Follow us on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter – be first to know of deals, promotions and contests happening at the St. Jacob’s Market, Market Road Antiques and St. Jacobs Outlet Mall!
See “Visit Us” for Hours of Operation
Follow us on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter – be first to know of deals, promotions and contests happening at the St. Jacob’s Market, Market Road Antiques and St. Jacobs Outlet Mall!
See “Visit Us” for Hours of Operation
I love the soothing earthy scent of lavender.
So do Mike and Kelly Binns, who six years ago combined their names and created their business, MiKel’s Lavender Oasis.
I recently discovered MiKel’s Lavender Oasis at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market when I surprised my wife with a hand-made purple neck wrap filled with lavender and flax seed.
Curious to learn about lavender farming, I took a tour of the their five- acre farm in Binbrook, a beautifully quiet community south east of Hamilton.
Driving onto their property, the fresh floral fragrance of lavender filled the air as butterflies gracefully flew from one flower to another collecting pollen.
“Welcome to our farm,” said Kelly, greeting me with a smile.
I told her I’ve heard that farming lavender takes a lot of patience.
“You have to wait for everything,” she said. “Mike came from a factory background where everything is done in the moment, but with farming you have to plant your plants, then wait for them to grow, and when they’re ready you harvest them and then hang them to dry before you can do something with them, so its all about waiting and relying heavily on mother nature.”
Mike told me how this spring was an especially challenging one for growing lavender.
“This spring was rough — we had too much rain and not enough sunshine,” he said. “We lost a lot of plants, we saved some but we had to cut them back to almost nothing and now they’re finally starting to come up. When you drastically prune them back, the way we had to, you cross your fingers and hope they grow again. Every year is a learning curve.”
I asked Kelly what got them started in the lavender business.
“It was Mike’s dream,” she said. “He was working a job that was unfulfilling to him and we had a property with enough space, as Mike was searching for something we could do that we would love and enjoy. He saw a show on television about lavender and how relaxing it is, so he met with other lavender farmers and thought, this is what I want to do.”
Kelly helps with farm work and the production of a wide range of handmade products they offer, liked dried lavender bunches, sachets, eye pillows, soy candles and melts, linen spray, lavender infused cleaner, and 18 varieties of soap.
“We try to keep everything as natural as we can and our packaging we keep small,” she said, showing me their charming little store on the farm. “With our bars of soap, we just have a piece of paper wrapped around them so you’re not wasting a box or plastic.”
Kelly added, “At the market, the soap goes like crazy. That’s our main seller.”
Mike and Kelly explained how they sell their lavender products primarily at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market, along with the odd craft show.
“I’m sure Mike would love to go bigger and have our products in all sorts of different stores, but I kind of like that we’re small and we have our hands on everything that is made, and we don’t have somebody else making our products for us. It is just us,” said Kelly.
Mike told me how he and Kelly are members of the Ontario Lavender Association, where they share information about growing lavender with other farmers.
“And even though we all grow lavender, we’re all different,” said Mike, looking over a breathtaking field of lavender with its delicate purple hues.
“For example, we currently grow two kinds of English lavender, Hidcote and Munstead. We had a French variety called Grosso, but we found that doesn’t do well in our winters. And we’re into health and fitness, so we have a woman who comes out and teaches yoga in the lavender fields.”
Kelly figured they currently have over 800 lavender plants growing on their farm, which measures 115 feet wide and 2,000 feet deep.
“We started in 2013 with 125 plants, with a lot of heart, dedication and passion.”
While taking in the serenity of their pond, listening to the bullfrogs and watching the bumble bees, dragonflies, and turtles, Mike shared a funny story with me.
“We get our water trucked in, we have a cistern and we had a new driver one time and I always go out and talk to the driver while he’s filling the tank up because it takes a while,” he said. “I mentioned to him that we were lavender farmers and he said, ‘Oh, I’m glad you said something because I thought you were putting that old-lady perfume on a little too heavy.”
Mike told me about the many benefits of lavender as he and Kelly showed me their workroom in the basement of their home, where they get their products ready for market.
“Lavender is calming, helps you sleep, helps with anxiety, and you can also use it on cuts and burns,” he said. “It takes the sting out of mosquito bites, and I use it for my allergies. I’m allergic to grass pollen, so I’ll take a dab of lavender essential oil and put it under my nose and I don’t sneeze for the day. It’s amazing the number of benefits that come with lavender oil.”
Mike is the one who runs their booth at the market, and I told Kelly how much I like his laid-back yet engaging approach to customer service.
“Mike is a super nice cool guy,” she said with a smile. “But before doing the lavender, and I don’t mean this in a bad way, he was not a people person.”
