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

Published in Profiles


John Picard, owner of Ramblin’ Road Brewery in La Salette, Ont., was raised on a farm, worked tobacco fields through his teens and studied economics as a young adult. He always had it “in his blood” to return to farming.

That passion, in addition to things like new equipment availability, have allowed Picard to create Ontario’s first and only “brewery farm,” where he grows hops, makes beer, makes kettle chips and has created a very unique product that couldn’t be made anywhere else.

Picard’s brewery farm adventure began in 2004, when Picard found suitable property to purchase. In 2006, the equipment necessary for the production of craft beer became available, and he was keen.

“How to develop a craft beer business on the farm was the question,” he remembers. “We started with planting 3,600 hops rhizomes that year and it went well. It evolved into the brewery project, which started in 2010.”

By 2012, he and his team were proudly introducing the people of Norfolk County to their first locally brewed craft beer. Ramblin’ Road current offerings include a lager, ale and pilsner – as well as another brew that is very special.

The uniqueness of this particular beer is directly related to the uniqueness of the kettle chips that Picard had started making when he bought the farm in 2004. Picard wanted the snacks to stand out with a full-bodied flavour, and had come up with the idea to take the raw sliced potatoes and bathe them in beer stock to achieve this.

“Creating unique food products has always been a passion of mine, and the market for these kettle chips was already there,” Picard says. “People in bars and pubs are looking for local, unique and high-quality snacks. We just recognized this market and offered the consumer a distinct product in both processing and flavour.”

One day, Picard eyed the lager beer stock that they bathed the potato slices in, and wondered what would happen if he tried to take it all the way to beer. It was a simple lager, and using professional consultation, he was able to take the liquid and very carefully measure its acquired starches. It was hoped, and proven to be true, that the “potato sugars” would create a very distinctive smoothness in the final beer. These sugars, Picard would also learn, also offer a touch of sweetness from the start, which continues to evolve in the aging process, creating what he calls “an amazingly distinctive product.” In addition to measuring how much potato starch was present, Picard needed to bring it to a consistent volume in order to have the right final desired alcohol content. An enzymatic reaction process does the trick, controlling how much breakdown of starch occurs, allowing all processing parameters to be calculable and factored into the finished product, and eliminating all concerns for beer deterioration and oxidation.

Ensuring the process was repeatable was also a tough thing to accomplish.

“There are differences in potato quality, due to things like whether it’s a new crop or a stored crop,” Picard notes. “We didn’t know how the sugars would vary through the season.”

It took six months of trials to optimize the process and guarantee quality. At that point, Ramblin’ Road Premium Dakota Pearl Potato Ale was born.

“When we tasted it, it was fabulous and has been our number one seller since its introduction.”

Ramblin’ Road has seen a doubling in demand for both its Dakota Pearl ale and its kettle chips over the last two years, and this growth continues.

“We’re just beginning to establish networks for product distribution,” Picard explains. “Currently, we supply a few retail outlets from Chatham to the Bruce Peninsula. The snack products are seeing expanded market opportunities and great repeat sales. Locally, the beer distribution has been serviced primarily in Norfolk, with a few specialty accounts in restaurants in Oxford and the Kitchener-Waterloo area. This year, we are creating a delivery system for those enquiries outside of this area, and we currently have had over 20 enquiries.”  

To create all his brews, Picard grows 3.7 acres of hops, with varieties that possess varying degrees of bitterness, flavouring and aromatics. Those currently used in production are Mt. Hood, Nugget, Fuggle, Cascade and Brewer’s Gold, with Centennial, Hallertau and Simcoe under cultivation for future use.

“Some hops have one quality and some hops have all three, and the combinations are incredible with our selection of cultivars,” Picard says. “We are learning every year how to improve our hops qualities and yields. In 2014, the moderate heat seemed to be a plus for the hops as we realized very good hops cones, the weather in combination with proper fertilization are key to a lush hops field. We’ve also built our own harvester.”

In 2015, Picard and his team expected to process hops for commercial sales. To prepare them for this after growing and drying, their alpha acid content must be measured, followed by hammer-milling, pelletizing and vacuum sealing into packages.

Picard points to marketing as another current challenge.

“We are a bit more cautious in the marketing side as there is a very competitive demand for limited beer tap space in most licensee establishments,” he says. “We choose to be in venues where the owner chooses his offerings based on his customers’ tastes rather than what is cheap and discounted for quick sale. We are sourcing markets for our kettle chips where we are able to maintain differentiation from the multi-nationals.”  

Future plans include the development of more beverage and snack products.

“Just in December 2014, we launched our fifth beer – PurebRED, which highlights the true red qualities of roasted and malted barley, added to this is our elevated hops bitterness for a very well-balanced flavour,” he notes. “It is my hope that the market distribution/retail system will expand accordingly, as this seems to be lynch pin to connect consumers and local products. But I think that with the rise in consumer awareness and demand for these products, the distribution system will evolve or alternative avenues of accessibility will develop.”

Picard says winning a Premier’s Award in 2014 was a great honour, not only in that they recognize his efforts, but because they as a whole recognize that agriculture is continually and rapidly evolving.

“Projects like the Ramblin’ Road Brewery Farm are developments that you would not have seen 10 years ago,” he says. “Highlighting these unique and diverse expansions into agriculture is a great way to confirm with consumers that their food supply is indeed more local, traceable and defined. It’s truly a recognition that entrepreneurs will continue to enhance our food experiences and that agriculture is capable of continually surprising us.”




Published in Marketing

 SkySquirrel Technologies in Hammond Plains, N.S., uses drone imaging and data analysis/reporting to currently serve about 30 vineyards in Canada, Chile, France, Spain, Romania and Switzerland. Photo by Photo courtesy of SkySquirrel Technologies

When someone tells you drones are about to revolutionize agriculture, believe them. More and more people in the farming industry believe that use of drone imagery will soon be standard practice on most major farms, helping to manage everything from potatoes to horticulture crops, grapes to field crops.

The way things are currently, growers have to scout for disease and other crop issues (and in many cases, send samples away for confirmation). But the human eye can only detect a fraction of the information that can be measured with today’s sensors. With properly-calibrated imaging tools – which can pick up a great deal of information beyond the visible spectrum – there is a whole new dimension of crop management emerging. It’s true growers can and do use sensors to gather information now by physically walking around the fields with a sensor tool or carrying one while riding in a machine, such as the Greenseeker. But drones in the sky are more efficient. They are able to take hundreds of images across large areas in a few minutes and send the data wirelessly to a central database. The system software analyzes data as it arrives, comparing it with norms on file, then automatically sends reports back to the grower – in some cases within 24 hours – with the time for the whole process to cycle shortening all the time.

