks explains. “In November, we’re at the point in the year where the winery needs the most electricity, so it’s a matter of having a close eye on using all the power we have stored in our deep-cycle batteries, or can generate at a specific point in time.”
As the days get shorter during the harvest season, a back-up propane generator comes into play.
“It’ll come on for two or three hours if we have to put in a long night of pressing.”
Energy efficiency also matters a great deal at Harwood. All the winery lights are LED, which provide a lot of bright light at a low consumption rate, and all the appliances are Energy Star rated. There are plans to increase the solar panel array and battery storage to eliminate the need for any auxiliary power.
The design of the main building that houses both the Harwood Estate tasting room and winery (there is also a patio that summertime guests can enjoy) is also important to overall energy efficiency. The team looked into insulating the building with spray foam, but their municipality no longer allows it because in a fire, it creates a dense smoke that’s extremely dangerous for firefighters. Rode found Reflectix instead, an insulation product consisting of tin foil sheets and a bubbled interior, and it works very well in conjunction with the building’s two woodstoves.
“It doesn’t hold heat in, but it reflects it very well,” he says. “We use about eighteen cords of firewood a year.”
The stoves are very popular with guests who like mulled wine by the fire. In the wine cellar, where temperature control is critical, another propane heater is used in winter as needed.
To irrigate during dry periods without straining the local groundwater table, Harwood Estate installed a catchment system that captures 85,000 litres of rainwater annually. Wicks describes the system as a natural pond that fills and generally holds water about nine months of the year, from which they pump water into holding tanks. The tanks also accept rainwater straight from the roof.
The owners of Harwood believe strongly in not using chemicals unless absolutely necessary.
“We’ve had excellent help from pest management specialist Margaret Appleby at OMAFRA on grape berry moth control,” says Rode. “To deal with it, normally you have to use a pesticide, but we’ve used pheromone mating disruptors and we’ve had no GBM pressure for three years.”
They also use cover crops for a variety of reasons, including control of pests such as cutworm, which will feed on a canola cover crop instead of attacking the vines. Bird pests are prevented from eating grapes with netting, hawk sound effects and hawk silhouettes.
“We’re not aiming for organic certification as being strapped to that takes a lot of time and effort, and if we have a huge infestation that threatens our crops and our entire operation, we don’t want to be in that kind of vice,” says Rode. “We just want to be as environmentally friendly as possible and be as transparent about it as possible.”
In terms of employees, Harwood only hires locally.
“Grapevines need daily care from March to November and we try our best to hire from this area,” Rode says. “We pay well and provide many concessions for staff that need it, but we still have a lot of trouble maintaining an on-going team. We’ve never used foreign workers except for this year (2014). We just couldn’t get enough people locally.”
The biggest challenge – and onemany Premier Award winners face – is keeping up with demand.
“We are now building another solar-powered building and hoping to divide our retail and production spaces over the next year,” says Wicks. “Winning the Premier’s Award is huge, and very much appreciated. This kind of validation is invaluable. It gives us more courage.”
Adrian and Draupadi Quinn produced one acre of kale during their first year of production. They went on to grow 10 acres and then 28 acres. They now use kale from about 150 acres grown on their own and neighbouring farms.
Going from zero to full speed with a new venture is exciting. It also takes an incredible amount of determination, vision and an ability to see problems as interesting challenges and not annoyances.
In the case of Ultimate Kale Chips, the venture benefited from the extensive experience of its founders, Adrian and Draupadi Quinn. But that experience wasn’t in kale farming. Instead, they’ve grown in the last five years from knowing virtually nothing about farming to growing large amounts of organic kale – and running a successful value-added kale business.
The family’s epic kale chip journey is a strong reflection of a journey that Adrian Quinn had already taken with Kokimo candles. Back in 1995, Quinn had started producing something called the Candy Candle in the barn at his parents’ farm. He first sold them to friends and family and, eventually, to local gift shops. Now, the Kokimo line – consisting of candles made with food-grade wax, natural scents, baby oil and cotton wicks – can be found in thousands of retail outlets across Canada and around the world.
Growing a business from nothing to an international success was already in Adrian’s resume, but kale farming was not. And how the family got into farming kale and then making kale chips came about purely by happenstance.
It started with Adrian and Draupadi’s desire to move to the country, to find a place where their growing boys could have some animals and explore nature. They found a former tobacco farm in Castleton and fell in love with the place.
“It was as a diamond in the rough for sure, with some arable land, some forest and some wetlands with spring water,” says Quinn. “At the start, we were buying vegetables from a farmer-neighbour and he ran out, and suggested to me that if we wanted more kale, we should grow it ourselves. I told that to my wife and she said, ‘Great, let’s do it!’”
