By Andrew Campbell
If you ever head north out of the city of Toronto on the busy Highway 400, you’ll pass commercial and industrial, residential and retail areas through what seems to be a never-ending city. Then suddenly, you’ll crest over a hill at King Township and find yourself in the middle of one of one of the most productive areas of farmland in the country with the busy 400 slicing right through the centre of it. This little valley is only about 7000 acres in size, smaller than some individual farms you’d find in Western Canada, but its black soil is so rich, it can produce enough carrots for every Canadian, along with onions, lettuce, beets, parsnips and as many of 40 different crops. The dozens of farm families that call this place home work in somewhat of a fishbowl with the thousands of commuters driving by, likely unaware of just how significant a place this is. That’s why we thought we’d better visit with the Holland Marsh’s biggest fan, Avia, and learn about how her family grows carrots and how the Holland Marsh as a region came to be.
We are here in the Holland Marsh area, which is between Toronto and Barrie. We are with Bill and Avia, third generation farmers. What do you grow?
On our farm specifically we grow carrots and onions but in the Holland Marsh there are farms growing lettuce, root celery, beets, parsnips. There are over 40 different crops that are grown out here in the Holland Marsh.
How many carrots would grow in a field like this?
Quite a few! This field is 14 acres, so in a regular year, we get about 60 boxes of carrots to the acre. So that’s around 840 boxes of carrots. This year won’t be quite as productive because of the weather that we’ve had. Also, these carrots aren’t really growing as fast as usual so they are smaller.
They’re not getting big enough?
They’ve been struggling with the weather. We had a lot of rain in the spring and this field was actually underwater for a bit and it just takes them a little time to recover. They go into survival mode and then they have to go back into producing mode.
Can we pull a few carrots and see what they look like at this time of year. Now this is what? Probably eight weeks before you’re going to harvest?
This field was the first field planted, so it should be close to being ready now in early September, but I suspect it will be towards the end of September before I can harvest it as a marketable product because they’re just not sizing up.
What makes a good carrot? As a carrot farmer, what are you aiming to get?
We are aiming for straight, beautiful carrots, 7 to 10 inches (18 to 25 cm) long and anywhere from three quarters of an inch to two inches (2 to 5 cm) in shoulder diameter.
What do you have to do in a year in order to get that end product?
We start with different varieties, some fields we grow strictly jumbo size. This is a package field, so there will be some jumbos in this field as well. If I don’t sell any in September or the first couple of weeks in October, these carrots will grow right into the end of October and I can put them into cold storage and then take them out as I need them for my supplier or the people that I supply in the wintertime.
Do you harvest, do you do it by hand?
No, not usually. We’ll sometimes dig the headlands and along the roadways by hand. We’ll bunch them out and sell them off. It’s pretty hard to do that now, but sometimes if the orders are there, you can do it that way. That’s the way we used to do it.
Now we use a combine. Right now, we only harvest enough to fill an order. We would combine a trailer load at a time and fill orders. Then at the end of October and into November, we harvest from seven in the morning until seven o’clock at night until you get finished. We do this to beat the snowfall because you have to work with the cold weather.
How big is the Holland Marsh? It is such an interesting area and I love driving through here. What else grows here?
I love your enthusiasm about coming to the Marsh. I have to tell you right off the bat that the Holland Marsh is a topic that I never get tired of speaking about. The Holland Marsh proper is 7,000 acres and it’s provincially designated as a specialty crop area for intensive vegetable growing. It is also a provincially significant wetland. If we tried to do here today, what was done 92 years ago, it would not be permitted.
In 1934, the first settlers came and my husband’s great uncle, William Valentine, was one of the first settlers in the settlement of Ansnorveldt. When those settlers came, they cleared the land. Where we are now, this is more in the middle of the Marsh. When you get out towards the sides, there are two canals on the Bradford side and on the King Township side. When you look around and you see all the hills that surround the Marsh. This is why it was called the salad bowl, because we are in a valley, it is a microclimate. It is one of two areas in Ontario that grows specialty crops. I think it’s one of two or three microclimates in Ontario. As the water receded, the grasses grew in the middle of the sedges from 1881 to 1915. The first crops harvested out of the Marsh were not even food, but they were the sedge grasses. The grasses were harvested by strapping big pieces of board to horses hooves so they wouldn’t sink in the bog. The grass was harvested and sent into Toronto to make mattresses.
Originally the vegetables that grew out here were lettuce, celery, carrots and onions. In fact, I believe it was 1927 when the first crop of head lettuce was grown here in the Marsh. From that point on, from July until October, that lettuce was available. That was the first time that Canadian lettuce had been available on the market locally. Prior to that, the lettuce came from Arizona.
The Marsh is 7,000 acres. It sounds like a big number, but in the grand scheme of the number of acres in Ontario, it’s not a huge number, but it’s an incredibly productive number. How much crop basically is here to feed the province?
Now I’m using numbers that are probably four to five years old, but we grow enough carrots here in the Holland Marsh, within that 7,000 acres, to provide every single Canadian with four pounds of carrots. Not us personally, but collectively.
That is amazing! Thanks for the tour and for sharing your farm story with us.
Watch Fresh Air Farmer, Andrew Campbell’s full video here