The “thread of innovation” that runs through the stories of YU Ranch, Purple Daze Lavender Farm, Good Neighbour Farms, and Burning Kiln extends across Norfolk County. Dozens of enterprising operations selling vegetables, berries, ginseng, lavender, and herbs have sprung up in recent years and the county has rebranded itself as ‘Ontario’s Garden.’
“I think the farm community has done a very good job of re-inventing itself,” says John Picard, one of Norfolk’s best-known entrepreneurs.
Picard grew up on a corn and soybean farm and his business was founded on a decision made by his father, who started growing peanuts at La Salette in the county’s northwest corner in 1979. Peanuts were one of the first ‘alternative’ crops promoted in Norfolk until Ontario growers realized they could never come close to the price of peanuts grown in Georgia and other southern U.S. peanut states.
Picard survived by creating a host of value-added peanut products and today eight Picard’s Peanuts stores (picardspeanuts.ca) in southern Ontario attract half a million customers a year. But the first dozen years were touch-and-go, and Picard knows all about setbacks, heartbreak, and having to constantly adapt your game plan. But having seen how much of that is happening in Norfolk these days factored into his decision to start his newest business, a microbrewery. It’s a multimillion-dollar investment, and a big deal for La Salette, a hamlet of a few hundred people just north of Delhi.
Part of Picard’s business plan is based on the fact the facility will also produce ‘beer-washed’ potato chips that he can sell in his stores. But another part is based on his expectation that Norfolk, which until now has largely based its tourism business on lakeside resorts, is going to attract a whole lot more visitors now that the countryside no longer only offers vistas of wall-to-wall tobacco.
“Ten years from now, I hope people visiting here will be saying, ‘Hey, let’s stop at that little brewery,’” says Picard. “I think this place will be a point of pride for this area.”
Construction hasn’t finished yet but it’s easy to imagine this place being a big draw. From the gleaming stainless steel brew tanks (six of them, brought in from PEI at $26,000 a pop) to the light-filled tasting area and elegant stacked-stone façade, Picard’s brewery is designed to wow. The ag experience will be part of that – right next to the building is a small plot of trellised hops. Picard has a larger field a few kilometres away and so hops are now another crop Being grown in Ontario’s Garden.
But it’s no vanity project and Picard has no plans to spend his days hosting tours and waxing eloquent about the attributes of his latest pilsner.
“I very rarely even drink beer,” laughs Picard, dressed in rumpled jeans and a T-shirt. “I just like the creative side.”
And that’s something, he says, that more and more Norfolk farmers seem to share.
“It’s been quite a change,” he says. “When I look about now, what I see is that there are a lot of gutsy people here willing to try new things.”