The couple began to envision their farm as a consumer-supported agriculture (CSA) venture with a focus on kale. But a trip to a gift show in California – related to Kokimo candles – changed all that. It was the first time they had tried kale chips – in this case, baked ones made in small batches for eating the same day – and they were impressed.
“We all reach for snack food from time to time, and we know they can contain a lot of chemicals and not much nutritional value,” says Adrian. “We saw a chance to create our own Ontario-made kale chips that are extremely nutritious and all-natural. The drying is key. We were growing and drying hay at the time, and we were surprised that it kept its nutritional value so well through the drying process. We figured we could do that for kale. And drying does preserve all the enzymes and nutrients.
“After we’d experimented for a while and everyone we knew had tried them, a friend who happened to be a health food distributor said he could sell a lot of these. So we went for it.”
To make the chips on a commercial scale, they would need a lot more kale, a processing facility, flavouring ingredients and more. The first step was to formalize the business (called Brandneu Foods Canada), the branding (Solar Raw Food) and the product name (Ultimate Kale Chips).
The couple gutted the barn on their farm and created a commercial kitchen, then acquired some propane-powered cabinet dehydrators so they could experiment with drying times and temperatures. Later, a grant from Northumberland Community Futures enabled them to acquire four more cabinet dehydrators and double production.
At the same time, the Quinns experimented with flavouring ingredients, from coconut sugar and beet powder to red peppercorns and curry spices.
“We didn’t want to use oil in the creation of the chips for a few reasons, so we ended up trying a mixture of ground-up sunflower seeds and cashews soaked overnight in water,” Adrian explains. “It works well. We add the flavourings to that and spray it on the kale pieces, dehydrate them for 14 hours, and package them in bags with nitrogen gas. This gives us a great shelf life.”
He adds customers provided a lot of help for the development of the current five flavours.
All the while, kale acreage was growing. The first year the Quinns produced one acre, then 10, and then 28. They now use kale from about 150 acres grown on their own and neighbouring farms.
“Five years ago, dirt was something I had seen before but never knew how to use,” Quinn says. “I had never farmed, but my grandfather was a farmer and I worked with him a bit in my youth and I always wanted to learn more.”
The soil is sandy in the Castleton area, so the Quinns add their own nutrient-dense organic material created through anaerobic (underground) composting, which involves the addition of microorganisms and a fermentation period of six months. They also apply desalinated and dehydrated seawater to the soil.
The Ultimate Kale Chip is now sold in hundreds of health food stores – and will soon be joined by another kale product, Kaley’s Kale Chips. This product features potato chip flavourings, added after dehydration to make them more intense.
“The objective from the start with all our products is to be all-natural,” Quinn says. “Both brands of chips are organic, gluten-free, MSG free and GMO-free. We have distributors in many countries lined up to buy Kaley’s, so it’s very exciting.”
Kaley’s chips are being made at a new processing facility in Cobourg, Ont., which is outfitted with a conveyor natural gas dehydrator. The incoming air is pre-heated with the outgoing air, which cuts energy use by 65 per cent.
The Quinns are happy to say they’ve always been able to hire locally. The kale business provides 11 full-time and three part-time jobs at the farm and farm processing facility. The new Cobourg processing and distribution centre adds 18 more jobs.
These days, the biggest challenge the Quinns face in their operation is securing more kale.
“Recent increases in commodity prices means surplus land has disappeared,” Adrian notes. “But we’re working with local farmers and we’ve convinced some of them to grow kale, and now we are getting some farmers calling us saying they have the odd hay field to offer. We also need to mechanize the harvest.”
There can be up to six harvests of kale every season and Quinn says that it’s quite a bit more lucrative than cash crops.
“So, it’s a nice collaboration with farmers in our area. We have a goal of getting at least 1,000 acres under production, with 80 per cent or more being made into kale chips.”
The Quinns were extremely excited and proud when they received the top prize – the Premier’s Award – in the 2014 round of the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.
“We were just delighted to have received this honour,” Quinn says. “We have achieved a great deal, but it’s all about improving on what’s come before.”
Jenna Empey and Alex Currie of Pyramid Farms and Ferments turn the organic produce they grow on their 60-acre farm into a range of fermented products. Photo by Contributed
It turns out that reviving a lost art and science such as fermentation is, well, both an art and a science.
On the artistic side, a great deal of creativity certainly goes into the unique and health-promoting products offered by Pyramid Farms and Ferments. But just as important to this business’s success is knowledge of the science of bacterial fermentation. It is a form of food preservation that has largely been lost from North America’s modern industrial food landscape, says co-owner and self-proclaimed “bacterial farmer” Jenna Empey, a fact that has presented both challenges and opportunities for her and her husband and business partner, Alex Currie.
“I have Ukrainian roots but none of the first-hand family knowledge of fermentation made it to my generation or even the generation before me,” Empey explains. “When I was starting to learn about it, I consulted with some older relatives who shared childhood memories of how their families and communities used to preserve the cabbage harvest through winter, but we created all of our recipes ourselves.”
