THAMESVILLE, ONT.—It’s hot — a real scorcher — and the parched dirt kicks up underfoot as the farmer leads the way to a cucumber field that is a carpet of green leaf laced with sun yellow flowers.
The farmer stands tall in the field as he snaps a fist-sized cucumber in half, takes a few bites, then lobs the remainder in a high arc against a soft blue sky.
“It’s too big,” says Adrian Jaques, by which he means the cuke he’s tossing has outgrown not only its dill pickle potential but even its relish potential, for it is watery and heavily seeded.
Adrian Jaques, owner of Sunshine Farms located near Thamesville, Ontario. (TARA WALTON)
That single cucumber is an outlier. It’s rare for a cuke to be rejected at Sunshine Farms, run by the Jaques family just north of Thamesville, about 80 km southwest of London.
Seventy-five per cent of the cucumbers grown in Ontario are hand harvested, and the Jaques operation is no exception. This is a crucial harvesting distinction from the U.S., where machine harvesting cucumbers means making a one-time pass, where plant and cucumbers, from the wee to the super-sized, are wrenched from the field all at a go. Job done.
Hand harvesting allows multiple passes along the plant rows, so those strangely warted baby dills remain undamaged and pint-sized, and the whole dills are stout and just the way you like them. Sunshine cucumbers go from harvest to brine within a day or two. Sometimes, a cucumber goes from field to jar in the span of a single day, the ultimate “fresh pack.”
The nubs and crooks and castoffs get fed through a chopper, then mixed in a vat with organic sugar and vinegar, red peppers, onion salt and spices (turmeric, mustard seed, celery seed) to create a home-grown, home-processed organic sweet relish of incomparable taste. No water is added in the process. There are no chemical additives or preservatives and no colouring, which explains why the relish does not bear the artificial emerald green hue of some of its competitors.
Each jar of Sunshine Farms dill pickles is packed with a clove of home-grown organic garlic and a tablespoon of dill seed. For the brine, Sunshine brings in organic vinegar from Stayner. (TARA WALTON)
Well, “competitors” overstates the case. Sunshine is small, with revenues of about $800,000 annually. The company hasn’t been in the pickling game all that long, relative to the five generations of the Jaques family that have farmed in Chatham-Kent. It was Adrian’s father, John, who seized upon the idea of pickling asparagus back in the early ’80s, and ever since then the company has been processing pickled spears, including a “zesty” version enhanced by jalapeno peppers.
“Our biggest market for our pickled asparagus is bars and restaurants to put in Caesars,” says Adrian. “It has a nice crunch to it and it stands up well in a glass.”
Alberta and B.C. were early adopters. “We started in the western market because they’ve always been ahead of the curve when it comes to natural and organic,” he says.
Sunshine Farms will harvest about 7,000 kilos of cucumbers just to meet demand for its baby and whole dills. (TARA WALTON)
Sunshine’s flight of pickle products extends now to fiery dills, bread and butter pickles, pickled beets, pickled carrots, pickled garlic, pickled jalapenos and more. The Big Carrot on the Danforth and Ambrosia Natural Foods in Vaughan are two of the retailers that carry Sunshine product. Costco has started carrying the one-litre jars of pickled asparagus. Relish production, meanwhile, doubled last year to more than 300 cases. Production this year should increase again by 25 per cent.
If not a singular story, Sunshine’s is certainly one that goes against the tide.
“There used to be a pickle brining operation in almost every small town in southwestern Ontario,” says Craig Hunter of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association.
Heinz produced its sour spiced gherkins and sour mixed pickles at its Leamington plant even before the first ketchup was bottled in 1910. Bick’s started in the pickle business in the 1940s in Scarborough, its name long synonymous with Canadian pickles until it became synonymous with multinational takeovers. The Bick’s processing plant in Dunnville and its pickle tank farm in Delhi have been four years idle since U.S. parent J. M. Smucker Co. announced the closure of both facilities.
“People are buying branded name pickles in our grocery stores and they don’t read the fine print to see where those pickles are actually from,” Hunter says.
Fresh from the field: Sunshine Farms’ Julie Peterson packs the soon-to-be brined cucumbers, one by one, into jars. (TARA WALTON)
Today, 98 per cent of Ontario’s cucumbers are purchased by vegetable broker Hartung Brothers, Inc., of Madison, Wisc. There’s a better than excellent chance that the product sitting on the Ontario grocery shelf is processed in the U.S.
Then there’s India. Loblaws No Name sweet green relish, baby dills, polskie ogorki and dill chips are all clearly labeled product of India. Adrian Jaques says that consumers are increasingly taking note. “We’re finding a lot more people contacting us and saying, ‘I’ve been buying these pickles for a long time and I looked at the label and they’re made in India. I never knew that.’”
