WHO: Jason & Shirley Su
WHAT: Ginseng & Produce
Shirley and Jason Su bought their 49 acres in Norfolk County in 1990. Shirley had no experience of farming. A graduate of the Foreign Language Institute in her native China, she worked as an English teacher and translator before coming to Canada. Jason had some experience as a small-scale grower in China before he came to join a brother who was living here. Shirley, who arrived from the Chinese Mainland on a work visa in 1989, was granted permission to remain after the tragedy of Tiananmen Square. Given the opportunity to stay, her feeling was, “Why go back ” She was living in Toronto at the time, where she and Jason met.
When the Sus were looking for a small acreage to buy, they saw an ad in a Chinese language newspaper that led them to their present property. The real estate agent who was showing it to them happened to mention there was good fishing and hunting nearby. At that point Jason, who is an avid fisherman and hunter, became very interested. Shirley indicates that the decision to settle here owed almost as much to the fishing as the farming in the beginning. At the time they bought the farm there was little else on the property but the house and a barn housing a small mushroom-growing operation. It has since been developed and improved considerably, with two large new outbuildings, and a small greenhouse for starting their summer squash seedlings. There is also a small roadside hut from which they sell fresh produce to regular customers and passers by – two dollars for everything on offer, on the honour system.
Of the 23 acres of the Su farm that are workable, only 18 to 20 are currently in production. Approximately 15 acres are given over to the cultivation of zucchini and other summer squashes. On the rest they grow ginseng, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and beans. During the fall and winter months they grow and ship oyster and shiitake mushrooms. All through the summer Jason leaves every day at midnight to take their squash to the Food Terminal in Toronto. He does not return home until five in the morning. While they do not sell produce directly to restaurants, Shirley supposes it’s likely some chefs do purchase their vegetables from the Terminal. As to which stores sell Su’s produce, and in which cities, as Shirley says, “Once it is shipped out, who knows ” At the farm, in addition to fresh vegetables and some ginseng, Shirley and Jason sell honey with ginseng added, a product made in collaboration with a local beekeeper.
A significant amount of the Su’s business is in the wholesaling of ginseng to both the local and international markets. They grow only one acre themselves, but purchase from other farmers to sell. Ginseng is a crop that takes at least three years before it can be harvested, but Shirley says the best is left for four or even five years before harvest. She says the quality of ginseng grown in Norfolk County is rated number one in the world. The vast majority of Canadian ginseng is shipped to Hong Kong and from there to the Chinese mainland.
Shirley and Jason employ three off-shore workers, all of whom are from Mexico. These workers return to them year after year, and are comfortably housed on the property. In addition, they get help from their two children “when they have time”. Henry and Bonnie Su are very busy teenagers who, among other things, are medal-winning competitive figure skaters. In September, Henry will be leaving home for the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus.
At the beginning, farming presented the Sus with major challenges. It was “tough to start out”, Shirley says, with little money and even less experience. “Learning from the ground up” took time she says. “In the early days we often grew more than we could sell, or else we had more customers than we had product”. Sleep deprivation was a fact of life back then. There was one entire week, she says, when Jason never got to sleep in his bed.
Of course, weather always poses a challenge to farmers and the Sus are no exception. Now, however, having overcome almost all obstacles – excepting the weather – they can point with pride to the success of what they’ve built in 21 years, foremost among which Shirley cites their family. Her face glows with maternal pride when speaking of their son and daughter. Overall, she says they have “no regrets” about the life they’ve chosen, and says farming “is a great way to raise children”.
Shirley is unequivocal about why she gets up every morning eager to tackle another day of the hard work and challenges of farming. “Customer satisfaction” is what it’s all about, she believes. “When people are happy, I’m happy”. Instead of viewing farming as self-employment, Shirley says she and Jason have a demanding boss they work for every day – their customer.
Shirley Su thinks the future of agriculture is bright here in Norfolk. She says there is good soil and the climate is ideal for growing food. She supports the view that, if carefully grown, much food can be produced in relatively little space. All that is needed is a group of educated consumers who, with their food dollars, are willing to support local farmers.
On the matter of agricultural policy, Shirley has a strong suggestion to make to those in charge: “Limit food imports during the growing season here, to be fair to local growers”. It makes sense. If our own farmers are capable of supplying the food consumers need, at least during the temperate months, why import food from other places rather than encouraging and supporting them
The story of Su’s Farming is inspirational. Its success is a testimony to how, even in this day and age, it’s possible to start from scratch, on a relatively small holding, and by dint of much hard work, determination and sacrifice build a successful agricultural business – and a fine family in the process.
- More Information: Su’s Farming