Empey and Currie turn the organic produce they grow on their 60-acre farm – as well as produce they buy from neighbours in Prince Edward County – into a range of innovative fermented products, first released on the market in 2012. At any point in time, they offer five or more different sauerkrauts, three types of kimchi (a spicy Korean fermented food) and five flavours of Kombucha (a fermented tea beverage that has been described as an effervescent lemonade).
Before it all began, Empey had worked in agriculture for more than a decade in the Prince Edward County (PEC) region, and then moved to Halifax.
“I was living in an urban environment and missed farming and working with food, so I began experimenting with fermentation,” she notes. “I’ve always grown and preserved food, but this was an entirely new way to work with it, one that is ever-changing and I really responded to it.”
In Halifax, she happened to meet a guy named Alex, who was at that point working at a restaurant and running his own record label. Jenna worked at the label as well and they discovered that they complimented each other in many ways. When the couple decided to move to PEC and start their own farm and fermentation business (and get married), they brought a lot to the table. Alex had a wide range of knowledge and skills from running his own business, writing, recording, production, promotion design and packaging (he’s a graphic designer by trade). He operates the Kombucha side of the business while Jenna heads the fermented foods and farming sides. Currie describes his Kombucha as a little sweet, a little sour, slightly carbonated and very refreshing. His favourite flavour invention so far is green tea with coriander, Echinacea and lemon basil.
“Alex and I have always worked well together,” Empey says. “It can be challenging at times to work daily with your spouse but the rewards are ones you share in, and we are always there to help each other.”
It’s a good thing they are an excellent team.
“There is no book on how to operate your own sauerkraut company,” Empey says. “It is a forgotten art that is just beginning to come back, and we are one of a very few full time fermentation companies in Canada. We’ve learned everything, from troubleshooting equipment, packaging, marketing and product consistency, and improved on them by trial and error.”
Fermentation involves a small set of bacteria and yeasts that use the naturally-available sugars in food to reproduce, to create conditions where other organisms that normally cause spoilage cannot grow and to produce molecules that, when combined with the vegetables they are in with, taste fantastic. Empey does her fermentation in what she calls “the cave,” an underground cellar that also serves as a vegetable storage area. At times of production, vegetables – such as cabbage – are shredded and placed in earthenware containers with sea salt. Pressure is added and the process begins.
“Fermentation is amazing and constantly surprises me,” Empey says. “It leaves you with a living, nutrient-dense product that offers you many benefits to your digestion and health. It seems simple, but the outcome is very different based on temperature, environment, salinity and the ingredients you use. We’re essentially bacteria farmers, providing ideal conditions to encourage the necessary bacterial development to create delicious sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha.”
Pyramid Farm & Ferments doubled its income between 2012 and 2013, and Empey and Currie are hoping to continue the upswing. They’re installing new fermentation tanks, and were recently awarded a grant from the National Farmers Union and Slow Food The County to purchase a cabbage slicer that will increase shredding capacity by ten-fold. The next big business goal is to renovate a permanent commercial kitchen and retail space.
But while Empey explains that Ontario growers produce excellent cabbage, available nearly all year round, there are some challenges involved with supply.
“We’ve found many of the bigger produce operations here have gotten out of growing cabbage because customers don’t really know what to do with it anymore,” she says. “So, sometimes, it’s hard for us to find the types of cabbage we want. We are also limited by a lack of cold storage. In the near future, I would like to cultivate relationships with Ontario farmers to grow and wholesale the varieties and quantities of cabbage we want to use for our fermented foods. We would like to expand our line of fermented foods throughout retail in Ontario, but making the time to cultivate retail relationships and do sales calls can be challenging.”
Hopefully the recognition that Pyramid Farm & Ferments is receiving will make that easier. Recently, the business was chosen as one of only 20 firms to participate in the ACE bakery Artisan Incubator program in 2013. The couple’s hard work and creativity have also won them a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.
“We are thrilled to have won the Premier’s Award,” Empey says. “It means a great deal to be recognized as an industry leader and for our creativity and innovation. We are constantly learning, and it’s wonderful to be producing products that are delicious and improve digestive health as well. Our slogan is Go With Your Gut, which speaks to how our fermented foods have rich cultures of beneficial bacteria that can do wonders for your immune system and overall gut health.”
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2017 Muck Crops ConferenceWed Apr 12, 2017 @ 8:00AM - 05:00PM
2017 Canadian Produce Marketing Association ConventionTue May 09, 2017 @ 8:00AM - 05:00PM
2017 Potato Growers of Alberta Golf TournamentThu Jul 06, 2017 @ 8:00AM - 05:00PM
18th Annual Enology & Viticulture Conference & Trade ShowMon Jul 17, 2017 @ 8:00AM - 05:00PM