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Wholesome Pickins: Revolutionizing the family tobacco farm


November 30, 1999
By James Careless

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In the 1930s, Archiel VanDeVelde moved from Belgium and started growing tobacco in Norfolk County, Ont. Of the several farms he owned, the 100-acre spread near Delhi, Ont., became his home.

In the 1930s, Archiel VanDeVelde moved from Belgium and started growing tobacco in Norfolk County, Ont. Of the several farms he owned, the 100-acre spread near Delhi, Ont., became his home.

Today, the Delhi farm is owned and operated by Archiel’s great-grandson David VanDeVelde and his wife Jenn. Both have university degrees in agriculture and a commitment to keeping the family farm going. But with tobacco growing on the wane – at least in comparison to the glory days of decades past – this generation of VanDeVeldes is branching out into other areas. Although the VanDeVelde farm – now called Wholesome Pickins – still grows tobacco, it is also home to an extensive strawberry and raspberry growing operation and a country grocer known as Wholesome Pickins Market.

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For their efforts, the VanDeVeldes won a $5,000 2008 Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.
“By planting ever-bearing strawberries and raspberries, and retrofitting the equipment they already had, these innovative growers built a business that has three part-time student employees and several part-time and full-time labourers,” says the award citation. “In 2008, they saw a 45-per-cent, year-over-year increase in customer traffic.”

“We’ve grown since then,” says Jenn. “Today we have 25 employees, and the acreage devoted to strawberries and raspberries has grown substantially. Meanwhile, our retail store offers the best baked goods, produce, cheese and meat grown in Norfolk County.”

The move away from tobacco
The VanDeVeldes began diversifying out of tobacco in 2005, although half of their acreage is still planted with this crop.

“We could see the writing on the wall,” Jenn says. “It was pretty clear when we graduated (from the University of Guelph) that tobacco was not what it had been in the 1970s or earlier. Today, many growers have left the farm. Even those who have stayed in the business have taken full-time jobs elsewhere so that they can pay their bills.”

Armed with their educations, the VanDeVeldes saw a different possibility.

“We knew that the sandy soil here in Norfolk County, which is so great for tobacco, could also be good for strawberries and raspberries,” says Jenn. “We also knew that our location on Church Street/County Road 4 – which is the main east-west road into Delhi – was perfect for a retail store. So we decided to take a stab at it.”

The first strawberry crop was planted in 2005 on just a half acre. Today, the VanDeVeldes have 10 acres devoted to raspberry canes, June-bearing strawberries and ever-bearing strawberries.

“We have five kinds of June-bearing strawberries,” Jenn says. “The first to be ready for harvest are Mohawk and Annapolis, then Jewel and then Governor Simcoe and Serenity. Usually our strawberry season lasts four to five weeks.”

Wholesome Pickins grows two varieties of ever-growing strawberries; namely Albion and Seascape.

“Albion is great for freezing, while Seascape has a flavour similar to many of our June berries,” she says.

On the raspberry side of the business, the farm grows both summer and fall bearing varieties.

“During our summer season we harvest Prelude, Nova, Lauren, Titan, Killarney and Tulameen,” she notes. “In the fall, it’s Autumn Britten, which we harvest from mid to late August to first frost.”

The Wholesome Pickins Market, housed in a converted section of the farm’s front barn, represents the VanDeVeldes’ effort to bring the best of Norfolk County to local consumers. To this end, it stocks all kinds of locally grown produce: “This area can grow literally anything,” Jenn says. The store also carries Norfolk County beef from VG Meats, peanuts, fudge and snacks from Kernal Peanuts in Vittoria, Ont., a variety of fresh baked goods from Harmony Bakery, and cheddar, marble and curd cheese from Jensen Cheese of Simcoe, Ont.

Adapting tobacco equipment to fruit farming

Given their continuing investment in tobacco farming, the last thing the VanDeVeldes wanted to do was to buy a second set of agricultural equipment to raise fruit. This is why they creatively devised ways to adapt existing tobacco-raising equipment and farming techniques to cultivating strawberries and raspberries.

“We use an old tobacco planter to plant all our June crops,” Jenn says. “We just made it work for strawberries by adding different fingers to the back end and installing a new water barrel to it for fertilizing new plantings. A major adaptation of tobacco equipment was in our irrigation systems. We were able to adapt the pipes, pumps and sprinklers to irrigate both tobacco and strawberries. The equipment also adapted to a ferti-irrigation injector that had been designed for large acreages and we adapted it for use in our much smaller fields. It started out covering just half an acre; now we use it to fertilize and irrigate six.”

That said, using tobacco equipment to raise strawberries has required a few compromises. For instance, the VanDeVeldes “don’t grow our strawberries the usual way, with wide widths of plastic planted with four rows each,” Jenn says. “Instead, we have based our rows on tobacco harvesters and sprayer tire widths, so that we don’t have to switch out the equipment. This means that we have plastic strips separated by tracks for our tires, and each width has just two rows to allow for cultivation.”

Growing business and jobs

Adding strawberries, raspberries and retailing has added revenues and jobs at Wholesome Pickins.

“We started off trying to do it all ourselves; just me and David,” Jenn laughs. “Now, we have four full-time employees who help with the fruits and store and three full-time employees that work in tobacco. Add our seasonal workers – a group that grows by numbers every year – and our payroll grows to 25 at peak.”

As for the farm’s future, “I expect that tobacco will always be a staple crop for us,” she says. “Still, our success in wholesale fruit and retail sales is driving what we’re doing. We are always looking for more local products for the store, and to see what new fruits we can grow. On the other hand, fruit can be a very hit-or-miss business compared to tobacco. It is much more vulnerable to seasonal threats, like the late frost we had this spring, and changes in market demand. So I see us balancing what we do between old and new ventures. Tobacco helped build this farm, and it will help underwrite our experiments as we try and grow new ideas.”

You can find Wholesome Pickins on the web at www.wholesomepickins.ca .