Delhi couple named Ontario’s top young farmers

·4 min read

When David and Jenn VanDeVelde decided to open a market store at their Delhi farm, the 100-mile diet was all the rage.

The Norfolk County farmers thought they could do better than that.

“Local, at that time, was 100 miles,” said David. “Well, we took local and went, ‘We don’t have to go 100 miles. We have it all within 10.’”

What began in 2006 with two flats of strawberries sold at the end of the driveway of their family tobacco farm has turned into Wholesome Pickins, a bustling market that sells a variety of produce either grown by the VanDeVeldes or brought in from neighbouring farms.

“When we started, potatoes grown right up the road from us would go to a distribution centre in the city, and then they would come back to the Delhi grocery store,” said Jenn.

“We looked at that and said, ‘That is backwards.’”

The VanDeVeldes pledged to stock their shelves with food picked fresh — often that morning — from farms less than a 30-minute drive from theirs.

“We’ve never been to the Toronto food terminal. We pick up everything from the farmer,” said Jenn.

“When someone comes in and asks about the peppers or potatoes, I can tell you pretty much everything about the farmer who grew them. I think we were a little bit pioneering in that 15, 16 years ago, and now it is a much more common model.”

The variety of local produce on offer at Wholesome Pickins lets them stay open nine months of the year, as opposed to farms that only open to the public when what they grow is in season.

“It’s creating a different chain for how food’s moving (and) getting it to the consumer with less environmental footprint,” Jenn said.

The couple’s on-farm innovations, along with a track record of leadership roles in industry groups and their pioneering efforts to market Norfolk County as Ontario’s Garden, earned the VanDeVeldes the title of Ontario’s Outstanding Young Farmers through the Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers program (OYF).

The program recognizes farmers under 40 who “exemplify excellence in their profession and promote the tremendous contribution of agriculture,” according to the OYF website.

The VanDeVeldes accepted the award last week at a reginal OYF event and will vie for the national title at a conference in Saskatchewan in November.

“It’s quite an honour,” said David, adding it felt “surreal” to see his and Jenn’s names among the farmers who have won the award since the program launched in Canada in 1980.

The VanDeVeldes were nominated by Amy Cronin, a farmer in Huron County and chair of the Farm Product Marketing Commission, where she worked with David when he chaired the Ontario Flue-Cured Tobacco Growers’ Marketing Board.

“He was the kind of guy who was always thinking about how he could find collaborative solutions and make things work for his industry,” said Cronin, who complimented the VanDeVeldes’ “progressive and innovative” approach to farming.

“David and Jenn care very much about their farm, and they hold family and community near and dear to their heart,” Cronin said. “They’re a really wonderful couple doing great things in agriculture.”

What was a 50-acre tobacco farm worked by David’s family has become 350 acres of managed farmland, with grain crops taking up the most acreage, and fruit and vegetables ending up on the store shelves or baked in pies and pastries prepared in the on-site kitchen.

Diversifying their crops and retail offerings has allowed the VanDeVeldes to support themselves and their two children without needing to work off the farm to make ends meet.

“We derive our full-time income, both of us, from this piece of property,” Jenn said. “We would’ve never been able to do that with just tobacco.”

The couple credits their “phenomenal” team, including an “exceptional” group of Jamaican migrant workers, for making the operation run.

Preparing for a 30-minute interview with the OYF judges doubled as a rare chance to take stock.

“We are kind of at a crossroads in our business growth right now,” Jenn said, explaining she and David are debating whether to get back into tobacco after a one-year pause, and how best to enlarge their store and kitchen while managing a workforce that can reach 50 employees at peak season.

“This year will be a very telling one, so what a great opportunity to be around the most outstanding people in our industry to bat some ideas off of,” she said.

As for what advice the award winners would offer even younger farmers, David recommended carving out a unique niche.

“Find something that’s new or different that someone else is not doing, and make it the best you can make it,” he said. “Start small and grow it little by little.”

Added Jenn: “Get involved in the industry and use the resources that are here. The ag community, we all want to help each other.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator