Article by Jed Devenish
Photos by Dave Fraser
Courtesy County and Quinte Living Autumn 2012
Nestled in the serene and quiet Murray Hills sits a fully organic farm that is a product of one family’s hard work and dedication. It is quintessentially a family farm producing family food.
Like many farms along many paths in rural Ontario, it comes with a story – a story of family pride, integrity, and providing good, safe, and wholesome food. It is a story with roots across the Atlantic Ocean, all the way to Holland. It is the story of a husband and wife, their four daughters, and a lot of good old-fashioned hard work and dedication to the land.
John and Ann van der Heyden, each grew up on a farm in Holland and decided shortly after marrying they would come to Canada in search of opportunity. What they found was a vast country where the couple could to do exactly what they love – farm. They emigrated from Holland in the early 1980s in search of farmland and chose the quiet hills northwest of Frankford, in Quinte West, to begin life in their new country.
“Farming is in our blood, you can’t get it out,” explained Ann from the front porch of their 108-year-old home. “John and I grew up on farms and all we ever wanted to do was farm.”
The couple own and operate Wooler Dale Farm – a family run certified organic vegetable producer. John and Ann have been farming their land for the past three decades and have passed their passion, knowledge, and enthusiasm for farming onto their four daughters.
At first glance, it would appear as if Wooler Dale Farm is just a stereotypical Ontario farm. A large farmhouse sits close to the road, dogs bark as a car pulls into the driveway. Behind the house are the barns, coups, and storage facilities and beyond are fields of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. What makes this farm special is its cultivation – not the way it cultivates the produce but the cultivation of ideals – rooted in integrity, education, and honesty.
“We believe in what we do and that is why we do it. There may be easier ways to do things but in the end you want to do it right, and you want to teach your children to do it right,” said John, with a hint of his Dutch accent still audible even after three decades removed from the country of his birth.
For the van der Heydens, growing organic food is what is right. They believe what is eaten is important to health and well-being and began producing organic mushrooms well before the term organic became synonymous with healthy eating. Wooler Dale gained organic certification in 2000. At this time they were among the first certified organic button mushroom farms in all of Canada.
Initially, the farm sold primarily to grocery stores and restaurants, but the van der Heydens long since abandoned their wholesale operations for the more time-honoured tradition of selling at the marketplace. Wooler Dale currently operates at markets in Toronto and Peterborough, including the popular Trinity Bellwoods, Wychwood Barns, Dufferin Grove, and Brickworks markets in Toronto.
“We receive more satisfaction selling to individual customers than we ever did selling to stores and restaurants,” admitted Ann. “There is nothing more satisfying then assisting customers one-on-one and helping educate them on the importance of eating organically.”
For the van der Heydens learning has always been an important aspect of their lives. At Wooler Dale they don’t just sell produce – they try to teach anyone who will listen about the importance of food education. They are extremely active in the educational aspect of farming and its importance to the agri-food sector. The farm participates in various educational programs, allowing student interns to learn from the knowledge and expertise the family offers. Each year Wooler Dale, in partnership with Ecole d’Ingénieurs de Purpan, a university in France, welcomes a student intern studying agriculture at an engineering level. They host three or four grade nine students from the Waldorf School in Toronto for three weeks and they train interns through two farm apprenticeship programs – Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) and The Stewards of Irreplaceable Land (SOIL).
“Our family is extremely passionate about educating others and sharing knowledge, and fully believe education is the key to people understanding the importance of organic farming and eating locally,” explains Ann.
Like the value of hard work, the importance John and Ann have placed on education filtered down to their daughters – Frances, Karen, Marlene, and Nicole. Marlene studied Food and Nutrition Risk Management at Guelph University’s Kemptville Campus while Nicole received a Science degree from Laurentian University in Sudbury. Both Marlene and Nicole work full time at the farm with their parents and are influential in teaching the interns many of the aspects of running a self-reliant farmstead. Meanwhile Fran, who works part-time at the farm and Karen, who lives in Sudbury, are teachers.
“While three girls are currently working on the farm, all four of our children have been actively involved since they started cleaning beans when they were five,” John reminisced, while Ann added jokingly, “It was tough to get them to work on the farm during their teenage years. Then they went away to university and got a new found respect after they missed having a freezer full of food.”
Then Ann becomes a little more serious, “You can count on family. The girls have always been there and have been dependable. They understand the job and they understand the industry. They are very knowledgeable and understand this is not easy work.”
It is definitely not easy work, especially on an organic farm. In order to meet the standards of organic certification much of the work must be done by hand. No large combines on this farm, just two parents and their daughters working from dawn to dusk. Fields must be hand-weeded and hand-seeded. The farm uses no commercial fertilizers or pesticides and nothing it grows is genetically modified. The farm is sustainable, crops are rotated, and inspectors ensure standards are met and maintained.
“We have worked very hard for our certification. We know what it took and still takes to ensure we keep it and are very proud of it,” adds John.
Wooler Dale produces 41 different fruits, vegetables, and herbs and over 300 varieties, including 23 different kinds of potatoes, and 75 varieties of tomatoes. Ann logs each variety in what the family calls the encyclopedia – a large binder listing facts about every piece of food the farm produces. It is brought to the market in case customers have questions – more education being passed along.
On Sunday September 30 Wooler Dale will host Savor the Harvest. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. the van der Heydens will open their doors to the community. Patrons will have the opportunity to purchase recently harvested produce, tour the farmstead, and sample recipes made from the farm’s wide array of organic vegetables. The farm is also open to the public from 5 to 7 p.m. every Thursday evening.
The next steps for the farm include learning about biodynamic principles – using the lunar calendar system – producing more convenient organic foods such as soups and dry mixes, and creating a Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) program for local residents. This program means every week Wooler Dale will deliver fresh food directly from the farm to prepaid customers in an effort to promote seasonal eating.
And if they weren’t busy enough, in August the van der Heydens celebrated the marriage of their youngest daughter, Nicole, who married a local dairy farmer from down the road. It is during this conversation that Ann reveals a collection of mason jars filled with seeds. “These are heirloom seeds I have been saving for a long time. I plan to give them to my grandchildren,” she says proudly.
Desmond Tutu once said, “You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.” It is easy to see the truth and wisdom in this statement in the strong family bond the van der Heydens share.
They are a close-knit family formed from the sweat donning their brows after long days toiling in the fields. For them, Wooler Dale is not just their farm – it is their way of life, where a family farm produces family food.