The reports are tied into GPS positioning, so that growers can use their smartphones or tablets to go directly in the field to pinpointed areas of concern. Drought stress and a few diseases are already capable of being detected. Drone imaging is also being used to assess crop status (planting evaluation, growing stage, yield estimates), evaluate and survey for drainage, and to track weed levels.

Andy Reynolds says most remote sensing work in vineyards so far has been conducted in Australia and Europe using fixed wing aircraft.

“[It] has involved use of sensors that record red-green-blue spectral reflectance from plant canopies that provide a metric called normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI),” explains the professor at the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ont. “The utility of these data comes from spatial relationships between NDVI and yield, vine vigor, water status and possibly berry composition metrics such as sugar (Brix), titratable acidity (TA), anthocyanins, phenols, etc.”

Reynolds says there are generally direct correlations between NDVI and yield, vigor, etc. because NDVI is basically measuring greenness in a plant canopy. A low NDVI is typically associated with low vine water status, low TA, high Brix, anthocyanins, and phenols, partly due to smaller berries and the associated concentration effects.

The remote sensing work done by Reynolds and his team in Niagara in the mid-2000s illustrated these results.

“One of the challenges, which we will continue to have with our drone work which just began in 2015, is the fact that Niagara vineyards have green cover crops in row-middles that reflect the same as plant canopies,” he notes. “So, all the pixels associated with the cover crops need to be masked to provide NDVI data representative of the vine canopies exclusively.”

He names another stumbling block with assessing drone tech to be weather differences from year to year, with high rainfall seasons having the capability to completely change the zonal patterns in NDVI and other pertinent variables. Reynolds and his colleagues saw this happen in a recent five-year study in a large Riesling vineyard in Beamsville, Ont., and a two-year study in four Pinot noir vineyards in St David’s, Ont. These two issues, he notes, are major challenges in the process of convincing the industry that the use of remote sensing – either by drones or standard aircraft – might be worth widespread investment.

Reynolds believes all this research may someday allow scientists to delineate temporarily-stable zones of a vineyard that will end up producing wine of differing quality.

“This information might be used in two ways,” he explains. “If the zones are somewhat geometric in nature, it might be possible to implement ‘precision viticulture’ whereby variable rate fertilization, liming etc. might be used to reduce the variability.

“The other way of using the data is to simply accept the fact that the vineyard is variable, and make two or more different products that reflect the variability, for example a $15 bottle of wine from the high-vigor zone and a $25 bottle product from the low-vigor zone. All this will depend upon a clear correlation between the NDVI data accessed by the drone and all the variables on the ground.”

SkySquirrel Technologies in Hammond Plains, N.S., uses drone imaging and data analysis/reporting to currently serve about 30 vineyards in Canada, Chile, France, Spain, Romania and Switzerland. The company also does a little field crop and golf course work. About half its clients are Canadian, based in B.C. and the Maritimes, with at least one Ontario client coming on board in 2016. SkySquirrel has a partnership with VineView of California, which started gathering aerial infrared data in vineyards using airplanes about 12 years ago.

SkySquirrel formed in 2012 and focussed in on vineyard management in 2013.

“Grapes are a high-value crop and the flight time is a good match for size of vineyards,” says Richard van der Put, company CEO.

Usable analysis is back to vineyard managers usually within 24 hours, and the flight planning training for vineyard managers takes about a day. Van der Put says the biggest challenge in developing their system was image calibration – creating software algorithms that would compare imaging data with norms and also make comparisons over time.

Cost return for drone use is best measured on a per-acre basis, in van der Put’s view.

“There’s an immediate return on investment, but how much depends on the application,” he notes. “One disease that is very important in vineyards is grapevine leafroll virus. As many readers would know, there is no treatment and you have to remove the plant. Early stage management is critical and provides a huge return on investment.”

Leafroll shows up on the images with an obvious colour change, but that could be due to other diseases, so vineyard managers usually send plant samples for confirmation testing before culling.

SkySquirrel currently has no capability to detect mildew or other diseases, but offers differential harvesting analysis (a determination of when grape harvesting should occur), and is in the process of incorporating water management services. van der Put notes that its partner company, VineView, helps vineyards in California drop water use by 25 per cent.  

Drone use in hort crops, potatoes
Drones have been used in several projects in Ontario’s Holland Marsh area, according to Jody Mott, Holland Marsh Growers’ Association’s interim executive director. The projects have mostly focussed on surveying fields and buffers. Mott adds that a recent Campbell’s soup commercial involving a Holland Marsh grower was filmed using a drone.

One current Holland Marsh drone project is being spearheaded by Mary Ruth McDonald, a professor at the University of Guelph and the research trial coordinator at its Muck Crops Research Station. The two-year study, supported by federal Growing Forward 2 funding and involving Bradford Cooperative Storage Ltd., has been extended into 2016. McDonald says one objective of the research is to investigate the use of aerial photography to improve integrated pest management programs – basically to see if crop damage can be identified earlier and more efficiently with drones than through scouting (with the cost of scout labour increasing and drone costs coming down). She and her colleagues also want to see how drone imaging can affect research itself, as it may provide more data and more objective data than that which is currently gathered.

Resson Aerospace of Fredericton, N.B., delivers data analysis for various clients, and the Financial Post newspaper reports that Resson signed a seven-figure multi-year deal with McCain Foods.

According to Nicole Rabe, a land resource specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, barriers at this stage in using drone imagery in the horticulture sector include cost, the time it takes to get usable data back, and risk.

But Rabe also asks about the risk to the grower if something has been missed. With more research projects and private partnerships looking into drones in Canada, it seems clear that answers – and a reduction of barriers to drone use in agriculture – are on the way.




Published in Companies


Patricia Bishop and her husband, Josh Oulton, are in the middle of transitioning their 300 acres of cropland, orchards and pasture in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley out of conventional production into organic agriculture.

When Bishop bought 23 acres of farmland in 2007 near Port Williams, NS, her initial goal was to grow organic fruits and vegetables for the wholesale market.

That market was slow growing, so she quickly modified her business plan by starting a community shared agriculture (CSA) program in 2009, allocating much of the farm’s production to off-farm partners who buy annual shares in the program.

“Now, we are delivering 450 boxes of food regularly in the Valley and Metro (Halifax),” she says.

