Jason Verkaik of Carron Farms has been a pioneer in bringing new and ethnic vegetables to Ontario, including East Indian red carrots and heirloom carrots that come in many colours, from white to purple. Photo by Contributed photo
A few years ago, multi-coloured carrots were a novelty in Canada, if you had heard of them at all. Now, they are becoming commonplace, and in Ontario, that’s partly due to Carron Farms.
Owner Jason Verkaik has been a pioneer in bringing new and ethnic vegetables to residents of the province and beyond. He started growing crisp and sweet East Indian red carrots a decade ago and, over the past few years, has started growing large amounts of heirloom carrots. They come in many colours, from white to purple, and consumers love their look, taste and their healthy anthocyanins.
However, manually sorting and bagging the heirloom carrots so each package has a good colour assortment was quite labour-intensive, and anyone in horticulture knows that labour must be minimized in order to keep farm businesses sustainable. Verkaik needed a mechanized solution, and for his innovative efforts and his first-in-Canada results, he won a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.
Verkaik’s family have deep roots in the Bradford area. The year was 1934 when his ancestors purchased a parcel of land on the west side of the Holland Marsh, an area that would come to be known as Springdale. Over the years, the Verkaiks cleared more land and expanded their farming operations, selling produce through farmer’s markets throughout Ontario. In 1967, the farm was divided into separate family farms to support the needs of the next generation. One of these farms belonged to Jacob (Jake) Verkaik and his family, and they named the farm by combining the letters of the farm’s two most prominent vegetables (you guessed it - carrots and onions). Jake passed away in the mid-1970s and two of his sons, Doug and Jack, took over the operation. Together, they developed a state of the art onion curing and storing facility as well as a carrot storing and packaging facility. Eventually, Doug’s son, Jason, took the reins.
In the beginning of his search for a machine that would package both the farm’s heirloom carrots and traditional orange ones, Verkaik approached three companies.
“Two of the companies thought they could work with me to adapt a packing machine to provide a balanced colour mix,” he remembers. “We realized it was going to require some physical changes as well as some computer programing changes to make it work. After going over ideas, both companies came in with quotes, and we went with one.”
The resulting machine is the first of its kind in Canada. It has 14 weigh scale buckets, and the software chooses randomly from all 14 scales to find the optimum weight according to the parameters set.
“This works extremely well for a single colour,” Verkaik explains. “But the randomness posed a challenge for the colour mix packs. What we did was create three separate channels out of the fourteen scales, feeding the machine separately with the different colours.”
The machine then picks from a channel with red carrots, one with purple, and a third with carrots of three colours (orange, yellow, white). They all flow into a collecting bucket, which goes to the bagging machine and then to a packing table.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing from the start, however.
“Once the machine was set up, it didn’t start off very smoothly and adjustments had to be made to the programs to make it work more efficiently for the heirloom packs,” Verkaik remembers. “Also, we need do physical changes to the machine when we switch from heirloom packs to one-colour packs, which takes time. So, for small orders we just use the machine in regular mode and mix the colours on the line and use a couple of inspectors to ensure there’s a good colour mix in each bag. If there’s not, the bag is emptied and repacked by hand. It’s still faster this way than packing everything by hand. What took us four hours to do before, we now can do in one hour.”
Verkaik says the success of the system has given him the confidence to go after larger carrot accounts both at home and in export markets.
“Expansion of the yield is challenging,” he says. “As new accounts come, I know have the ability to meet the demand not only from a field production point of view but also a packing and delivery angle as well. It’s a good feeling.”
Current challenges at Carron Farms include everything from weather to government policies, says Verkaik.
“Our growth as a family farm has to be continually monitored,” he notes. “We farm 30 per cent more land than we did three years ago and our produce sales have doubled over that time, but it’s important that the growth is done for the right reasons. As we look to the future, we’re still looking for business growth both from the fields and the packing facilities. I see the heirloom carrots being an important part of that growth. I’m confident in myself and my farm’s team ability to grow a good harvest and ship a quality crop. I love working in the fields.”
Verkaik considers it an honour to win a Premier’s Award. He thinks the awards are important because they demonstrate that the government recognizes farmers and the innovation that’s always at the forefront of the agriculture industry.
“It’s humbling to see all the innovation across the sector and others who have won the awards, and to be included with them,” he says.
“I would also like to encourage the government to keep the industry at the table and heed their knowledge and advice when policies are made that relates to agriculture,” he adds.