A few years ago, he recalls, a businessman from India checked out the Sunshine operation, expressing interest in pickled asparagus. He had no interest in dills or relish. Holding a litre jar of baby dills in his hand he said, “I can have this harvested, packed and shipped to Toronto for $1.29.” Who can compete with that?
For Sunshine, the “Buy Local” push has been a great help, Jaques says, as has the focus on organic. But Craig Hunter notes that those seeking local produce remain a small slice of the market. “Consumers vote with their pocketbook. They always vote for what’s cheapest and they don’t really care if their head of lettuce was grown in the Bradford Marsh or Arizona. There are very few consumers who will say I won’t buy it because it wasn’t produced locally.”
Alan Woodbridge, vice-president at family-owned Lakeside Packing Co., says the stay local movement has, on the contrary, been a great boon. Woodridge’s grandfather started the company in Harrow in 1948, spurred by a desire to meet the consumer tastes of immigrating Europeans. No question recent years have been tough. “We’ve been at it for 70 years and we’re still fighting,” says Woodbridge. But, he adds, “Everyone is asking for our product because it’s Ontario grown and Ontario manufactured.”
According to Washington-based Pickle Packers International North Americans like pickles with warts. Europeans not so much. (TARA WALTON)
Lakeside produces a range of relishes, including tangy dill and corn relish. The most popular? Sweet green, of course. The company has found success too in the bulk market, supplying hamburger and hot dog companies, and even exporting to European hot dog vendors.
The Jaques family is hoping that growing demand for local foods — an initiative pushed by the government of Premier Kathleen Wynne — will lead to a doubling of Sunshine’s operation within a decade.
New products are being tested, including pickled sliced onions, and this summer Sunshine has planted its first ever crop of organic horseradish. Adrian Jaques has left behind a teaching career to focus exclusively on building the company, so there’s a great deal of optimism at stake.
There’s a good amount of success to back that up. After all, it was a swift-footed John Jaques who watched in dismay as free-trade and the folding of Ontario-base food processors forced him to rethink what to do with all that asparagus that used to be destined for canned spears.
“It was stressful because our main customers for our product were the processors, and slowly but surely they all moved south of the border to brother or sister production plants,” Adrian says. “We immediately started cutting back our acreage because everyone had to sell onto the fresh market at that point. You get that much extra product on the market and the price plummets.”
A holidaying John Jaques adds via email that free trade “almost devastated our asparagus farming business. At the time free trade was implemented almost all of our produce was sold to several of the 12 asparagus processors in Canada. After free trade processors started purchasing finished products from the U.S. and eventually Peru and after a few years all quit processing asparagus in Canada.”
The Jaques operation wasn’t set up for grading and packaging asparagus for the fresh market. So the family started experimenting — freezing, dehydrating, even a pureed version. “One thing that resonated with everyone was pickled asparagus,” says Adrian.
So the Jaques clan became pickling experts — it didn’t hurt that Adrian’s mother, Claudia, proved an excellent resource when it came to recipe testing and that a serendipitous meeting between John and a grocery executive in a hot tub at the Banff Springs Hotel would prove central to launching pickled asparagus in Alberta.
Pickled pickles was an obvious path to greater growth.
Back in the field, foreman Aristeo Perez Garcia leads his small picking crew up the rows of cucumbers and back. Each year for the past 17, Perez Garcia has flown in from his home in San Miguel Tenochtitlán, Mexico, where he grows corn, to work for the Jaques family. The crew started at 6 this morning. By early afternoon, they’re driving the day’s harvest to Sunshine’s fantastically rickety pickle separator, a remnant of the heyday of another Ontario pickle works. The separator shimmies and shakes as the cucumbers are separated by grade and when it sputters, Adrian Jaques gets a wrench and fixes the thing.
A decade ago, Sunshine Farms purchased a National Pickle Separator from the old Bick’s receiving station. The separator directs the cucumbers into eight grading categories. (TARA WALTON)
Those cucumbers destined to be dills will later be placed into jars by hand. The dried dill is scooped into those jars by hand. The relish is stirred in big vats, by hand, to which the sweetening and seasoning is added, by hand. For a moment it feels as though the clock has been turned back 100 years. It’s certainly the antithesis of the globalized marketplace.
Adrian Jaques hopes consumers will see the value in products grown and processed right here at home. Perhaps the waning days of summer spent tending a backyard barbecue is a moment to hit the point home.
There’s only one more question to ask: which pickle does Adrian Jaques prefer on his burger? There’s no dawdling with the answer: he loves the relish and the dills, but when it comes to his burger, Adrian Jaques is a bread and butter pickle man.