Oulton supervises production while Bishop handles the marketing and administration of the CSA program.

Tap Root Farms delivers food boxes 50 of the 52 weeks of the year to CSA shareholders with the first delivery starting in early April and the last delivery occurring in late March of the next year.

Oulton and Bishop can offer virtually year-round delivery of fresh produce because they grow their fruit and vegetables either in a greenhouse, several high tunnels, or in a field covered with black plastic mulch.

The couple sells their vegetables in two sizes. The small box is suitable for two people and costs about $700 for an annual share, which averages out to about $14 weekly. The large box, suitable for up to four people, has an annual share price of $1,150 or about $23 weekly. The farm’s large fruit box has an annual share price of $750, about $15 weekly, and the small fruit box has a $400 share price, about $8 weekly.

The contents of the boxes vary during the year depending on what crops are being harvested and how well those crops do in storage or, if they are preserved, dried or frozen.

Every three months, the produce allocations change. In the spring, alfalfa sprouts, pea shoots, apples, sweet apple cider, potatoes, early greens, rhubarb, asparagus, stinging nettles, Jerusalem artichokes, cabbage, radishes, pea shoots, preserved and frozen vegetables will be in the vegetable boxes. In the fall, leeks, Napa and savoy cabbages, beets, pumpkins, squash, greens, carrots, apples, kale, onion, garlic, celeriac, Brussel sprouts, kohlrabi, turnip/rutabaga, potatoes and sweet potatoes will be supplied to CSA customers.

Tap Root and Noggins Corner Farm partner to provide produce for the fruit boxes, filling them with peaches, pears, plums, sweet cherries, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, Arctic kiwi and more than 50 varieties of apples, plus fruit preserves, dried and frozen fruits and fruit juice.

The fruit from Noggins Corner Farm is non-organic but grower Andrew Bishop, father of Patricia Bishop, uses Integrated Pest Management and less harsh pesticides to lessen possible adverse environmental impacts.

Tap Root also raises farm animals, such as beef cows, sheep, pastured pigs and free-range chickens.

Periodically, the couple fallows a vegetable plot and rotationally grazes the cows and sheep on the plots, while the swine root in the soil as the ruminant animals fertilize it with manure.

Oulton has an agreement with a nearby young farmer to supply non-GMO feed and grains that are fed to Tap Root’s cattle, sheep, pigs and free-range chickens.

Tap Root’s animals also provide meat and eggs to its CSA program customers.

Oulton and Bishop are also developing Tap Root into a farm tourism destination. During the summer, they present several jerk pork and chicken dinners prepared by one of the operation’s seasonal workers from Jamaica.

But Bishop emphasizes it’s the CSA program and its off-farm shareholders that supports their expanded organic production.




Published in Research


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.





Published in Profiles


Davison Orchards Country Village is nestled on a hillside just outside of Vernon, B.C., in the Okanagan Valley. Bob and Dora Davison started the farm in 1933 and are still very active in the day-to-day activities. Their son, Tom, and his wife, Tamra, transitioned the farm from selling everything wholesale to packers to an agri-tourism haven. Three of their children are also directly involved in the business. The Davisons work 100 acres today and welcome more than 300,000 visitors annually to their farm in a six-month period.

Davison Orchards was one of the stops on the Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association’s annual bus tour in November 2015. For 2015, we were exploring British Columbia with a side trip down to Seattle. Our gracious hosts shared with us some of their secrets to direct marketing success. A big part of their success in this industry is due to the fact that early on, they realized they had to be not only good but great storytellers. They wanted to share their stories with customers but also promote and highlight all that is special to their business. While touring the farm, this became apparent in several different forms.

The old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is taken to a new level in the farm market. Giant photos of the family showing different aspects of their business line the tops of the walls when you first enter this building. An area that is generally known as dead space and not very practical for much more than storage, is filled with beautifully captured family photos. It is a great introduction to the farm family.

Tamra explained to the group that they have moved beyond the word “local.” They felt it had become overused and never had a clear definition linked to the word. Instead, they have adapted “made right here.” By using this term, they are encouraged to create and promote signature products from and for the farm. For example, their Deep Dish Café uses as much of their own homegrown products as possible. The Davisons are not shy about promoting this fact to their customers whenever they can. They strongly feel that it is one of their unique selling features. The use of big TV screens at the café’s counters depicting delicious, made from scratch soups and pies, is an example of their promotions.

Tom and Tamra’s daughter, Leah, who is in charge of social media and marketing, discussed their successes in this part of their business. Not surprisingly, social media plays an important role in their marketing strategy. Almost 50 per cent of the farm’s marketing dollars are spent on social media. Leah feels the farm’s email newsletter is the most influential part of their strategy. It is a platform where they can connect personally with their customers to tell their story. This year, they also invested in a $200 time-lapse camera to tell the story of how one Honeycrisp apple is created. To make it even more interesting, a contest was created where people were asked to comment and share the video to help get it out in front of more eyes. The video was posted on Facebook and went viral with more than 200,000 shared views. The winning comment was as follows:

“How could anyone ever take an apple for granted after seeing this! It is a natural wonder. Thanks for posting this and taking the time to capture all the stages of this amazing fruit.”

High praises for any storyteller.

Cathy Bartolic is the executive director of the Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association. OFFMA’s 2015 annual bus tour visited the Okanagan & Fraser Valleys in beautiful British Columbia. Davison Orchards was just one of the amazing farms that hosted the tour. To see the Honeycrisp video, go to Davison Orchards Facebook page and look under videos.




Published in Marketing

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.




Published in Profiles


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
like Pillitteri.”

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.




Published in Profiles


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.”




Published in Profiles

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.”




Published in Profiles

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.”




Published in Profiles


With the increases in minimum wage, labour costs have jumped significantly for Ontario horticulture farmers in recent years. While this has been tough on many producers, apple growers have been feeling the bight keenly considering there is more labour required to keep an orchard running.

Some have approached the challenge head-on, aggressively reducing the need for labour through planning, management and intensive production. But one Ontario grower has thrown a lot of effort into doing more with less. For his hard work and experimentation, Werner Zurbuchen, the owner of Zurbuchen Farm in Norfolk County, was recognized with a 2014 Premier’s Awards for Agrifood Innovation Excellence.

“We still have to work long hours at times,” he admits. “But we’re doing significantly more with less.”

