Value-added products a fruitful venture for Ottawa farmers

Farmer
Jeremy Schell, who manages Rochon Gardens’ fruit and vegetable stall in the ByWard Market, says many vendors are finding it tough to compete with supermarkets. Photo by Mark Holleron

On a picture-perfect Sunday afternoon in mid-August, Jim Davies looks every bit the died-in-the-wool agricultural producer as he cradles a glass of his finest apple cider while kibitzing with customers and fellow operators at the Ottawa Farmers’ Market.

But Davies wasn’t born into the farming life like so many of his compatriots at Lansdowne Park on this day. 

After earning degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering from Queen’s University, Davies embarked on a successful career in tech that ultimately saw him spend nearly two decades at telecom powerhouse Mitel as the firm’s chief technical officer.

He loved his job, but he also loved growing apples. Davies’ passion for horticulture led him to purchase a farm near Arnprior 20 years ago, and he soon had more fruit than he knew what to do with.

“There’s no good reason to have 150 apple trees, other than I liked them,” he says with a chuckle after closing up the stand where his company, Farmgate Craft Cider, sells its homemade products every weekend.

Eventually, he learned to press the fruit into juice. Inevitably, he soon began making cider.

“The first few batches were not very good, but then they got progressively better,” he notes. 

One of his sons was a brewer, and they’d talked about launching a craft beer operation but felt the space “looked a little congested.” Then they realized they had all the ingredients they’d ever need to produce a different type of alcoholic beverage right in their own backyard.

“We said, ‘Well, we’re making cider here,’” Davies says with a smile. “‘Why don’t we go with that.’ Within six months, we’d all quit our day jobs.”

Farmgate was licensed in early 2017, and by the end of that year Davies had bid goodbye to his longtime colleagues at Mitel. He’s never regretted it.

“To succeed, you’ve got to be passionate about what you do and you’ve just got to work your ass off,” he says. “That’s true … (of) any industry that I’ve ever been in.”

Davies is one of dozens of local farm vendors who make the rounds at the region’s various outdoor markets every week. And like many of them, he has come to realize that the real money in agriculture these days is often not in growing fruits and vegetables, but rather in using those staples to produce higher-value merchandise such as ciders, jams, syrups and other edibles that people will gladly pay a premium for because they’re not easy to make at home.

A few rows over from Davies’ stall, Mathieu Calder and Blake Williams offer an array of spicy relishes, jams, jellies and hot sauce made from ultra-hot peppers, herbs such as chamomile and other fresh, locally grown ingredients.

Both veterans of the restaurant industry, Calder and Williams have been running Jargon Preserves for about five years. 

The operation is small by eastern Ontario standards ​– they grow only about 150 plants at an “urban garden” in Westboro, buy most of their supplies from other local farmers and sell a few hundred small jars of product in a good week – but they see a bright future for their venture.

While they currently borrow commercial kitchens at places such as Supply and Demand to cook up their creations, they soon hope to generate enough sales to open their own facility.

“It’s a lot of work, but we love it,” says Calder, who still works a regular shift at Ottawa eatery Fraser Cafe. “We’re not that big yet, but we’re working on it.”

Farmer

Long-term viability

Both Davies and Calder say “value-added” products such as relish, cider and other items are becoming a more common path to long-term viability for smaller agricultural producers.

“It’s hard to get back into farming,” Davies says. “There’s only two ways to do it. Either you go high value-add, which is kind of the way we’re going here, or you go incredibly high volume.”

As an example, he says, a large growing operation might sell a bushel of apples at a wholesale rate of $8, while the same batch would go for around $25 at the Ottawa Farmers’ Market.

“A family will buy a bushel of apples and you’ll see them again next year,” explains Davies, who now runs his operation with two of his sons as well as his wife Brenda and employs eight other part-time workers. 

“I’ll sell a four-pack of cider for $20 ​– essentially the same price ​– and we’ll see them next week. So our good customers, we’ll do a thousand bucks (a year). Those guys’ good customers, they’ll do 50 bucks. 

“You want something that’s consumable, that you’ll sell all year. We did the math and it was really easy. There’s lots of people that want organic apples, which are rare and lots of people want to pick ’em, but they’re worth way more in the bottle to us. There’s no money in food. We could not keep three households alive on picking apples.”

Many farming operations already have kitchens where they’re making their own preserves and food such as sauerkraut anyway, Calder adds, so it’s a relatively easy transition for them.

“It’s a way of not wasting as well,” he says. “Less waste, obviously more profit, is always good. You can’t always throw everything out and feed it to the pigs.” 

Downtown in the ByWard Market, longtime fruit and vegetable vendor Jeremy Schell agrees it’s getting tougher and tougher for traditional growers to make a go of it.

Schell is part of the extended Rochon family, which has operated stalls in the Market for six decades and has been entrenched in the same spot at the corner of York Street and ByWard Market Square for more than 50 years. In the past several years, he’s seen a number of longtime colleagues pack up and leave, he says, because they simply can’t compete with supermarkets.

“I don’t think there is anything you can do,” Schell says. “Today, it’s give me convenience or give me death.”

The fourth-generation family enterprise has dipped its toes into the value-added product market by selling homemade jams at markets throughout the region. 

The Rochons also tried selling pickled beans, jalapeno peppers and asparagus a couple of years ago but soon abandoned that sideline, Schell says. 

“They sold like hotcakes, but it was the time that we needed to do it,” he says. “It didn’t pay.”

Back at Lansdowne, Davies says the cider business is in full bloom. 

The family now churns out about 24,000 litres of beverages a year, or about 60,000 bottles’ worth, and the firm’s products can be found at 18 pubs and restaurants in the Ottawa area. Sales have grown 3,000 per cent since Farmgate launched two years ago, says Davies, adding he’s already planning to add 4,000 square feet of production and storage space to the operation’s current 1,300-square-foot facility.

He expects Farmgate to be cash-flow positive some time this year, ahead of his original projections. He says the company will likely apply to put its products on LCBO shelves in 2021, once it’s ramped up production enough to meet the expected demand that move will bring.

“Our limit to growth is how fast we can make it,” Davies says. “So we’re gonna go for it.”

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