By Treena Hein
The trend of buying local, especially food, seems only to be growing stronger, and capitalizing on that trend is key to Jenn and David VanDeVelde’s success.
The VanDeVeldes farm near Delhi, ON, where they grow horticulture and field crops and where they built Wholesome Pickins Market & Bakery, a thriving farm gate market that sells everything from fresh produce to locally produced meat and dairy to fresh baked pies and more.
“People want to know where their food comes from,” says Jenn. “We are incredibly proud that all the fresh produce and products we sell at Wholesome Pickins come from our farm or other Norfolk County farms and businesses.
An on-farm market had always been the plan since David and Jenn met at University of Guelph. He studied horticulture, she science, and after they settled back on Dave’s family farm, Jenn was working with horticulture farmers around the province doing integrated pest management. “We both loved horticulture and I was also seeing a lot of on-farm stores around Ontario through my job,” says Jenn. “We wanted our own from the start.”
That was back in the early 2000s. Both David and Jenn were still working their off-farm ag input jobs while, on their own farm, they grew tobacco and field crops. In 2006, they decided to put in three acres of June-bearing strawberries and sold them at the farm entrance. The next year they added a small number of ever-bearing strawberries to see how that would go, along with some vegetables.
Their dream coincided with a big trend. At that point, the local food movement in their area had gained a lot of momentum. In 2009, Jenn and Dave decided to open a little store in a former small tobacco processing building, offering their own berries and veggies, along with some locally made cheeses.
For the next two years, they grew the horticulture side, and Dave cut back his off-farm work to just winters. By 2012, Jenn was only working off-farm in the winter and Dave was on the farm year-round.
When the calendar rolled into January 2013, they decided to turn the full on-farm market idea into reality using an existing line of credit to convert a barn. “Getting permits was straightforward,” says Jenn. “We were just going to sell products that year and had only roughed out the commercial kitchen, but we decided to finish it. We opened the store in June and sold our first pies on July 1.”
Investing in growth
Within a year of opening Wholesome Pickins, the VanDeVeldes needed more people and more kitchen equipment. The baked goods were very popular, and they also sold some soups and salads. By 2018, they went all in with ready-made food, hiring a savory cook. They hired a second in 2022.
“From 2013 to now, we are easily at four times our sales,” says Jenn. “We have about 50,000 customers a year, 100 a day on weekdays and 300 a day on weekends, nine months of the year. We close the store January, February and March. We have an amazing local following, with some of the same customers for 15 years. In the summer, there are tons of people who stop in on their way to nearby Lake Erie or on their way home.”
At any point in the season, the store offers 75 different products from their own farm and from other local Norfolk County producers. At peak, the entire farm employs 40 staff, including some seasonal harvesters. Strawberries are also sold wholesale at nearby farm markets, the day they are picked.
Last year, the VanDeVeldes saw a return on their investment in Wholesome Pickins, and they did it in just nine years. That’s impressive considering that during the same time they also made hefty investments in land, purchasing the family farm from Dave’s parents in 2017 and, in 2018, purchasing the neighbour’s farm when it came up for sale.
“That was a lot within five years, and we felt somewhat financially over-extended at the time, but we’ve always had a lot of discussions about cash flow, asset ratio, and so on, and we certainly wanted that land,” says Jenn. “We also invested in the installation of irrigation for all our acreage to remove drought risk and ensure we have an income.”
With everything going on at the time, it’s easy to see that Dave and Jenn’s time and energy were stretched very thin. Something had to give, and the tobacco made sense. “It had been volatile the last two decades and we needed to replace some of the harvesting equipment,” says Dave. “So, we decided last year to plant field crops instead.”
Cropping for soil health
From year to year, the VanDeVelde’s field crop rotations include field corn, soybeans, rye, oats, peas and barley on over 250 acres in total. They also have 15 acres of ever-bearing strawberries, three acres of June-bearing strawberries, five acres of summer and fall raspberries, four acres of asparagus, five acres of pumpkin/squash and half an acre of rhubarb. “We’ll always have a mix of horticulture and field crops,” says Jenn. “Dave has done so much research into field crops. He will always challenge himself with that.”
Dave uses a three-year crop rotation to build organic matter and reduce weed pressures and soil-borne pests. They also use integrated pest management extensively, including alyssum plants to boost both parasitic and beneficial insect populations. Dave does soil tests every year and SWAT mapping with variable rate application of chemical fertilizer, though they also buy manure. Dave also uses reduced tillage practices and plants cover crops like oats, a peas-beans-barley mix, winter rye and recently, some winter canola.
In 2022, the couple’s hard work paid off when they won the Outstanding Young Farmers Program award for the Ontario region. But for Dave and Jenn, real satisfaction comes from realizing their farm store dream.
“We’re also just really proud to provide local food from farmers we know and sharing their stories,” says Jenn. “Our best advice to those who want to have a local food business is to get to know your customers. Everything we did and built was from talking to people, finding the gaps in the food system for them and understanding their needs.”
Jenn and Dave also made a point to get heavily involved in their industry and community, including Farm Fresh Ontario, which promotes Ontario farm products, Ontario Berry Growers, their children’s schools, minor sports and much more. “It helped us so much with running our farm,” says Jenn, “but also when people see you working hard for the community and industry, they see you caring and they want to support you.”