In 1993, Zurbuchen and his family decided to sell their broiler operation and orchard/vineyard in Switzerland and immigrate to Canada. They purchased a broiler chicken farm in the Waterford area, which featured 185 workable acres of loam soil that has since been systematically drained. During his first autumn on the new farm, Zurbuchen got going right away with apple growing. He planted 100 apple trees and also grafted other varieties to test how they would perform in the Ontario climate. Once he saw them doing well, he budded 17,000 trees on rootstock in his own nursery, and then planted them on 17 acres. From 2009 to 2012, Zurbuchen and his family expanded the orchard to 50 acres. The farm now has 48 acres of apples (with 10 being mature, high-density cultivation), two acres of pears, and the rest supporting a rotation of corn, soybeans and wheat.

“The apple crop estimate for 2015, if things go well, is about 1,000 bins,” Zurbuchen says. “In terms of what we grow, over the past two years, we have cut out our Spy, Mutsu and Macintosh cultivars because these varieties aren’t favoured today, and are now growing a majority of newer varieties. By today’s standards, we plant a medium-density orchard of 1,000 trees per acre and train them as tall spindle.”

Tall spindle tree care, once the trees reach their maturity, is time-consuming in terms of taking care of the upper section beyond normal arm reach from the ground.

“If you use a ladder for this – and for thinning, tying, trellis installation and harvesting – it’s quite expensive because of the labour involved,” Zurbuchen says. “In addition, ladders and heavy bags of apples can be dangerous.”

Zurbuchen had already designed the high-density part of the orchard for mechanization, so when labour costs started increasing around 2010, he went the automation route and bought machinery. (He also welcomed his son-in-law Joseph Taylor to the farm as mechanic and, after some training, as seasonal field manager.) Zurbuchen’s first purchases were an imported European mechanical thinner, a Frumaco platform/harvest-aid and a bin trailer. In 2011, he bought a Feucht windfall pick-up machine, and in 2013, a Fama mechanical pruner.

The Frumaco platform has performed as expected, boosting operational efficiency by a significant amount.

“It cuts both pruning and harvest time by 35 per cent, and thinning and trellis/tying worktime each by 50 per cent,” Zurbuchen says. “I can’t provide an accurate figure for the mechanical pruner right now as we’re still experimenting with it, but together with the platform, we are hoping for at least a total 50 per cent reduction in pruning time. We have used it a lot in a leased orchard with standard planting density and with varieties prone to dropping, and we can pick up at least 50 bins in seven hours with two men running it.”

While worker safety has also been improved with the machinery additions, Zurbuchen says that proper instruction for each worker is still critical in order to keep the risk of accidents to a minimum.

Because he thought there might be other growers besides himself interested in mechanizing, Zurbuchen also started an orchard equipment business called Tazu Technology. The company imports and distributes mechanical pruners, platform picking machines and other orchard equipment.

“We stand by what we sell because we have firsthand experience with it,” he says.

There are six Frumaco harvesters currently being used in Quebec and Ontario orchards, and Zurbuchen believes that number will increase.

“There’s been a lot of interest from growers and we’re confident that in the coming years, more farmers will move forward in mechanising their operations,” he says. “We are currently in the process of purchasing a Lipco twin row tunnel sprayer which will be able to spray two rows at once, recycling lost chemicals while not being effected by the prevailing winds we seem to have quite often.”

Zurbuchen is also thinking seriously about buying a Frost Buster – a propane air blast heater that will help combat night frost in the spring and also assist with pollination.

The current challenges for this operation include planting new varieties that will be strong market leaders for many years to come. Replacing some of the less desirable older varieties with newer ones will also help to fill out the orchard’s harvesting window. Zurbuchen also wants to continue honing his integrated pest management (IPM) program, as well as his strategies for finding committed local labour.

“It’s also a challenge these days to deal with more and more paperwork, not only related to employees but also to comply with regulations and burdensome red tape,” he says.

Of winning the award, Zurbuchen says he’s happy that it’s brought some positive attention to the apple industry.

“It is our hope that the government understands that for Ontario farmers to be successful in a very competitive market is a very real challenge,” he says. “We are thankful to the premier and her staff who put the work into recognizing the hardworking people in the agriculture industry.”




Published in Harvesting

 The Dreidgers added a 1,000 pound counter-weight on the right side of the machine to balance the weight of the cross conveyor hanging out to the left. Photo by Contributed

If you aren’t a tomato farmer, you might have a hard time guessing what Dennis Driedger’s machine is for. It’s a bit of a strange-looking contraption, with cutting disks, belts and conveyors all whirring in different directions and angles when it’s up and running. But odd appearance aside, it does the job well – and it earned Driedger a Minister’s Award in the 2014 Premier Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence competition.

The machine was created because Driedger knew there had to be a better way to harvest his crop. At the time, the only tomato harvesting method and machinery commercially available – a pusher unit that sat at the front of a tractor – posed a problem for tomato farmers who wanted to deliver high quality whole pack fruit to their customers. Simply put, in order for harvest to proceed with large tractors and transport trailers, they were required to “open the field” and push plants out of the way to be able to straddle the rows. This resulted in product being wasted, split and squished by tractor tires and dump carts. A new harvesting method and machine, if one could be devised, would need to be able to lift and move entire crop rows, making room for the harvesting equipment and protecting all fruit from damage. If it could be done, this new method would also speed things up, with tomatoes loaded directly onto trailers and transported directly to the processing plant. But to create a better way to harvest his 150 acres of tomatoes in Wheatley Ont., Driedger was on his own. That is, it would be up to him, his parents Abe and Helga, wife Karen and ”right hand man” Pete Peters to get the job done. (Son Jesse will be graduating from Ridgetown College this spring and will be joining the farm then, while daughter Karlee is in nursing school.)

“There are so few of us tomato growers, and there just aren’t the equipment options out there, and we have to be innovative,” he explained. “It’s all about delivering quality.”

He was ready to take on the challenge, because over his 30 years of farming, he’s made or modified numerous other machines and implements.

“I’ve made specialized equipment before such as a fertilizer applicator and I like doing it,” he said. “Ten years ago, we designed and built our own tomato harvester as there was no self-propelled offset-style tomato harvester on the market. With it all in one machine, it’s easier to handle and does the job better. The tomato business in Canada is just that way. There aren’t very many of us, and because of the different weather conditions and growing season and soil types that we have here compared to the U.S., the standard equipment that’s available doesn’t suit our needs very well. It doesn’t work terribly well with a wet harvest, handling mud.”

