Congratulations to Chatham-Kent’s Jeff VanRoboys (Thames Van Farms/The Pickle Station) and to Blake Vince (Blake Vince Farm) for receiving awards last week in London for the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation and Excellence.
Article By: Debora Van Brenk, The London Free Press
The time is ripe for a homegrown Ontario pickle-processing plant, says a third-generation cucumber grower and winner of a prestigious provincial innovation award.
Ontario has the know-how, the acreage and resources to make it happen, Jeff VanRoboys, of TVF Farms of Chatham, said Friday.
“If you can grow it here, it should be packed here,” he said.
Ontario’s second-largest vegetable crop behind tomatoes, cucumbers are worth an annual $13 million at the farm gate. But the lack of processing muscle for cukes is too often overlooked, VanRoboys said.
“We in Ontario are major players in this field,” he said. “The funny thing is, this flies completely below the radar.”
Since two U.S.-owned processors pulled out of the province in 2011 and ’12, his farm has exported virtually all its pickle-sized cukes south of the border. There, they’re processed under major labels and many are shipped back to Canada with a Made in USA tag.
But Ontario has all the ingredients to keep it local, VanRoboys argues. And a lower Canadian dollar, now trading in the mid-70 cents US range, can help make that a financial possibility.
“Hopefully, we can get some processing back here to complete the link, to complete the chain,” he said.
His farm won a premier’s agricultural innovation award for developing prolific cucumber varieties that have improved on-farm efficiency by 30 per cent.
After hand-picking the first harvest, small cucumbers used for gherkins and baby dills, the remaining cucumbers grow larger and are harvested by machine.
The farm was one of eight Southwestern Ontario agricultural innovators recognized in a ceremony in London on Friday.
Deputy Premier Deb Matthews commended them on their work.
“You are not people who follow,” she said.
“You are people who lead and that’s not always easy.”
The other recipients Friday:
Blake Vince Farm (971082 Ontario Inc.), Merlin: Instead of under-seeding only red clover into his winter wheat, Vince now plants as many as 15 different species in his harvested wheat field. They outcompete weeds, regulate nitrogen levels, reduce the need for herbicides and fertilizer and generally improve the quality of the soil, crops and environment.
“I wish more farmers would sit up and take notice that how they manage their soil has a direct impact on water quality,” Vince said.
Bonnieheath Estate Lavender & Winery, Waterford: The former tobacco farm has been transformed into a sea of purple lavender blooms and hardy grape vines. Steve and Anita Buehner use one former tobacco kiln as a place to distill essential oils. In another, , lavender dries on racks that used to dry tobacco leaves. A former tobacco barn now houses a winery and retail store.
Bright Cheese & Butter, Bright: Spurred on by an importer’s request to make a local Asiago cheese, the Oxford County cheesemaker developed a recipe that would produce better Asiago in a time four months shorter than a traditional recipe. Bright’s Asiago has won awards at Canadian and international cheese competitions and the specialty makes Bright’s a popular stop on the Oxford County Cheese Trail.
Celmar Dairy Ltd., Norwich: Herman and Marcel Steen have developed a method to automate the way they store silage in their tower silos. The new process cuts in half the time it takes for the Steens to fill their silos. The forage also ferments more quickly, improving the feed quality for their dairy herd.
Lakeside Game Farm, Lakeside: Jim Ebert started producing 100 silkie chickens each week for Ontario’s Asian food market, where the poofy poultry is considered a gourmet food. Now he produces 8,000 per week and has contracted three more producers to supplement his production. He’s installed an incubator and is building a state-of-the-art growing barn.
Streef Produce Ltd., Princeton: The farm has designed a process that bags fresh green beans, which reduces spillage, waste and dehydration while at the same time improves food traceability if a problem should occur with a batch. Mechanization has also enabled the farm to churn out 120 cases an hour, three times the production rate under the old hand-packing method.
VG Meats, Simcoe: When the beef-farming and -butcher operation couldn’t find the skilled staff needed for the family’s processing and retail operations, they teamed up with an Ontario grocery chain to create their own 100-hour training program. VG Meats accepted nine of 300 applicants for the first Chop School and a second class will soon begin. They have also developed a two-week, farmer-in-training proram to help retail employees understand how the meat they sell is produced.