WHO: David & Jennifer Van de Velde
WHAT: Farm Market
Wholesome Pickins farm market is a relative newcomer to the on-farm retail scene in Norfolk County. Situated on a 112-acre property on the outskirts of Delhi, it is the latest incarnation of a tobacco farm first owned by David Van de Velde’s great-grandfather. David’s father has lived all his life in the same house on the farm and, aside from his years away at university, the farm is the only home David has known. He and his young family now live in the other house on the property.
David and his wife Jennifer took over control of the farm when his parents retired in 2009. Only 50 acres now remain in tobacco. The Van de Veldes grow corn, soybeans and rye in rotation on most of the remaining acreage, along with an additional 38 acres which they rent from a relative of David’s.
In 2005 Dave and Jenn planted three acres of June crop strawberries; in 2007 they added a half-acre of ever-bearing strawberries. Since then they’ve expanded their production further, and now have three additional acres in ever-bearing strawberries, plus 1½ acres of summer raspberries and a half-acre of fall raspberries. Pollination is provided by bees from rented hives. Their first harvest in 2006 was sold from a tobacco-tying machine in the field. The charming present-day market building is the outgrowth of that relatively modest beginning.
In their second year of managing the farm she and David also grew what Jenn calls a “hodgepodge” of fruits and vegetables to sell, but she says that became a “nightmare” from a growing and marketing perspective. They wanted to offer their customers the best Norfolk had to offer, and realized they didn’t have to go far to find it. Rather than grow everything themselves, they decided, they could take advantage of the amazing variety available within a short distance of their farm. They have developed a close network of other growers and visit the farms themselves to pick up produce for their market. Anything on offer they don’t grow themselves is labelled with the name of the farmer who grew it. Now, in addition to fruits and vegetables, they also carry VG Meats, fresh baked goods from Harmony Bakery, Jensen cheeses, Cider Keg products, Dennis’s Horseradish, honey from Harmony Hives and Grandma’s Strawberry Jam, made by David’s mother.
Aside from those sold at their own market, the Van de Veldes have buyers from Woodstock and the Waterloo area who resell Wholesome Pickins berries in their own retail locations and other farmers’ market venues. They supply a nursing home and an independent grocer in Delhi, as well as the Superstore in Simcoe. Any extra is sold to two large wholesalers or, via a broker, to the Food Terminal in Toronto.
David is an only child, and for him there doesn’t seem to have been any question of not returning to the home farm when he completed his education. Jenn is from a non-farming family in Merrickville, Ontario. She laughs and says she was never on a farm until third year university, when she took a job as a consultant in Integrated Pest Management and Soil Nutrition, dealing with all different horticultural crops. The couple met in their first year at the University of Guelph. By the time they graduated – she with an Honours BSc. in Biology, he with a degree in Agricultural and Horticultural Science – Jenn was in love with the farmer and the farming life. They married in 2006, not long after graduation. They are now the proud parents of two lovely children, Ryan, 4, and Emily, who is 2.
Not unlike other farmers Jenn and David have in the past had to depend on some off-farm income. Up until last winter David sometimes drove truck. It was only last year he felt he could afford to stay home with the kids, while Jenn continued to work. She has her teaching degree, and during the winter months is a supply teacher in Maths and Sciences, mainly in Delhi, Waterford and Simcoe High Schools. These days it’s not so much about the extra income, she is just rounding out her life and doing what she loves to do.
Because theirs is a large, diverse farming operation, the young Van de Veldes need to employ many extra hands to take care of all the work. They have fourteen off-shore workers from Jamaica, some who have been returning to work for them for as long as ten years. David and Jenn appreciate the fact that these people are experienced on their farm and thus are self-starters and able to train any newcomers. Seven of them are housed there, the other seven in a rented bunkhouse on a nearby property. After all this time, Jenn describes them as “almost like family”. In addition, they employ six local students and three adults from the area who all help out in the market or wherever they are needed. Some of these workers have been with them for a much as five years. All are, David and Jenn agree, “an incredible help”.
The Van de Veldes do whatever is required to ensure consistent high quality in their berry crops. Whenever the berries are being harvested there are at least two workers assigned to quality control because, as Jenn says, “Every flat that leaves the driveway has to look good”.
Although Mr. and Mrs. Van de Velde senior are officially retired they still pitch in with the work of the farm. Grandma is always willing to do babysitting duty, an invaluable contribution. Ryan and Emily “help”, too, and are considered an integral “part of life on the farm”, their mother says. Ryan, in particular, likes to help out. He copies things his Dad does and even at his young age, Jenn says, he has shown a remarkable ability to pick up how things are done.
Jenn and David believe their “very diverse backgrounds” have been key to their success so far. They can point to many memorable successes in their relatively short career as full-time farmers – not the least of which is having progressed from selling from the tying machine in the field to having their own tidy, well-stocked market. They proudly show visitors the Premier’s award for Agri-Food Innovation and Excellence, framed and hanging on their office wall, presented in 2008 for David’s clever adaptation of existing farm machinery to new purposes. Although they still rent the acreage they farm from David’s parents, they intend to purchase the property eventually. This past spring they were able to buy all the farm’s equipment and machinery, a good start toward their dream.