Driedger started with an old harvester and tore it down to the chassis. He envisioned something that would lift, cut and gather like a harvester, but that would also gently deposit the plants and dirt three rows over. It also needed to be a self-propelled machine because even a pull-type version would need a tractor out in front, which would defeat the purpose. By the end of the first season, he and his father, son and Pete had built an operational machine – a tomato row opener with a disc head assembly installed in front of the chassis.

“After the first build, we took it to the field and brought it back many times to the farm shop to make changes,” Driedger remembered. “The angle of the incline had to be reduced because the plants weren’t going up all the way. They were rolling back. The top of the header chain had to be shortened because the plants weren’t hitting the centre of the cross conveyor, but were shooting overtop.”

They also had to add a counter-weight of 1,000 pounds on the right side of the opener to balance the weight of the cross conveyor that was hanging out far to the left. Driedger said they did all the work themselves, only needing to talk to a hydraulic specialist when it came to driving all the motors. The harvester they’d started with had a lot of hydraulic capacity, so they had to scale that down to run the opener, which is smaller and has fewer moving parts. In the second year, all that was needed was tweaking – things like adding some shielding and rubber belting here and there at points where tomatoes were escaping from the conveyors.

Driedger was extremely pleased with the machine, which speeds up harvesting by almost 20 per cent.

“On average, 10 per cent of our tomato crop would be lost in opening a field,” he said. “So we have 10 per cent more going for whole pack, instead of paste, with the former obviously providing a higher price per tonne. We were pleasantly surprised that the results were that good. We saw the benefits the first year in how we were graded at the factory.”

And the machine’s usefulness has gone beyond the original intent of just opening a field for the harvester. Driedger also uses it to widen the headland at the end of the rows in the field to allow the harvester more room to turn and get into the rows.

“We used to do that by hand every day, moving what we required for that day of harvesting. We used to call this 45 minutes our morning exercise.”

Two fellow growers in the neighbourhood have since built their own “tomato row opener” machines.

“They came to the farm and I was happy to show them this one and help them,” Driedger said. “That’s the way we are, the group of guys around here, we help each other and share. I am sure there [are] others interested, at least those in the whole pack business instead of those growing for paste. But everyone would likely have to do things differently, because they might not have an old harvester but have some other piece of equipment as a base to start with.”

Driedger and everyone else on the farm were very excited about winning a Premier’s Award and then being chosen for the Minister’s Award.

“We had a great day in Toronto with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs staff and at the summit with the premier and agriculture minister,” Driedger said. “It was a great pleasure.”




Published in Harvesting

 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.”




Published in Profiles

Heeman’s Strawberry Farm recently won a regional Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence for advancement of a traceability system that’s been in place on the operation since the beginning of berry picking at the farm. Photo by Contributed

Innovation goes a long way back at Heeman’s Strawberry Farm of Thorndale, Ont. – back more than five decades.

Newlyweds Bill and Susan Heeman emigrated from Holland to Canada in the late 1950s and it wasn’t long after they arrived that they purchased a farm near London. The automotive industry wasn’t booming and it was hard for Bill to find work as a mechanic, so the couple concentrated on the farm. As they grew their strawberry acreage, Bill invented a machine that saved staff from back pain and sped up berry harvesting – by allowing up to 20 people at a time to pick berries while lying on their stomachs.

We’re happy to report that innovation is still going strong at Heeman’s Strawberry Farm to this day, with the family business having achieved not one, but two Premier’s Awards for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence over the past few years. The first was for their renowned customer plant storage service. After building their first greenhouse in 1975 and expanding greenhouse space at a steady rate over the years, the Heemans built a storage greenhouse of almost 20,000 square feet in 2010 specifically for taking care of customers’ prized plants.

“Before this designated greenhouse was built, we had been ‘babysitting’ plants over the winter in empty areas of other greenhouses basically as a favour for friends with tropical plants,” explains Will Heeman, Bill’s grandson. “It slowly grew by word of mouth and now we store over 2000 plants a year for customers from as far away as Niagara, Peterborough, Collingwood and Sarnia.”

The plants that enjoy a winter getaway at Heeman’s range from smallish pots of hibiscus and mandevilla to towering palms, citrus and other exotics.

“We’ve recently added in-floor and perimeter heat, energy and shade curtains and computer automation to our storage greenhouse,” Will explains. “We also wrote a computer program involving barcodes for efficient plant care, and to track the locations of all plants for each customer.”

Today, the operation has 57 acres of berries and more than 100,000 square feet of greenhouse. Three generations of the family work on site. Bill is head grower and the conscience of Heeman’s Greenhouse. His son, Rudy, wears many hats as “the berry boss,” co-owner, chief mechanic, builder and fixer for Heeman’s Strawberry Farm and Heeman’s Greenhouse (two separate businesses). Rudy’s wife, Florence, is a co-owner of Heeman’s Strawberry Farm and manages the pick-your-own operation. Bill’s daughter, Rita, is co-owner and general manager of Heeman’s Greenhouse. Will serves as “chief day-maker” (a person who makes your day) and head of marketing and customer relations for both businesses.

The Heemans’ second regional Premier’s Award is for advancement of a traceability system that’s been in place since the beginning of berry picking at the farm.

“Before we ever had a barcode system, we tracked our picking with paper and pen and wrote their number on the flat with marker,” Will says. “While we couldn’t tell what day or where it was picked, we still knew who picked those flats. If people ever called in, we could make sure any issues were fixed and turn it until a teaching moment.”

However, tracing berries just down to the flat and not the quart was limiting.

“The majority of our customers buy less than a flat and those purchases weren’t traceable,” Will says. “While tracing to the flat level meets industry standard, it doesn’t help us track all berries and protect our reputation, which rides on the quality of our product. Now, we can track by the quart to the specific farm, field, picker and harvest time and recall or handling issues is easy. Our customers can also provide us with online feedback, rating the quality of their berries.”

All customers have to do is visit, type in the 16-digit code from the bottom of their quart and follow the easy instructions.

Implementation of the system was not difficult, just involving things like training pickers to put a sticker on each quart and the flat before picking, versus having the foreman apply the barcode afterwards.

“Our pickers appreciate hearing that people thought they did a good job,” he says. “Good report or bad, they receive the feedback. It’s great for them to get the credit and if a teachable moment comes from it, it’s more meaningful because the feedback comes from the person who bought the berries.”

If the customer purchased Heeman’s berries in a store and the score is less than perfect, that feedback is shared with both the picker and the retailer, to find out what went wrong, and fix it. The Heemans provide anyone who is not 100 per cent satisfied with a replacement quart or flat, no matter where they bought them.

