By Jeanine Moyer
Delivering flavours of the season to customers
Freshness and flavour are just a few reasons consumers purchase local Ontario produce. And for customers of McGregor’s Produce, they can add quality and taste to that list too because the McGregor family has built their business and reputation on those two traits.
“We only sell what we grow when it’s in season, and we won’t compromise on taste, quality or flavour,” says Ian McGregor of McGregor’s Produce, a multi-generation family produce farm located in Braeside, ON. The family grows strawberries, green and yellow beans, sweet corn, tomatoes and raspberries. Everything grown on the farm is sold directly to consumers through farm markets and roadside stands throughout the Ottawa Valley region.
Ian farms alongside his wife Deb, his brother Cameron, his parents and three children. After returning to the home farm from university, Ian knew he wanted to turn his parent’s part-time farm into a full-time job. He believes local food was the “extra push we needed in the consumer’s opinion” to grow the farm into the successful family business it is today, growing five different crops of fruits and vegetables, along with 350 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans.
With the local food movement gaining momentum, Ian believes consumers across Ontario are becoming more aware of the importance of sourcing local both to support local farmers and to enjoy the superior taste and quality that comes from food grown close to home. He says the emphasis on local food is one of the factors that have helped their farm business grow faster.
While many aspects of the farm still rely on the traditional means of harvest – hand-picked, hand packaged and handed directly to the customer – technology and innovation has enabled the McGregors to expand their business and lengthen the seasons of their produce.
“Our customers want a locally-grown product, but they also want to be able to purchase it for a longer period of time,” says Deb who listens closely to her customers and understands that her consumers want to enjoy fresh, local produce as long as possible. Since strawberries and sweet corn are the farm’s most popular crops, the McGregors have introduced new varieties to lengthen their seasonal availability. Ian says they’ve extended their sweet corn season by planting their corn earlier and using plastic coverings to protect the seed and keep the ground warmer in the cool spring weather. And the McGregors now grow ever-bearing strawberries, that produce multiple strawberry crops each year and allow customers to enjoy the fruit almost all summer long.
Weather is one of the most important factors on a farm, especially farms that grow produce that is tender and easily damaged by extreme weather like storms or hail. Ian says he’s constantly watching weather forecasts and patterns to prepare for inclement weather. The farm uses row covers, or large blankets, to cover some crops against early frosts and drip irrigation systems placed along the ground at the base of their plants during dry weather to keep the plants healthy. “It’s challenging to deal with weather – especially extreme weather – on a produce farm,”says Ian.
Everyone helps out on the farm – planting, harvesting and selling the produce. Most of what they grow is hand-planted and everything is hand-harvested. Though this hands-on approach is necessary to ensure quality, it’s very costly and labour intensive , requiring the help of 40 seasonal employees. And when he’s not in the field, Ian can be found at the local farmers market talking to customers about how their produce is grown, how to select the best fruits and vegetables and even his favourite way to enjoy them. “You know you’ve produced something good when you get repeat customers,” says Ian. “And that’s satisfaction to me.”
The McGregors have also expanded their marketing to include social media. The family now uses Facebook and Twitter to reach their customers, creating communities to help residents of the Ottawa Valley source fresh, local produce.
The McGregors host 2,000 to 3,000 customers to their farm annually. They are involved in their local community by volunteering on local community and agricultural boards and giving back to their community through charities and fundraisers.
The McGregors live by their slogan “growing the flavours of the season” every day on the farm. “We eat everything we grow and feed it to our own kids – we are proud of the quality and taste we produce.”
This article is one in a series of profiles on Ontario farmers and farm businesses produced by Farm & Food Care Ontario.