WHO: Bill Nightingale
WHAT: Fresh/Organic Fruits & Vegetables
Nightingale Farms, one of Norfolk County’s thriving commercial growers, was established in 1950 by Frank Nightingale. In 1980, it was taken over by the next generation, Bill Sr. and his wife Caroline. It passed into the hands of the third generation of Nightingale farmers in 2003, when Bill Jr. took over the helm. In 1950 there were 35 acres under cultivation. Today the combined operation encompasses 1,300 acres, 95 of which are dedicated to the growing of organic produce under the Norfolk Organics label, which was established in order to meet high consumer demand for quality, affordable organic produce. Completely separate, the organic acreage has been under cultivation for seven years, finally producing certified organic fruits and vegetables three years ago. During the colder months the Nightingales grow grape tomatoes in their greenhouses, and sell Parks Florida produce, along with their own stored winter squashes. All together, counting both sides of the operation, there are at least 25 different types of produce grown. Growing begins in March and continues on until the end of December.
Given recent scares about contaminated produce, it is reassuring for consumers to know that Nightingale Farms and Norfolk Organics take food safety seriously and that they are in compliance with the highest standards of safe food handling. Their staff is thoroughly trained in the latest methods and techniques, and all the equipment used is cleaned and sanitized daily. They have been rigorously inspected, and are proud of their CanadaGAP Certification. In addition, the Nightingales will be pursuing SQF2000 certification in the near future.
Personal tours of Nightingale Farms facility may be arranged by phone or e-mail. Prior to the appointed time, it is necessary to download and fill out the food safety questionnaire, as all visitors must comply with the food safety protocol.
Each year, Nightingale Farms ships over one million packages of fresh produce, 750,000 of them during the local growing season. That amounts to 20 million pounds of fruits and vegetables grown and packaged for shipping on this large Norfolk County property. In addition, they manufacture packaging material for sale to the industry: clam shells, overwrap trays and bags. It takes a staff of three hundred to grow, harvest, package, ship and oversee the management of such a large, bustling enterprise. Bill Jr. is in charge of the myriad details of day-to-day operation, but Bill Sr. still takes a hand in the company. At the present time they are the only two family members actively involved.
Virtually every store in Ontario carries Nightingale Farms produce at one time or another. (The list is extensive, and may be viewed on their website.) From Norfolk County they ship all over Canada, as well as to the eastern United States. The retail operation sells two or three cases a week to several local restaurant owners, mainly in nearby Delhi, and to produce markets in the area.
From 1999 until he took over the parent company, Bill Jr. was on his own, running one of Nightingale’s sister farms. Now, with the huge responsibility of managing the entire operation, he has little time off. The long, long days, especially this time of year, allow him much less time than he’d like to spend with his wife and young family of three.
The work/life balance conundrum is just one of the challenges Bill faces. He must contend with unpredictable weather patterns like any other farmer. But with the high cost of labour the biggest input, and the increasing cost of oil the second largest, “survival” is his biggest challenge. The “new model” for every vegetable farmer, he says, is “grow more and sell for less every year”, and “to be the most efficient around”.
On the other hand, he takes great pride in the successes of Nightingale Farms. He derives satisfaction from successful field trials of new varieties, or when new methods they have devised pan out. Through research, they have improved the quality of their produce, successfully extended the local growing season and achieved better disease control. Innovations in high tunnel growing have enabled them to take advantage of the superior drainage and higher temperatures of Norfolk County’s sandy soils, and the drip irrigation system they employ conserves precious water. For Bill, the “memorable moments” come when high yield and high quality product balances out the low yield, lower quality product that is inevitable in any growing season.
Looking into the future, Bill Nightingale sees a gradual rise in consumption of the fruits and vegetables his company produces. He does not foresee dramatic change, just a steady increase that keeps pace with population growth. There is, he feels, more room in the marketplace for certain local product, but he is not especially optimistic that the younger generation of consumers is very well-informed about the power of their food choices, nor does he believe they have much interest in the current movement toward more local, seasonal, sustainable consumption. As to the particular future of Nightingale Farms, Bill is investing seriously in more automation. They only way to increased profitability, he believes, is by a saving in labour costs.
Bill is concerned about the Canadian farmer’s ability to compete with foreign prices. The stakes are high, with the survival of Canadian food producers hanging in the balance. Our high labour costs versus those in the U.S., for example, put our farmers at a considerable disadvantage in the marketplace. He has given a lot of thought to how government policy-makers might mitigate this disparity, perhaps by direct subsidy of wages, perhaps by reconsidering the effects on farm prices of things like minimum wage legislation. “Don’t put us under the gun”, he says.
Everyone who shops for produce has at one time or another bought and eaten fruits and vegetables grown by Nightingale Farms. It’s good to know that in doing so, you are supporting an important Norfolk County enterprise, one that takes sustainability and the health and well-being of consumers seriously.
More Information: Nightingale Farms (link to partner listing)