“Of all the farms in North America using a similar system to ours – and most farms using the system are five to ten times our size – we have the highest amount of feedback. We attribute this to our encouraging people to provide feedback, and the changes we made to the reporting tool to truly make it two-way communication.”

The online feedback has also allowed the Heemans to find out some interesting things.

“Someone provided us with a score of 10/10 for our berries that they bought at a market in St. Thomas and we don’t knowingly sell to anyone at that market,” says Will. “All we know in that case is that the berries were picked the same day this person purchased them. In other cases, if we get a customer saying the berries are poor quality and she purchased them on a Monday but they were picked on a Saturday, we can work with retailers to see how they can get berries to customers closer to picking, or how to keep them fresher along the way.”

Having a traceability system that goes down to the quart also makes payroll far easier to do, saving time and money.

“It also helps as an added factor to the overall differentiation of our berries to others, especially imports,” says Will. “There will always be an added cost to it, mostly for more labels, but overall it’s been wonderful and we are very happy we made the switch.”

In terms of recent challenges for the Heemans, Will lists boosting consumer awareness of the everbearing strawberry as one of the biggest. However, it’s one they welcome as they believe it will have great benefits for them and for the entire strawberry industry.

“We’re also trying to find strong new strawberry cultivars that are bred for growing in our region as existing varieties get older and less productive. Our plans right now for the greenhouse operation are largely focused on making improvements to the facilities and the business layout as well.”

To the Heemans, the Premier’s Awards they’ve received are very meaningful.

“To be selected by a panel of our peers and approved by the government, and to be included with a list of amazing innovators that are leading the way forward for our sector in the province is very rewarding,” Will says. “To be a double-winner is just ‘berry’ sweet!”




Published in Harvesting

 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.”




Published in Profiles

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.”




Published in Profiles

(left to right) Zach Loeks, Kylah Dobson and their two children. The couple operate their farm, Rainbow Heritage Gardens, completely off-grid, which has led to the need for many different innovative ideas. Photo courtesy of Rainbow Heritage Gardens

It’s a long way from the hot hills of New Mexico to the frozen landscape of eastern Ontario in winter, but it’s a strong connection to the land and environment – and in this case, the use of its freezing temperatures – that has earned the owners of Rainbow Heritage Garden a second regional Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence. The award is given to farm businesses for things like adding value to existing products and building economic growth, which is exactly what Zach Loeks and Kylah Dobson have accomplished.

Kylah and Zach met during their first week at Concordia University and found they had mutual passions for “the outdoors, adventure, all things that grow, and cooking.” They studied and got to know each other while making meals with the contents of Zach’s community supported agriculture (CSA) basket from Le Jardin de la Montagne in Rougemont, Que. By the winter of 2006 (during their third year), the couple decided to try a summer market garden business together, focussing on heirloom varieties. It would be located on Kylah’s family farm in the Ottawa Valley, which had been settled by her ancestors seven generations ago in 1857 (and where her father runs a successful grass-fed beef operation). The couple applied successfully for two grants to get things going, and their first season in 2007 left them with a taste for more. Dobson and Loeks realized after graduation in the spring of 2008 they wanted to farm full time.

Even though Loeks had experience on farms in the southern U.S. (he grew up in Sante Fe, N.M.) and Dobson had gardened all her life (and also, worked at her uncle’s horticultural business and volunteered on farms in Central America), they knew they had much to learn. They set about absorbing knowledge from everywhere – books, the web, workshops, conferences and fellow farmers. Dobson and Loeks decided they would stay focussed on heirloom varieties, grown organically. Although it was mostly direct sales at first, the operation is now primarily a CSA farm with some extra sales on-farm and at markets and events. From 20 acres of production, Rainbow Heritage Garden now offers more than 150 varieties of certified organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, edible and decorative flowers and dry beans.

Their home and farm business eventually went off-grid, which has led to much innovation. (Rainbow Heritage Garden’s first regional Premier’s Award specifically recognized a mobile solar generator system used for irrigation and more.)

“To make a living, to achieve commercial farming off-grid, you need to do things in ways that mostly don’t use any power or use very little power,” Loeks says. “We use only solar for electricity generation, but it’s about using other alternative forms of power and power savings.”

Garlic is cured, for example, in a barn where the boards upstairs can open to accept the prevailing wind. The innovative use of geothermal heating and cooling has led to their second Premier’s Award for the design and construction of a unique 600-square-foot root cellar constructed in a hillside in 2011.

Up until that point, the couple had used several types of storage for their harvest. First it was the basement of a house, with produce moved to market as soon as possible. Their second storage system was a cream cellar located in part of an old barn, which Dobson and Loeks insulated and outfitted with an air conditioner. But it just didn’t stay cold enough as the summer days heated up, and the air conditioning left the vegetables dry as well.

“So then we had to bag them, and then you get condensation, which can cause rot,” Loeks recalls. “In the winter, we had to put in a heater to prevent freezing, but that was uneven heat, from one source, and there was condensation then as well.”

Money and time was being spent on systems that just didn’t work.

“We would regularly have stuff spoil as we were stretching the limits,” Loeks explains. “People were and are looking for fresh local food all winter instead of grocery-store imported food, and we would try to have this available, but it was difficult to do economically.”

A solution that kept veggies in top condition and required little or no power was in order. That meant delving into the past to see what had worked in times where there was no electricity available.

“It used to be that everything was off-grid, and so you need to see what people came up with,” Loeks says. “We read about the different root cellars and caves that have been in use in Europe for centuries, and they work well. They’re still in use. If it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it.”

A root cellar, Loeks explains, provides a great deal of natural insulation against the winter cold and summer heat with natural geothermal heating and cooling coming steadily from all directions. He likens winter in a root cellar to what vegetables in the ground going dormant would experience. It’s a constant temperature most of the year, but during the summer, things do get warmer. That’s where the ice comes into play.

The Rainbow Heritage Garden root cellar was custom-designed to hold ice to provide a cooling effect in the summer heat (although Loeks is quick to point out that existing root cellars could be retrofitted). However, where to get the ice was a conundrum. Trying to harvest pieces from a river a 45-minute tractor drive away didn’t align with their farming values, and didn’t sound particularly safe either. There was an irrigation pond 1,000 feet from the root cellar, but Loeks pushed for a better solution.

“We brainstormed all sorts of things and making blocks of ice sounded crazy at first, but then it started sounding better and better,” he says. “But then, how do you make molds? You need to spend money and time making them, and then you have to find somewhere to store them in the summer.”

