McLean Berry Farm
Lakefield, Ontario

Erin McLean, McLean Berry Farm

By Andrew Campbell

(Lakefield) – When Erin McLean was five years old, her parents made a decision that had a profound impact on her future as well as that of her brother, Ben.

They bought a farm.

As a nurse and wood-worker, her parents didn’t have much experience. They also didn’t buy the farm for its aesthetic appeal although it was situated in a picturesque part of Ontario and had a strawberry patch that needed so much attention it had already changed hands several times before becoming McLean Berry Farm.

It wasn’t easy either, for two people with two energetic toddlers. McLean thinks back to some of her first memories, heading off in a pick-up truck with her father to sell strawberries in an empty church parking lot.

“We didn’t have any other way to sell our strawberries, except for the bed of that pick-up in that parking lot beside the red-bricked country church or the dark green picnic table on our front lawn”, recalls McLean. “My first sale of strawberries was on that picnic table. “I’ll never forget how proud I was to have helped picked that and then sell it.”

From those early days, McLean Berry Farm grew. Besides strawberries, the farm’s offerings expanded to dozens of products from peas and raspberries, squash and potatoes, maple syrup and jams and more.

From that church parking lot, they expanded to sales at local farmers markets and their own two stores. Today, McLean’s produce can also be found in dozens of grocery stores like Foodland and Sobeys. “We take a lot of pride in how fresh our high-quality products are,” says Erin. “So much so, that many of the grocery stores we sell at will bring in cheaper, foreign product that stays on the shelf while ours is the first to go home with a happy customer.”

But while farming was always something Erin enjoyed, it wasn’t something she thought about as she headed off to university. “My friends all applied to post-secondary schools, so I did too. They all got accepted and left home, and I did too.”

With a degree behind her, Erin’s next step was to attend teachers’ college. “I’ve always enjoyed working with kids, so it was something I thought I would really enjoy.” And she did, but the kind of passion she was looking for couldn’t be found in a teachers’ lounge. So, after working in and travelling around Europe, a Skype chat with her Dad resulted in the announcement that she, too, might be interested in coming home to help the family business.

“Dad always told Ben and I that we had to be passionate and really enjoy what we did, otherwise it wasn’t worth doing. Farming is that to me.”

Today, beyond the planting and picking, McLean loves to spend time talking with curious customers and excited children. “Helping people make that connection between a quart of fruit and the berry patch is something that never gets old. Seeing them realize the work and love that goes into each berry to make it as fresh and juicy as possible is something that I couldn’t be happier helping with.”

McLean also likes using online tools like Twitter to share her family’s progress on the farm. “Sharing that story both close to home and around the world is very powerful.” She is one of a group of 10 young Ontario farmers sharing day to day experiences from their farms through the newly created Dinner Starts Here on-line initiative (www.dinnerstartshere.ca)

While Erin continues to talk about the work side, she continues to be thankful her parents made that life-altering decision of moving from the city to rural Ontario. “Life here on the farm is hard to explain, except to say it’s always exciting and always drives me to be as passionate about our product as possible.”

You can learn more about McLean Berry Farm at www.mcleanberryfarm.com or follow Erin McLean on twitter @McLeanBerryFarm

Erin McLean with the farm's tomato crop