WHO: Brenda & Ray Lammens
Norfolk County is Ontario’s foremost producer of asparagus, and over the past thirty years Ray and Brenda Lammens have grown and sold a significant amount of it.
Ray Lammens was raised on the three hundred acres his father, an immigrant from Belgium, purchased in 1955. Mr. Lammens Senior’s forebears were all farmers; Ray’s mom grew up on a farm in Kingsville in Essex County. Brenda, too, is from a long line of farmers and entrepreneurs. She spent the first six years of her life on a farm near Woodstock, Ontario before moving to Prince Edward Island and eventually returning to this area.
Ray Lammens has had a wide-ranging career. Primarily a farmer, he’s grown tobacco, corn, soy and kidney beans and Belgian endive. Since he and Brenda have been married, however, the farm’s focus has been asparagus. Over the years, to supplement the family income, Ray has done custom work for other farmers. He’s done spraying, both aerial and ground (at one time his family owned five planes). He’s also done combining, and now trucks his and other farmers produce to market. At the present time the Lammens have fifty acres just in asparagus. There are fifty acres of well-managed bush. The rest of their acreage is rented to cash croppers.
The Lammens have made a decision to not market their asparagus through chain groceries. Although farm-gate sales account for a small share of their market, and some of their crop goes to help out other growers by supplying product when they run short, the bulk is made up of direct sales to customers. There are other customers in the area, but most of the asparagus is trucked to a specialty food warehouse in Toronto where it is, in turn, sold to the food industry, mainly high-end restaurants. The quality of their product is so consistently high that Chefs have called to ask, “Where can I buy your asparagus”. Brenda and Ray are justifiably proud of the loyal customer base they’ve built up over the years.
Seven or eight years ago the Ontario Government, in co-operation with the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (of which Brenda is past president), began a school snack program to help combat the high rate of diabetes among the native population. For the past five years the Lammens have been part of the program, supplying asparagus in the Timmins-Porcupine District. The kids have learned to enjoy it, usually eating it in its most nutritious state – raw. Brenda and Ray are quite excited about this initiative, which is generating lots of interest. The Federal Government has taken notice, and is talking about expanding the program throughout Canada’s North.
Brenda is a Board member and past chair of the Ontario Asparagus Growers Marketing Board. She and Ray ran a receiving station for the processing of fresh asparagus as a service for the Board. Value-added canning and freezing are no longer done in Ontario, which the Lammens think is unfortunate.
The Lammens believe an on-farm food safety program is essential, and Spearit Farms has implemented their own. After harvesting, the asparagus is processed for market. It’s washed, hydro-cooled, then washed again and trimmed before packaging. Prior to sale it is stored in humidity-controlled conditions, and kept at 34 degrees Farenheit. Shipping is done two or three times a week and the asparagus is often in consumers’ hands within twenty-four hours of being harvested.
Brenda’s interest, and that of the Marketing Board, is to try and get asparagus producers to work more collectively, rather than in competition. “We need to share marketing expertise, do bulk purchasing, and so on”, she says. By bowing to pressure from wholesale buyers to undercut one another’s prices, to the point where it costs more to grow it than it can be sold for, “people without the necessary marketing skills can quickly destroy the market”.
Ray and Brenda employ twenty-five local workers during the growing season. Most of them come back year after year; some have been working at Spearit Farms for twenty years. Their employees frequently refer friends and acquaintances looking for work to the Lammens. Admittedly, it’s hard work growing and harvesting asparagus, and much of the labour “cannot be mechanized”. Brenda and Ray say they are “fortunate” to have such a loyal group working for them, but such loyalty must say something for them as employers.
Brenda and Ray will have been married thirty years come next March, and live in a charming farmhouse dating from the 1940’s. They have raised two daughters, in whom they take great pride. Rossilind, the older one, is a gifted artist and high school art teacher. She’s with the Grand-Erie District School Board and teaches in Delhi and Cayuga. She has a home in Norwich and is engaged to Brayan Sweazey, a landscape designer. They plan to be married at the farm next summer. Patricia, their younger daughter, still lives at home. A talented floral designer, she works at the Flower Fountain in Tillsonburg. Though both girls worked on the farm all through their teens and while they were at school, it appears neither will be taking it over. However, Ray and Brenda are confident that “someone will always be growing something on this land”.