It turned out the answer was staring him in the face. The farm already had molds on hand, and they weren’t used in the winter. It was their CSA baskets, which are plastic tote bins, and come winter, they have to be stored until needed again. They would make perfect blocks of ice. Loeks fills them from their well, run by a solar pump that’s right in front of the cellar.

“It’s an amazing solution,” he says. “It costs nothing, and uses only human power, solar power and the cold.”  

Meltwater drains over a plastic-covered sloped area connected to existing drainage tile. There are four bays enclosed with poly air-locked curtains.

“It’s fabulous, and I should probably build another one,” says Loeks. “It’s completely full of vegetables. We have very little wastage now, and the space is amazing. A root cellar allows you to organize, first crop in, first crop out, and so on. Access is paramount. You know your vegetables are going to be in perfect shape all year long. And it makes economic sense, with all my time factored in.”

The cellar holds 20,000 pounds of produce.

Having now won two regional Premier’s Awards, Loeks is more than qualified to give an opinion of their value.

“They’re great because they help put the word out there and they’re great because they encourage innovation,” he says. “The money also helps you with future innovations.”

If the past is any indication, more innovation at Rainbow Heritage Garden is on the way.




Published in Profiles

 Gervais is not planning to increase his asparagus acreage at this time but admits if he were to get greater uptake for frozen asparagus from small, local independent retailers in southern Ontario, he would freeze more. Photo by Contributed

Every harvest season, many horticultural farmers face a conundrum. When fruit and vegetables are ripe, the produce must be sold. But because there is so much of it on the market, prices for some things can nosedive quickly. But now, Morris Gervais has found an inventive solution for this problem.

The producer operates Barrie Hill Farms, located near Barrie, Ont. The farm was started in 1968 and Morris’ parents, Adrien and Evelyn Gervais, grew tobacco there until 1979. In 1977, they started transitioning away from tobacco, planting strawberries and then following with blueberries, raspberries and asparagus during the years to come. Over the next two decades, their blueberry cultivation grew to a stunning 40 acres, making the operation one of the largest highbush blueberry farms in the province. Eldest son Morris began to take over management of the farm. In 1998, the Gervais family added peas, and the year after, green and yellow beans.

Morris’ wife, Kendra, home schools their four children, aged 6 to 13. And while their grandpa continues to be involved with the entire farm, over the last few years, Adrien has devoted much of his time to growing giant pumpkins. (A replica of his 1999 champion can be seen at the entrance to the farm.)

“He is over 90, but my father is still a great help to me,” Morris says.

It was during 2011 that Gervais began looking for a place that would freeze some of their blueberries in an effort to open up another sales avenue for the high-value crop.

“I made many, many calls to companies all over southern Ontario, but none of them were interested because it’s such a small amount compared to the other things they freeze,” he remembers. “Then one day, I got a call from Zast Foods. They have a brand called ‘Nude Fruit’ and they wanted my berries. They access fruit from all across the country and have shelf space in the bigger stores. I still sell some berries to them every year and also freeze some of my own.”

The company that would do the small-scale batches was South Coast IQF (individually quick frozen) of Delhi, Ont.

“We started with blueberries, as they are very cost-competitive,” Gervais explains. “I have an automatic harvester and automated sorting. And they are easy to freeze, just become little marbles. We added other berries later.”

In 2012, Gervais toured the facility and got to thinking. The plant was mostly idle early in the spring, and that’s when asparagus is ready.

“We’d been farming asparagus since the 1980’s,” Gervais says. “At that point in time, the only variety available was one that would flower at six or seven inches tall. That meant we had to harvest the spears when they were less than that. But during that time, the Ontario Asparagus Growers Marketing Board (now known as Asparagus Farmers of Ontario) had been investing in a breeding program at the University of Guelph and by the late 1990’s, we had a variety called Guelph Millennium.”

This new variety is all male, and is very productive in terms of pounds produced per acre. The spears are high quality, and don’t branch out until they get around nine to 11 inches tall. This means more of the tender stalks can be harvested and there is more overall volume that’s available to sell.

“Back when we started growing asparagus, we mostly did fresh sales at the farm gate,” Gervais explains. “It was really a good crop, and fresh sales were very strong, and anything left over was shipped to be processed and canned.”

However, in the late-1990s, the only processing plant in the province that handled asparagus closed. It was a shock, and Gervais and the other asparagus growers in Ontario needed to find more markets for the hundreds of thousands of pounds that had previously gone into cans – fast.

“We serviced grocery chains to an extent that had never seen before,” Gervais remembers. “Nowadays, I sell fresh asparagus at the farm gate, in local stores and into big grocery chains. The problem is there’s a glut in the spring and the price falls. That’s the time when if you can freeze it, you can preserve its value. If you can time it all properly, you can get all the benefits of fresh sales and then freeze the rest when the maximum volume of asparagus is on the market. You can then sell it throughout the year at a good price.”

The freezing process for asparagus did not take long to work out, and Gervais had about a thousand pounds frozen in 2013. That doubled in 2014, and for his innovative thinking and hard work, Gervais won a regional Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.

He has large walk-in freezers on the farm, and sells frozen asparagus, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries mostly through farm gate sales, with some going to small local retailers. He says there is huge potential to increase the amount of Ontario asparagus that could be sold as frozen, but points out that the costs involved to freeze, store, and transport product are high.

“It’s hard to compete with places like Peru where labour costs are so much lower,” Gervais notes. “And big companies, like Arctic Gardens, have shelf space deals with the big grocery chains. We individual growers therefore need the provincial government to create an economic offsetting mechanism, so we can compete with places where minimum wage is very low, the climate is better and production is higher.

“The federal, provincial and local governments need to look at ways of doing more to support horticulture,” he adds. “The challenges are serious and there is much to do to try and solve them.”

Gervais is not planning to increase his asparagus acreage at this time but says if he were to get greater uptake for frozen asparagus from small, local independent retailers in southern Ontario, he would freeze more.

Of winning the award, Gervais says: “The recognition is truly appreciated. I will continue to try and keep the operation viable but we will have to see about having a third generation. It would be nice to think that one or more of our four kids could farm here, but there are serious challenges. At the same time, I enjoy working in nature and with the land and meeting the challenges of growing good food. It’s satisfying and rewarding work to plan and plant and take care of the farm over a long time. The things we are growing take many years to establish and I like to think it’s important work to grow healthy food for people. It’s rewarding when you’ve succeeded.

“And it’s very enjoyable to work with customers and provide them with excellent product. Horticulture is a people business.”