They feel particularly good about being able to work together as a family, staying happy and positive in the process. Managing the difficult balance between work and family life is never easy, especially when you live at your workplace, but this young couple seems to be coping really well. Jenn credits their different but complementary strengths. David, Jenn says, is shy, but he’s “a whiz with numbers”, and manages the production inputs and outputs. Her strong suits are her outgoing personality and excellent communication ability, allowing her to handle advertising, marketing and staffing issues. She and David share responsibility for everything to do with the farm and family “50-50”, and it clearly works out for them. At the end of it all, satisfaction always comes from “another successful season”.
Weather is the main variable which cannot be controlled and presents the same challenges for the Van de Veldes it does for all farmers. Jenn finds marketing “a constant challenge”, as with any food crop there is the risk of spoilage and waste. For David, the biggest challenge is budgeting because, as he says, there is no predictable weekly income and funds must be managed over a longer period of time. He is driven to make every minute count as “an hour of inattention could cost $10,000.” in the end. For him, diversity is crucial to the success of the farm because, he says, “In any given year one of the crops you grow is going to be terrible”, in terms of yield, price or both.
Jenn and Dave cite managing human resources as both a challenge and a success. It’s difficult because there are more than 27 people employed on the farm, and at any one time “17 of them could be doing seven different things”, all of which require scheduling and supervision. Part of the reason they manage it well is because much time and thought are given to team-building exercises, and other efforts aimed at “trying to make the hard work fun”, plus they are obviously very hands-on themselves. And, of course, finding the above-mentioned work/life balance is always challenging.
In spite of the hurdles faced by farmers determined to be successful in today’s reality, David and Jenn get up every morning with renewed optimism. Jenn says, “David was born to farm; constant work is in him”, and she finds herself “motivated by his motivation”. “We work 14, 16, 18 hours a day, seven days a week between May and Thanksgiving, but it’s worth it for the sense of pride you get working for yourself. When it’s yours, it’s different”. She and David appreciate the support of his parents and his parents’ friends and the opportunity to learn from them. “Other farmers are a farmer’s best resource”, she states firmly.
David and Jenn look forward to the months of December, January and February, when they can relax a bit and enjoy more family time. They take the children to Florida in February, and otherwise use these relatively slow months to attend conferences and regroup. Overall, though, they see many benefits of farm life to families. “It’s a great way to raise kids”, they note and they appreciate that the intergenerational interdependence of rural life strengthens family bonds. Not coming from a farming background, Jenn is constantly amazed at how much David knows. She believes that being raised on a farm has provided him with “many unique skills”.
The Van de Veldes are very optimistic about the future of agriculture in Norfolk County. All around them they see new diversity and innovation, and say “there is a good mix of history and progress here”. They see potential to take food from here international and “make Norfolk the best in the world”. Jenn says, “There’s no shortage of innovation here”, nor “willingness to push the envelope”. They have nothing but praise for the County administration, believing “It’s unique in the province for its support for farmers, from the top down”. They also cite the “Buy Local” campaigns of both county and province as having been a “huge help”.
The local economy is top-of-mind for this young couple. In every aspect of their business – from packaging, advertising, signage, to the current construction taking place on their farm – Jenn and David make a consistent effort to patronize local firms. To their minds, local people buying local products from producers who, in turn, access goods and services locally, form an important “supportive circle”. They also note they are grateful for the proximity of the Research Station. Their farm is part of five University of Guelph/OMAFRA field trials and they are currently testing new varieties of ever-bearing strawberries for OMAFRA.
Agricultural policy has a very real day-to-day effect on farmers, but this young couple seem to have learned to manage the resulting load of regulation and paperwork well. However, they are forced to think a lot about the effect of imported food on the local farm economy. It makes it much harder to sell your crops when “the market is flooded with imported product”.
In spite of their very busy lives on and off-farm, Jenn and David manage to find time to get involved in the associations that affect them. Jenn is Vice-president of the Ontario Berry Growers Association; David is treasurer. This involves attending six meetings a year, which they enjoy as it gives them the opportunity to interact with others with the same focus. They belong to the Ontario Farm-Fresh Marketing Association (OFFMA), which they find to be “a great organization in terms of marketing information” they can utilize, and the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. Jenn is involved, here in Norfolk, with the Direct from Norfolk group.
Continued growth is the vision the Van de Veldes have for the future of their farm, but the plan has always been to “start small and progress slowly”. At the present time they are putting up a new barn which will house, among other functions, everything now located in their market building not pertaining to the market. This will free up space for the creation of a kitchen facility where they can produce value-added items such as jam from their berries. They are also happy to note that by next year their entire operation will be on computer – no more pen and paper records! Jenn says they will continue to make good use of social media, that “young farmers understand things like Facebook and Twitter and know they represent the future of marketing”.
In tandem with the growing produce-marketing business and other cash crops grown here, this remains a working tobacco farm in the Norfolk County tradition, even though it now accounts for something less than 50% of the farm’s income. David and Jenn note that following a five-year decline in production, in the past two years more and more farmers have come back to growing tobacco.
Jenn and David Van de Velde are typical of the new breed of young people determined to make a go of farming in 21st Century Ontario. They are ambitious, media-and-marketing-savvy, and committed to working as hard as they have to in order to be successful. They could be anything else they chose to be, but fortunately for the future of agriculture, they have chosen to be farmers because they embrace the life – all of it, good and bad. However, they readily acknowledge that they could not have considered farming as a career if it had been necessary to start from scratch, an unfortunate fact that has to do with the enormous start-up costs associated with modern farming, beginning with the price of land. It’s a very good thing indeed that there are many in this generation willing to take up where their forebears left off and continue to farm.