Soft-spoken, Mike chimed in: “I was more shy, I think. At the market, I like to let people come in and shop, I don’t like to bug them, but I let them know I’m there if they need help. There’s lots of things to look at and smell, and I love it when the kids come in and smell all the soaps.”
Kelly added, “Mike was very quiet and he still is, but he’s a totally different person at the market, where his love for lavender and the market is obvious. Now, when we’re out and about somewhere, he’ll start a conversation with a total stranger, which is something that never happened before.”
Mike talked at length about the visitors he has met at the market, from all over the world.
“We have regular customers at the market and yearly visitors who always come back looking for us,” he said. “I was just talking to this guy from Ireland who was visiting the market. It’s just so cool and I’m so grateful for this experience.”
Mike’s gratitude for Kelly’s help with the farm is evident as well.
“Farming lavender is tricky, as we have to be on it with weeding all the time,” he said, as a flock of red-winged blackbirds landed at their backyard feeder.
“We’ve been at the market for just over three years now, and having Kelly come on board and helping with the products, I couldn’t do it without her.”
Perhaps, like me, you’ll first be drawn into MiKel’s Lavender Oasis by that soothing, earthy smell.
What will keep you there, and keep you coming back, will be the hospitality of Mike and Kelly, and the quality and unique handmade feel of the products they offer. If you love lavender – or have yet to discover your love for it — the place is truly an oasis.
Nancy Ackroyd’s enthusiasm for the St. Jacobs Market District is evident in her smile.
“I live for the market, it’s a day off for me,” said Nancy, co-owner of Ackroyd’s Honey with her husband Glen.
“We’ve been at the market since June 2016 and we’ve met a lot of amazing vendors and so many wonderful people from all over the world who, like us, just love honey.”
My family loves honey too, and I told the Ackroyds so when I recently visited their honey house and bee farm in Tara, Ontario.
I like to spread Ackroyd’s clover honey on a toasted bagel in the morning, while my wife and daughters use it to naturally sweeten their tea or drizzle it on goat cheese.
It is clear from the hubbub around the Ackroyds’ counter at the market that many other families love their honey too.
“And the nice thing about being at the market is, our customers ask how the bees are,” said Glen, who started beekeeping at the age of 16.
“They’ve heard how challenging beekeeping can be, because its farming and the environment plays such a big role in every farmer’s life. It was a hobby in high school and I started with one beehive.”
Glen then inherited two more hives after the passing of his great uncle, who worked with bees. Over time, his hobby grew to 75 beehives.
“I worked in the city for 20 years and, eventually, I traded my hobby for my career and bought this farm, and this operation had 300 hives. Right now, we’re running about 1,100 hives, so we’ve almost quadrupled the size of what we purchased.”
Nancy chimed in, “We met 28 years ago and today is our wedding anniversary, we’ve been married 24 years and I knew when we first met there was a possibility we would one day be doing this full time. We met at work at Motorola, and we were so busy that our dates on the weekend consisted of going to the bee yard, so the city girl got exposed to farming and then we got married.”
The art of beekeeping has always intrigued me, so I was thrilled when Glen and Nancy took me on a tour of their beautiful and serene 10-acre farm and apiary.
The sweet smell of honey and wax filled the rooms as they shared insight on everything from honeycombs to supers (short for superstructures) out in the fields that contain hives for the bees to store honey, to brood chambers where the queen lays her eggs.
“In the spring, the population of the beehive increases dramatically from 30,000 to 40,000 bees to almost 100,000 bees,” said Glen. “They start bringing in pollen as they recognize pollen as protein to feed the baby bees, as the queen starts ramping up her egg laying, where she can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day.”
Glen also shed light on the complexity of queen rearing, the process by which beekeepers raise queen bees from young fertilized worker bee larvae, which I found fascinating.
“We can manipulate a colony by making a colony believe it is queenless,” he said. “And last year we spent a lot of time splitting colonies and raising new queens in an effort to build our numbers up.”
I enjoyed learning about the warming room and how honey is extracted gently from the honeycombs at warm temperatures.
“We warm it to almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit, so when we put the honey in the centrifuge to spin it out of the cones, it will run that much faster and more efficient,” said Glen.
Honey bees are vital to life on Earth, but are often misunderstood, said Nancy.
“They’re actually very calm, typically, and they are not aggressive by nature unless you start swatting at them,” she said. “Honeybees are more brown, orange and black compared to the yellow and black ones, and honeybees don’t go near your food or cans of pop in the summer, they’re not interested. They’re very beautiful to watch on a flower when you see them getting the nectar or pollinating, and they don’t mind you looking at them as long as they don’t feel threatened.”