In their own words, the Lammens are “crazy busy”. Aside from her involvement with the Ontario Asparagus growers, Brenda is Past President of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. Ray is an avid supporter of the Otter Valley Naturalists. His current interest is in restoring the bird populations on his property. He is particularly concerned about the purple martins he’s encouraged to nest there. Martins are in danger of starving to death if they don’t eat at least every three to four days. At times when the insect population is sparse, Ray buys crickets at the pet store, and because martins have to feed on the wing, launches the crickets into the air with a slingshot. Both Brenda and Ray are involved with the ALUS Program as well, working to integrate farming practices that have a sound ecological focus into their operation.
When asked about their most memorable successes, Ray answers without hesitation, “our marriage and the birth of our daughters”. Brenda concurs, and adds that they derive great satisfaction from producing asparagus that’s well received by their customers. She admits they go “above and beyond” to assure quality, and the acceptance of their product provides them with “immense gratification”. “Success is not always about dollars and cents”, they agree, and proudly state, “We have very satisfied customers”.
Like other farmers, the Lammens face challenges every day. Like other farmers, as well, they say “we’d like to be paid fairly for what we do”. It’s an uphill battle trying to educate consumers about this issue. There is general ignorance, they feel, as to where food comes from and how it’s grown. Some people think meat comes in a plastic-wrapped Styrofoam tray from the supermarket and not from an animal that must be slaughtered, butchered and processed for sale. They laugh ruefully about customers who ask for “baby asparagus”, believing the slim spears are younger than the thicker ones. More importantly, consumers, and governments, too, need to be educated about issues of our future food security. The Lammens wonder if many people are aware of just how much prime farm land is in the hands of off-shore owners, who have the probability of food shortages in their own countries in mind when they buy it. There are also frustrations involved in trying to get producers to work collectively rather than in competition with one another. They spend time talking to other growers, trying to convince them that there are indirect benefits to being mutually supportive beyond those to your own farm, and try to encourage unselfishness and sharing.
Neither Ray nor Brenda is shy, fortunately. They enjoy their involvement with the public, other growers, and various levels of government. Brenda says, “We’re blessed; we enjoy very much what we do” and “I love my family; I love where I live”. Things do not always go well, but “lots of people are going through more difficult times”. Both agree that “finances have never been our focus, but the relationships we enjoy in our industry and our community. It’s the people who bring wealth to your life”. Keeping a sense of optimism is essential. They remember what an older farmer once said to them: “there are only two good years in farming – 1938 and next year”.
Both Brenda and Ray believe that “We’re sitting in the driver’s seat here in Norfolk County”, when it comes to growing food. “We have the land, and we have the farmers with the expertise to feed the rest of the world.” They appreciate that the County is supportive of its farmers, but that support needs to go even further. We “need to get ourselves positioned” to grow the food that will be needed in the coming years when food shortages will become a fact of life. But, they caution, “Although we can grow the food here, we can’t always sell it”. “We don’t ask for much”, they say, “just a living”. “Farmers will always reinvest, in their farms, and in their communities”.
Where agricultural policy is concerned, the Lammens reiterate that the food security issue is not being taken seriously enough. They also lament the negative effects of free trade agreements on Ontario farmers. Our labour costs are higher, but farmers must compete with produce from other countries, more cheaply produced, being dumped in Ontario markets. The only possible antidote is for governments to place an emphasis on promoting awareness of what goes into Ontario food and educating consumers about the benefits of buying seasonal, fresh, local produce. It would be good to foster a “social conscience” among consumers about Canadian food and farmers. There is also a need, both agree, for value-added processing capability to be brought back. Food that now goes to waste could be processed and packaged here for export to countries that need it. “We just need to learn how to do things better and smarter”, they say.
Brenda Lammens says, “Farmers need to have tremendous faith” in order to remain farmers, and “when there are set-backs, we learn to suck it up”. She and Ray are living examples of that philosophy. They are positive, upbeat, caring people, who do not hesitate to extend the benefit of their knowledge to others, or to help them in any way they can. Spearit Farms grows great asparagus. Perhaps it’s because Ray and Brenda Lammens are such great people.
More Information: Spearit Farms