Purple Daze Lavender Farm is an oasis of calm compared to that of Jason Ryder, a young neighbour who farms just south of Delhi, a few kilometers to the east.
His 140 acres of green onions make him one of the largest producers of that crop in the country, but he’s also a major grower of asparagus, harvests 180,000 pounds of horseradish annually, and also grows about 100 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat.
On an early fall day, 85 seasonal workers from St. Lucia, Barbados, Mexico and Jamaica are harvesting, cleaning, and packing green onions in a huge warehouse behind Ryder’s home. The place is a hive of activity, and Ryder’s smart phone rings every couple of minutes, which he checks religiously because his wife, Jacklynn, is due to give birth to their first child any time now. But the six-foot-six Ryder has the easy-going air of someone who is doing exactly what he wants and knows exactly where he’s going.
“Yeah, I guess there’s a lot going on but that’s good,” he says. “You get used to it. We start with asparagus in the spring and go right through to October with the onions, so it’s always pretty busy.
“Guys say to me, ‘What do you want with all those employees?’ But it’s not that hard and it’s good to be diversified. I know what happens when you rely on just one crop – I’ve seen that bomb go off.”
It was only a decade ago that Ryder, now 33 (and, since Sept. 23, father of Georgia Rae), made his living as a fungicide applicator. Technically, he never quit tobacco – although he made a conscious decision when he graduated from university in 1999 not to become the fifth generation of his family to grow the crop. Production had been in decline for years and growers were facing the prospect of upgrading their kilns to reduce the amount of nitrosamines, a carcinogenic substance formed when tobacco leaves are cured.
For Ryder, staying out of tobacco and working for a farm chemical company not only provided a more reliable income without all the debt, risk and worry, but also gave him a chance to further his education.
“I got to visit all these farms, from ginseng and vegetables to orchards and tobacco. I seen it all and had chances to talk business with all kinds of operators. You know, just sit down and pick their brains for an hour.”
One of those farmers that impressed Ryder was a neighbour, Ed DeHooghe, whose 800 acres made his farm one of the largest in the county. Asparagus was his biggest crop and DeHooghe had just taken on the job of chairing the provincial asparagus marketing board. Squeezed for time, DeHooghe asked Ryder if he would manage his two acres of green onions.
Two acres produces a lot of green onions – roughly two million, or enough to fill 7,000 cases – but DeHooghe saw room for expansion. The dozen or so producers in the Norfolk area were mostly Dutch immigrants growing a few acres. Most were nearing retirement age and when they exited the business, produce buyers in Toronto would be looking for new suppliers. Ryder agreed there was an opportunity there, but he first needed an answer to a critical question: Would those buyers turn to Ontario growers or would they, as the tobacco companies had, source further afield and squeeze the locals?
“I wanted to figure out who the players were,” recalls Ryder. “Mexico and California aren’t up here when we are harvesting – they’re content to focus on the U.S. market at that time of year. So I did some research and found mostly it’s just us and some growers in Quebec. Once I figured out who we were up against, then I was comfortable getting bigger.”
And that happened quickly: Although he grew just four acres the next year, he then made the leap to 25 acres, then 70 and then up to the current 140. In addition to his joint enterprise with DeHooghe (marketed under the Good Neighbour Farms brand), Ryder moved concurrently into asparagus, which is harvested in spring and stretches the work season for foreign workers.
But he was also keen to find some sort of edge to keep his business in the forefront. Ryder has travelled to California, Mexico and Holland to look at green onion operations and what caught his eye was packing. Onions are normally packed with crushed ice in waxed cardboard boxes, but Ryder is moving to a system where they are chilled for 24 hours (which gets rid of most of the moisture from the washing process) and then put in big ziplock bags – 24 bunches per bag, two bags per box.
If you think this isn’t a big deal, you’d be wrong.
“Look, with this climate and soil, anyone can grow anything here,” says Ryder. “My business is not about production, it’s about marketing and the relationships you develop with your buyers. That’s what’s key.”
And that’s why ‘iceless’ green onions are important. The boxes don’t drip water on the floors of the produce aisle and the big ziplock bags are easy to handle. Most importantly, the onions stay fresher – and look better – on the shelf.
Of course, growing a good product is important, says Ryder, but it’s a mistake to stop there.
“Production is one thing and marketing is another. I always say when it comes to marketing, I get to use my other brain.”
That other brain told him to be cautious about getting into tobacco, even though there was still demand in Norfolk after the 2009 buyout. He grows 60 acres but treats the crop with caution, particularly when it comes to capital investment. He bought new computerized kilns and a harvester, but still stores bales in an old barn his great-grandfather built in 1902.
“For tobacco, I work everything on a three-year payback,” says Ryder, his head almost touching the ceiling of the old stone stables now filled with new-style 700-pound bales. “If I can’t recover my cost in three years, then I don’t want to spend the money because you’re nervous about what could happen any further out.”
Coming of age when tobacco was coming nearly to an end gave him a life lesson he will never forget, Ryder says.
“For a lot of families, you’d grow 50 or 60 acres of tobacco and you’re good,” he says. “Everyone’s home and you’re making a good living, so what more do you want? Then tobacco started going south and it’s, ‘If we don’t have tobacco, what do we do? What’s the alternative?’ That’s what I learned – you’ve always got to have a Plan B.”