Nancy added, “Wasps can actually sting you more than once whereas honey bees have a barbed stinger and once they sting you they perish, so wasps and honeybees are like comparing cats and dogs, they’re both insects with wings but they’re not even related.”
Walking past the 650-pound barrels of honey, Glen said with a chuckle: “They say it takes 500 trips for a bee to make a tablespoon of honey, so how many trips does it take to fill a 45-gallon barrel?”
Nancy replied, “A trillion?”
Before heading out into the bee yard, Nancy showed me how she makes candles from blocks of beeswax, using over 45 different silicone-based molds.
“Beeswax candles purify the air because they’re not petroleum-based,” she said. “It actually burns the dust particles and a lot of massage therapists will burn them for 20 minutes for people who have severe allergies, they attract all the negative ions and burns them up. Beeswax candles also burn much slower, for example, a petroleum-based tea light might burn for an hour or two while a beeswax candle will burn for six hours.”
Nancy also told me how raw honey can be used to treat infected wounds as it accelerates healing.
Bees are associated with hard work and diligence, and it was never more evident to me out in the bee yard where Glen proudly showed me some of his hives, after using his bee smoker, a devise used in beekeeping to calm honeybees.
“A worker bee at this time of year – June, July and August – their lifespan is about 45 days,” said Glen. “They’re born, they clean, they feed the baby bees, then they’re guard bees and the last thing they do is work as a field bee, collecting honey and that wears them right out. A queen can, in a perfect world, productively lay eggs for two to three years.”
Gentleness, prolific honey production, and disease resistance are characteristics the Ackroyds are looking for in the colonies they raise, said Glen.
“We have 35 different locations, each location has about 32 hives and each hive right now has about 70,000 bees in each colony. Our hives are typically in Bruce County, and right here in Tara I have bees about a half hour away almost in any direction from our home base.”
Ackroyd’s Honey is also eco-conscious when it comes to recycling containers, said Glen.
“We can take an individual customer’s container and refill it for them if someone uses a lot of honey. Our customers at the market, they’ve really become an extension of our family as we see so many of them regularly. And although we have to work late nights and get up very early, the market is a nice place to spend a Saturday.”
Nancy added, “The St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market is a destination, and it has allowed our family to be able to support ourselves and survive on our business while teaching our children about good customer service and the importance of integrity and hard work.”
There’s a reason the term “busy bee” exists. The Ackroyds, fittingly, are busy beekeepers, and you can taste it in their honey.
Celebrating their 30th season providing quality produce at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market, Voisin’s Family Farm carries a wide variety of fruits and vegetables including cucumbers, beans, beets, garlic, tomatoes, asparagus, strawberries, and much more.
“I’m one of 12 members of the family and our dad had a dairy farm in the summer where we used to raise cucumbers to sell to Bick’s Pickles, and we did maple syrup in the wintertime,” said George Voisin, when I recently visited his farm in Formosa, Ontario.
“There are still four family members involved in farming, one does fruits and vegetables, which is me, my brother looks after 4,000 rabbits and my other brother does maple syrup, and I’ve got a sister who runs sheep. So, the four of us have carried on the traditions of my dad.”
Cucumbers and beans are Voisin’s biggest sellers at the market, he told me.
“We grow close to 100 acres of vegetables right now, and when we first started out there were probably only five or six acres,” he said.
“In the summer we have about 25 people who help us. It’s almost all hand-picked and brought down to the market the next day to be sold to our customers, whose families we have watch grow up, as they’ve watched our family grow up. And that’s always been our main goal, to build relationships with our customers who keep coming back.”
In one of the buildings on the 250-acre farm, I was intrigued to see how the grader works as it sorts six varying sizes of cucumbers.
“At the height of the season we’re probably picking about 700 bushels of cucumbers a week, we do that all summer and will likely still be picking cucumbers until the third week of September,” said Voisin.
“And the same with beans, we do somewhere around 700 bushels of beans a week as well and we grow three different types of beans.”
Voisin explained how, depending on the weather, certain fruits and vegetables do better than others when it comes to heat and rainfall.
“It’s always a challenge because every year is different,” he said. “There are farms a lot worse off than us with regards to the weather. Last year, the peas did really poorly because of the hot dry weather we had, and peas don’t like that. Any crop that enjoys moisture like peas, or cold crops like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and onions will do much better on a year like this, compared to last year. Something like cucumbers, sweet corn, beans and strawberries enjoy a lot of hot weather and they don’t like excessive moisture, so last year those crops thrived.”
Walking past a huge irrigation reel, I asked Voisin if it was being utilized with all the rainfall this spring.
“No, we have no need for water as we’ve had a lot of wash outs and heavy rains,” he said. “Last year it was so dry, we used it seven weeks straight because of the lack of rain, and this year we haven’t had to use it yet.”