Published in Profiles

 “I’m behind in my pruning but it will happen in due time. I do it all myself.” – Fred Steele. Photo by by Tom Walker

Kelowna orchardist and B.C. Fruit Growers Association president, Fred Steele, speaks with the clear articulation and presence you would expect from someone with a 30-year career in radio.

He’s an excellent storyteller and, like any good media person, he looks for the middle ground. Words like “cooperate” and “consult” come up often. When Steele looks back over guiding the BCFGA in this, its 125th anniversary year, he thinks the organization is heading in a positive direction. But first, we have to talk music and poetry.

“The boys are in the studio over in Spain right now,” Steele explains.  He is co-writing an album, entitled Savage Steele, with Pat Savage, a bluesman who performs across Europe. He explains how they send the material back and forth over the Internet and plays the single they are just completing. It’s a warm, country blues tune.

Only then do we talk fruit growing.

“What I said when I became president was that this chair belongs to the BCFGA’s 550 members and I am merely going to occupy it for a while,” he says. “I think that this year [2014] we have delivered. The main focus of almost everyone was the replant program and not just two years and $2 million.”

In late November, the B.C. provincial government announced they were providing $8.4 million in a seven-year program to assist growers to replant older low-value orchards with higher value varieties. The BCFGA will administer the program. Details are being finalized but, as with past replants, there will be a minimum of five and a maximum of 10 acres.

“That was our main goal and we got that one complete,” says Steele. “The program didn’t happen over night. We were building a relationship.”

The BCFGA decided early on that travelling back and forth to government offices in Victoria (a four to five hour drive through two mountain passes followed by a 90-minute ferry ride) was not the best use of their time.

“We did it by teleconference through the agriculture branch office here in Kelowna,” explains Steele.

When one person in the agriculture branch didn’t fully understand what growers were talking about, they arranged for him to be brought to the Okanagan Valley for a day.

“We took him to the research station in Summerland and then we took him to the farms and we showed him. You can’t just give a guy 10,000 trees and he can plant them.

“The ag guy got to see what cherry people need and he got to see what apple people need.“

The $11.00 unit cost for quality rootstock is just a start. On average, it costs $25,000 to $30,000 to replant an acre in the Okanagan.

“This is all about looking ahead and saying where will we be in five to seven years,” he says. “The better varieties give us a chance to use the word profit for a change.”

Older apple varieties, like Red or Golden Delicious, return nice cents per pound to the grower, while the new Ambrosia, developed through BCFGA subsidiary Summerland Varieties Corporation (formerly PICO), can get 50 cents per pound. The late season Stacatto cherry, also managed by SVC, is being planted extensively.

Building a strategic plan has been important for the executive in 2014.

“Every government department said to us: ‘Where is your strategy?’ The last one we had ran out two years ago,” Steele says. “We’ve had to consult with cherries and pears and prunes and the organic people and the packing house and SIR (sterile insect release program) because it’s not our program, it’s their program. We want to represent everyone.

“Some people say you should downsize the industry to fit the market you are in. But it doesn’t matter if it’s not profitable. So we have to go in the other direction, and that’s where we are going.”

Expansion, with government support, is part of long-term plans.

“I think the government is looking to increase acreage. They talk jobs, innovation and export. We have built a progressive relationship with the provincial government, we’re building a better one all the time with the federal government.”

The export market
“We have had considerable interest from lower levels in New Zealand to get a reciprocal agreement to make up for short falls in off season,” explains Steele.

Fruit would come into B.C. pre-sorted but then be graded and packed in local plants to give workers employment in the off season and help keep costs down. It would also give B.C. growers access to New Zealand export markets.

“What we are trying to do is provide fresh fruit all year round instead of stored fruit. They can piggyback our fruit into markets when they run short, and we can piggyback their fruit in because we are all partners in the same. It’s a lot better than trying to beat each other up.”

A new trade deal signed recently with South Korea provides the kind of opportunity the BCFGA are looking for.

“People ask me: ‘Why do you want to go back to exports?’ Well, there are growing middle incomes in Southeast Asia and those people want better quality fruit. They tell officials that they want Canadian product first choice and B.C. product first choice.”  

Quality for home markets and overseas is an important goal.

“It used to be that you just picked everything off the tree and put it in the bin, and it didn’t matter if it was poor colour or coddling moth,” Steele says. “But, I think that in the long run, it became one of the ills of the industry.”

If BCFGA has their way, that quality will not include the new non-browning GM Arctic Apple, developed by a private biotech company in the Okanagan and now seeking approval from U.S. and Canadian officials. The BCFGA denounced it in the fall of 2013 when they wrote letters to federal health and agriculture ministers to request the regulatory process for the Arctic Apple be suspended.

“What do you want the apple for?” asks Steele. “We already have a non-browning apple, the Ambrosia. If you can get two to four hours out of an apple not browning, what more do you need?  Would you want to eat that salad the next day?

“People want honesty,” Steele adds. “Why would you take your whole reputation and throw it up in the air? It’s a risk that we don’t need to run.”

Steele predicts 2015 will be a steady year following “extremely good years” in 2012 and 2013. But there will be some challenges, he warns. Northwest U.S. growers are sitting with 160 million boxes of apples.

“The biggest problem is that they don’t have access to the Russian market with the Ukrainian situation. I’ve sat down with our general manager, Glen Lucas. We’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a question of when (there will be U.S. dumping), not if. We’ve asked for shipments coming into Canada to be monitored for price. We’ve engaged a trade lawyer to prepare and contacted other provinces to put them on board. We’ve talked to the management of the packinghouses and the independents and we’re prepared. If the U.S. dumps into this market, we will initiate trade action.”

At home, Steele isn’t sure if he will access the replant program for his 11-acre orchard, located on the outskirts of Kelowna. His main crop is Macintosh with blocs of Gala, Spartan and Red Delicious.

“Every year, I think I might replant my Red Delicious. And then they grow big and I make money on them. And it becomes the question: ‘Do I have time to replant now?’”

He’s considering juice apples for expanding local cideries or perhaps hazelnuts.

“I’m behind in my pruning but it will happen in due time. I do it all myself.”

Steele is optimistic for fruit growing in B.C.

“We’ve got a lot of things started and we can let others complete them as there are probably a lot people with a hell of a lot more know how than I have. I’m just foolish enough to believe we can do it.”

And if it doesn’t work out?

“Well, I’ve been working on plans for an Internet radio station to talk about – what else – farm issues.”




Published in Profiles

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