The rich sandy soil of Norfolk County is home to Ontario’s 2022 Outstanding Young Farmers.
Wholesome Pickins’ Market and Bakery owners David and Jennifer VanDeVelde of Delhi were announced as Ontario’s 2022 Outstanding Young Farmers Sept. 13.
The VanDeVeldes, and fellow nominees Rick and Kevin Howe of Elgin County, made presentations to the judges during the opening day of Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show.
Why it matters: Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers’ program recognizes farmers between 18 and 40 years old who exemplify professional excellence and promote agricultural contributions to society.
The Delhi couple and their two teenage children operate a retail farm market featuring their own and other Norfolk County-grown produce and baked goods made from scratch.
In 2006, after graduating from the University of Guelph and getting married, the VanDeVeldes returned to David’s family tobacco farm. They pitched the idea of Wholesome Pickins’ as a roadside market selling strawberries grown on three acres.
From the start, transformation was their focus, whether it was the farm’s potential or improving consumers’ access to locally grown produce.
“We insisted on sourcing food directly from the farms and sharing the farmer’s story with our consumers,” said Jennifer. “This was 2009, and the local food movement was upon us. We knew that we wanted to authentically show consumers what local products were.”
They chose to carry only seasonal produce grown in Norfolk County, adding value to their shop and local farms. The operation grew from three acres of strawberries to 20 acres, and now includes tabletop greenhouse production with drip irrigation and a variety of June and ever- bearing plants.
“Our first berries were sold off an old, refurbished tobacco tying machine in the driveway outside of our 100-year-old workshop,” said David.
The response surprised them. Berries sold faster than they could stock them at the table.
The crop rotation expanded to include asparagus, strawberries, rhubarb, raspberries, pump- kins, a variety of field and cover crops and, until 2022, tobacco. In 2018 their agriculture production acres increased to 350 when they purchased the neighbouring farm.
From April 1 to Christmas, strawberries are hand-picked by the family and a team of Jamaican seasonal workers. There is also a four- month u-pick raspberry season and fall pump- kin patch.
“The true backbone of Wholesome Pickins’ is most certainly our team members,” said Jennifer. “We went from four people to 50 people at our season’s max, and we fill every range of job from pickers to graders, cooks and day makers.”
The VanDeVeldes said their workers are considered as family and an integral part of their lives in and out of working hours.
Reinvention and repurposing existing tobacco structures into greenhouse production and processing seconds into home-baked goods have allowed the VanDeVeldes to expand service without expanding their overall footprint.
“Almost nothing goes to waste at our place. Even grain crops get a chance to shine in the market as straw bales and decorative corn stalks,” said Jennifer.
Environmental sustainability and soil health are just as important as improved yield and quality, so they utilize six spring-fed irrigation ponds, drip lines and sprinklers to combat drought and sandy soil water loss.
To minimize inputs, they use flowers in strawberry fields to address predatory insects, cover crops to combat soil erosion and a three-year minimum crop rotation to improve weed control and soil.
Participating in associations, farm programs and events allow the VanDeVeldes to highlight the importance of agriculture, provide insight to consumers and give back to the community.
Future expansion on the farm could involve apple, peach and blueberry orchards, winter canola in the rotation, a larger savoury line and agritourism.
“Sixteen years ago, Jenn and I spoke about what Wholesome Pickins’ could be one day: a market, a bakery, innovative agriculture, something to share with your family and your community,” David said. “It’s remarkable to me that we live in every day, and we’re still spending our time talking about what it could be.”
Rick and Kevin Howe
Rick and Kevin Howe and their brother Ryan are fifth-generation fruit and vegetable farmers working the same land as their great grandparents did.
In 1913, the first strawberry acres were planted, followed by diversification into water- melon, pumpkin, potatoes, tobacco, some live- stock and the early adoption of irrigation, an emerging technology in 1960.
“It just shows that the bar has been set high,” said Kevin Howe. “And the stories of our relatives are what push us to push modern agriculture in the crops that we still grow.”
The Howes have invested in biodegradable containers that highlight their farm story. They moved to a covered tabletop production system using coconut husk substrate and drip irrigation and invested in new varieties specifically bred for tabletop systems.
Almost half of their 450 acres are maintained woodland, hosting a variety of wildlife. On the other half, they produce 16 different crops, including strawberries, pumpkins, melons, sweet corn and Caribbean pumpkin, for wholesalers and their two retail locations.
Howe said they tell their farmers market customers how essential it is to maintain and support wildlife.
“We try our best (at) our farm market to showcase the nature on our farm, whether it’s putting up bluebird boxes or duck boxes in the spring, and giving the consumers the true feeling that all farmers try to emphasize, that we care about the environment and that we’re working with nature, not against it.”