WHO: John Picard
WHAT: Brewery farm
John Picard has a degree in Economics from Western University. He has been a product developer, a marketer and, most recently, a brewer. At heart, though, John is a proud farmer with roots deep in the soil of Norfolk County. After leaving university in 1983, John says the country and farming “called me back”. His grandparents were tobacco farmers, and his parents grew corn and soybeans on their farm near Windham Centre. John worked in tobacco from the age of 13 until he was 21, so he knew intimately the back-breaking toil that farming entails.
By the time he had returned from school, members of John’s family had transitioned into growing and marketing peanuts. He went to work with the family business at their Waterford facility. In those years the Picards were looking for ways to build on peanut sales, so by the early 1990’s the development and marketing of an expanding line of peanut-based snack foods had become John’s main focus. Picard’s Incredible Snack Food Company, at which he is still employed, has grown. It now sells almost two hundred different products, from locations in St. Jacobs, Talbotville, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Waterdown and Vaughan (2015).
Country life and farming were still “calling”, however. In 2004 John moved his family to a farm in La Salette, on Swimming Pool Road, across from where his hops fields and brewery now stand. The two hundred acres of fox coarse sand were, he says, ideal for the peanuts he grew there. In time he acquired the property across the road, adding just under two hundred additional acres to his holding.
Today about twenty acres of his land is planted in potatoes. The rest is home to hops, peanuts, corn and soybeans, with any remaining lands being rented out.
In 2006, John learned of a small brew line that had come up for sale in the Kitchener area. There was “a lot of buzz” at the time about micro-brewing and craft beers. Excited by the prospect of trying something entirely new, John bought the equipment. Ever the farmer, however, he was determined to keep his new enterprise farm based. He’d spent two years after moving to La Salette researching alternative crops and had determined that hops should do well in his Norfolk County soil. He dispatched an agent to Oregon, charged with sourcing a contact for hops rhizomes. In 2006, the same year he acquired his brew line, he put in his first hops bed, with 4000 root stocks comprising six varieties. Now just under four acres is devoted to the growing of eight hops cultivars. (There are over eighty varieties extant – grown for their differing properties, i.e., degree of bitterness, flavour and/or aromatics).
The tall vines, some of which are growing- and flourishing – just beyond the brewery buildings are a magnificent sight to behold.
By 2009, John had a completed concept for what he envisioned as Ontario’s first Brewery Farm, including an apt weather-vane logo and appropriately rustic packaging design. Taking his plan a step further, he introduced a complimentary snack component, installing a kettle and production line for beer-washed chips. After the sliced Dakota Pearl potatoes, which he grows for the purpose, are given a rinse in Ramblin’ Road beer the beer is used to produce Dakota Pearl Ale, bringing the process full circle.
In 2010, John set up his operation in the current large, airy, spotless facility. In the back is the 25 hectalitre brew system, with fermenting tanks capable of holding 5800 litres, a bottling line and cold storage. Inside the front door is a bright, comfortable tasting area with an adjacent shop selling attractive “beer gear” – shirts and hats and glasses with the Ramblin’ Road logo. Visitors who’ve tasted the scrumptious and habit-forming kettle chips can take some home to accompany the beer they purchase, choosing from a variety of flavours.
John oversees every aspect of the operation, but he has needed help to bring the Brewery Farm from vision to fruition and he has put together a fantastic staff. Kris Ferrier is his administrative right hand.
She is assisted by Jenny Barnes who handles the retail end. Ben Klassen, who has been trained by John, is the very able Brewery Production Manager. John Klassen, Ben’s brother, manages the important farming aspect. Harvest requires eight to twelve additional employees, all hired locally. A proud family man, John also depends on their help. His wife Patricia and his three kids, 21-year-old Haleigh, Maisyn, 19, and Johnbroc, who is 17, all are called upon to augment the staff.
In fall 2012, John took his beer and chips to Flavourfest at the Norfolk County Fair and was encouraged by the very positive reception they received. He opened the Brewery Farm to the public in December 2012. Since early 2013 people could also enjoy his beer at the Erie Beach Hotel in Port Dover and numerous venues in Simcoe and the surrounding area. Lately John has focused on expanding the availability of his product and as a consequence the number of orders has been increasing. There are now over 30 area establishments serving Ramblin’ Road. He has his eye on reaching an even wider public with future LCBO placement and convenience retail sales.
