WHO: Peter, Chris, & Wayne Welsh
WHAT: Corn & Asparagus
Norfolk County is the leading grower of sweet corn, and Welsh Brothers produce and sell a large amount of it, as well as asparagus. Their brand is known for quality throughout the Province of Ontario and well beyond.
The Welsh family has been living and farming in this area since a forebear in the paternal line settled in the Oakland area in 1855. It was Wayne and Peter’s grandfather on their mother’s side, though, who began growing sweet corn in Norfolk County on a commercial basis and sweet corn has been the mainstay of the family business ever since. Their father’s father purchased the site of what is currently Welsh Brothers main farm. When their father grew up he bought his own property nearby.
Peter and Wayne are the Welsh brothers who give the business its name and who began growing it into the important Norfolk County enterprise it is today. Wayne has long been retired. Peter, his son, Chris and Wayne’s son Charlie operate the business. Chris and Charlie will take over completely when Peter retires.
The family now farms about 1000 acres, comprised of the amalgamated family farms, what land has been acquired since, and some rented property. As of this year 600 acres is planted in sweet corn and 50 acres in organic asparagus. They grow four or five different varieties of sweet corn, mostly bi-colour to meet market demand, but one delicious yellow variety as well. There are no GMOs in Welsh Brothers Sweet Corn.
Welsh Brothers product is shipped as far away as Newfoundland and up north to Thunder Bay. They supply a large number of independent grocers, local farmers’ markets, farm markets such as Matz Fruit Barn and The Cider Keg and operators of smaller roadside stands. Higher end markets in Toronto – for example, Pusateri’s Fine Foods, Highland Farms and Michael-Angelo’s Market Place, stores where quality is valued over quantity – carry Welsh Brothers product. Their corn is sold in relatively small, very fresh, lots; out of a truckload of 2000 bags, no more than 60 is likely to be sold to any one customer. Welsh Brothers also provide their product to Christien’s, a Simcoe restaurant which features Norfolk County produce on the menu.
Peter, Charlie and Chris are the managers of Welsh Brothers, each having his distinct area of responsibility. Peter oversees all the field operations and looks after the books. Chris does the paperwork, making sure they meet the myriad of regulations to which they are subject. The marketing and shipping end of the business are handled by Charlie.
In asparagus season they have sixty employees, thirty local people and an equal number from off-shore. For the sweet corn they depend on twenty-nine off-shore workers, two-thirds of whom are from Mexico, the other third from St. Vincent in the Caribbean, and five local workers. A local woman works part-time in the office, helping with the bookkeeping and doing payroll. It is predominately the same off-shore workers returning to Welsh Brothers every year, the longest-serving for twenty-three years now. They are all housed on the farm. While it has been difficult to recruit local people to work in corn, the Welsh’s are very happy with their present crew who, Wayne says, “do a great job”. They are grateful for the Off-Shore Program because, they say frankly, “we would be out of business without it”. It gives them peace of mind to know their workers care about the quality of the product as much as they themselves do.
In discussing the off-shore workers Wayne places particular emphasis on the sacrifices these people make in their own lives to come here, working very hard, and as they do so, living for months at a time away from their families, friends and homes. This awareness and personal concern seem to permeate the Welsh’s dealings with their foreign employees.
Charlie Welsh feels it’s important for the public to understand that, in employing these off-shore workers they are not opting for “cheap labour”. Under the terms of the Program, their company must first ascertain that there are not enough available local employees willing to do the required jobs. Then they must pay the foreign workers’ airfare, house them, and provide their transportation while they’re here, all of which adds to their cost per worker per hour.
Two years ago Welsh Brothers expanded and improved their facilities, installing new water-cooling capability to maintain optimum quality in their sweet corn. A computer allows them to separately program each of six cooling chambers for appropriate temperatures and times. On a hot day, this can mean maintaining the corn in a cooling chamber for as long as an hour-and-a-half. Ice water runs continually, falling gently over the corn as it is recirculated through the system. From the time the corn comes out of the cooling units until it is loaded onto refrigerated semi-trailers for delivery, it is kept at a constant near zero temperature, thanks to several very large refrigeration units resembling giant air conditioners.
Welsh Brothers corn is hand-picked, graded, bagged and stacked directly onto the cooling racks in the field. Hand-picking rather than doing it by machine ensures the corn remains undamaged. Any less than perfect ears are left to compost in the field. At the height of the season all 14,000 square feet of the large cooling and shipping area may be packed solid with racks filled with bags of corn ready to be sent to market.
In discussing their success it’s clear the Welsh’s are very proud to have built their state-of-the-art facility. For Charlie success is mainly a matter of “making the customers happy”. Wayne says for him and Peter it is “seeing the younger generation be successful”. They all agree about what keeps them going and state it very simply: “Growing a product we can be proud of”.
As far as challenges go, the list is long. They all complain of the constantly increasing paperwork and regulations. There’s the weather, of course, which poses different challenges every year. As Charlie says, “You never know what to plan for”. For example this year’s surprising warm weather in March affected the asparagus yield. There are soil diseases to contend with. And they are in daily combat with birds, which are capable of decimating a field in a matter of hours. While the damage they do to individual ears is relatively minor, those ears are no longer saleable. Once birds have descended on a field it is necessary to inspect each individual ear for damage, adding considerably to the cost of labour. Damaged ears must be discarded., another loss.
Wayne Welsh sees the future of agriculture in Norfolk County as “pretty bright”, with the proviso that growth is limited by politicians who support agriculture and recognize its importance. People in the developed and developing areas of the province need to eat, and Norfolk is in a position to be a major supplier of food.
There is very little respite for these busy men, even in winter. Catching up on paperwork, going to meetings – there’s “very little downtime”, “always something going on” that requires someone’s attention. In spite of everything, however, Peter, Charlie and Chris are happy to be Norfolk County farmers. Their pride and dedication comes across loud and clear in the quality of their product, something to think about the next time you take a succulent bite from an ear of Welsh Brothers Sweet Corn.