For John, however, the ultimate goal of all his planning and hard work is to attract visitors to the Brewery Farm and to supply them with a complete experience. He would like them to be able to taste the different brews, enjoy a glass of beer, tour the facility to learn about the fascinating process of turning grain, hops, yeast and water into a delicious, refreshing beverage, and at the end of it all, take some home to enjoy. There has been “tons of interest” in his concept on Facebook, with over 4000 followers and from the frequent visitors to his website, and John is eager to see his vision fully realized.
It has been slow going. He is all set up and raring to go, current plans are to set-up a beer canning line in the coming months. He’s achieved a small gain in recent days with the Ontario Alcohol and Gaming Authority’s approval of by-the-glass sales at the brewery. This has all required a great deal of time and patience on John’s part, while he waits to fully “unleash” his concept- and his great beer – to the public.
Of course, that is only one of many challenges John has encountered on his way to realizing his dream.
At times, he says, “every solution to every problem seemed to create yet another problem”. Always one to look on the bright side, though, he says cheerfully “that’s how you learn”. Being a self-taught brewer, getting the process just right presented him with its own challenges. Then there was the need to either tailor existing things to suit his purposes, or invent new ones from scratch. A prime example is the two-stage stripper/combine he developed for the specialized process of harvesting hops.
John believes the successes he’s enjoyed have made all the sleepless nights worthwhile. The farmer side of him has enjoyed watching hops take off and grow in his Norfolk County soil. It was one thing to think they might thrive here, another to see it actually happen. Then, after everything was set up and running to his satisfaction, trying that first beer and “finding it exceptionally good”. The icing on the cake for him was the day last December when they opened to the public, seeing crowds of people excited to try the new beers and loving them when they did.
John has a ready answer when asked what keeps him going, despite all the hurdles and heartaches. In his case, he says, it’s “passion” – for growing things, for learning new things, for meeting the challenges as they present themselves and overcoming them. It’s “always striving to improve”. For him and other farmers it’s the optimistic belief that “next year is always going to be better” – better weather, better ideas, in every way better. He also looks forward to taking each logical new step in the careful process of realizing his vision for the brewery operation and the farm.
His vision for Norfolk County agriculture in general is equally positive. “This area has everything”, he says, “the soil, the water, the climate and ambitious farmers who are willing to continue to innovate and learn”. With all that area agriculture has going for it he doesn’t appear to see any limit to success.
The one thing that’s needed is stronger support from government for the province’s farmers. John believes the Ministry needs to encourage public recognition of how fundamental agriculture is to the well-being of everyone, and work to ensure that people “don’t take food (and by extension, one supposes, the people who produce it) for granted”. For the sake of our future food security government must “make agriculture more of a priority” and “have it take less of a back seat” to other government concerns. He would like agriculture to rank with other environmental issues and for politicians to be “just as adamant” about its importance as they are, for instance, about water. John is full of praise for OMAFRA’s work with farmers. OMAFRA scientists and researchers , working together with farmers, forms an unbeatably “creative team” to explore the potential of various crops in any given area and to overcome problems that might arise in their cultivation.
In summary, John is very much a man of Norfolk County. It’s where he was born, where he grew up, where he farms and where he does business. He and his family have been an important component of its success. And, in spite of his own busy schedule he finds time to give back to his community – for example, coaching his son’s baseball team.
John Picard is a successful businessman, but in addition he has the vision, the patience and the soul of a farmer. He is a planner, moving carefully step-by-step to implement his plans. He is serious, earnest, but the twinkle in his eyes gives away his boyish excitement over his latest venture. Although it’s an important new addition to Norfolk’s agricultural landscape, visitors who come to tour his Brewery Farm with him might just detect a slight air of ‘look at all this neat stuff I’ve got to play with’. Take a trip along the ramblin’ country roads to La Sallette. It may be a little out of the way, but Norfolk’s newest destination is well worth the drive. At the end of it all there’s a lovely view, friendly people, a welcoming space and a cold beer waiting!