Hopping into the passenger seat of his red-and-black side-by-side ATV, with the family dog Chevy following close behind, Voisin took me on a tour of the vast farmland, pointing out his antique tractor, the family home, and workers out in the field hoeing garlic.
I told Voisin how much my family loves cucumbers and making tangy cucumber salad.
“We have a greenhouse now where we start our early crops, and cucumbers is our biggest one that we start in our greenhouses,” he said.
“We actually just transplanted them out about a month ago and we put row cover on them which is that white cloth you see out in the fields.
“I just took the row cover off today because there’s lots of blossoms on the cucumbers, and then the bees have to do their job to pollinate. Last year, we had cucumbers in record early time, by the 18th of June, but this year because of the cold weather they were delayed.”
Voison explained how the white row cover in the field keeps the ground an additional four to five degrees warmer, protecting new crops from frost in the spring.
“Beans can’t handle frost, so we put it on those early crops so we don’t lose our crop, as it works like a mini greenhouse in a way.”
I told Voisin how much my family always seeks out locally produced garlic in the summertime, and how my wife uses it to make delicious cheese bread.
“We planted the garlic last October and will harvest it in the last week of July,” he said. “We’ll pick some a little earlier than that because our customers want fresh garlic. We plant about three acres of onions, as well, mostly Spanish onions, cooking onions and red onions.”
As we headed out to the strawberry fields, I was fascinated to learn about the importance of diversified crop rotation and staggered planting.
“With beans, we plant about twice a week from the first week in May, all the way through to the end of July,” Voisin explained. “Peas as well, we plant once a week, and with sweet corn and beets, we do multiple plantings so we can have fresh consistent produce and that way our vegetables and fruits are the best quality.”
Out in the strawberry field, I met Voisin’s daughter Brittany, who owns two farms about 15 minutes away.
“She has two children who like to help out, and my son Kevin also has two children. The grandkids like being out in the tractors and travelling around the farm to see the crops as well,” said Voisin.
“My son has a business degree but said he didn’t like working in an office and the farm was calling him back. My daughter has always farmed and her husband’s a farmer as well, a cash cropper and he loves the farm.”
Voisin showed me the strawberry plants and predicted a good season for strawberries.
“I don’t know if they’ll be as sweet as other years because we’ve had so much moisture, though,” he said.
“My daughter picked the first strawberry of the season this morning. Brittany and Kevin have been helping me out ever since they were seven years old. My oldest boy is now 32, and my other two boys occasionally help us at the market as well, Derek and Ryan.”
Like farming, working with family can have its challenges, Voisin admitted with a chuckle.
“We do have our difficult times and bump heads every once in a while, but we work it out in the end. We can be stubborn in our ways, but it usually works out pretty good.”
“I’ve had great relationships with customers and management over the last three decades, as I’ve seen so many changes over the years, like the fire that completely destroyed the main building six years ago. But with us being farmers, we carry on and rebuild, and I believe we were stronger for it after that.”
And the St. Jacobs Market District feels like an extension of his family, said Voisin.
Voisin paused for thought, then continued: “The outdoor vendors never missed a market through the fire, which was devastating, but I think the market is better now than it ever was before. And my family, I don’t think I would be doing this business today if it weren’t for my family helping and dealing with customers directly.”
In other words, the customers are part of that magic equation of solidarity, continuity, and commitment.
With decades of service providing food “from the stable to the table,” Charles Quality Meats is a proud farming tradition here in Waterloo Region.
A family-owned and operated abattoir and processing facility in St. Agatha since 1978, their bustling meat counter at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market is always packed with farm fresh cuts of meat including beef, pork, goat, rabbit, turkey, goose, duck and lamb.
I’ve always had a keen interest in animal welfare science, and appreciate Charles Quality Meats’ chemical-free, hormone-free, and drug-free approach to raising livestock.
That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to take a guided tour of their farm on Wilby Road one recent sunny afternoon, curious to learn about the history and family philosophy of Charles Quality Meats.
“We’re the only vendor at the market that has a kill floor,” said Tony LoBrutto, co-owner of Charles Quality Meats with his brothers Sam and Peter, along with their father and the company namesake, Charles.
“That’s very important for what we do, which is provide the highest-quality meats. Nobody else has that. It’s the only way we can honestly say our meat is chemical free, no one else has ever touched it and it has never left the house.”
Sam chimed in: “The reason we built it in 1989 was because we were bringing our livestock to other slaughterhouses and not getting our carcasses back, they were getting switched, so we decided to build a slaughterhouse of our own, which allows us to have the highest quality control.”
Standing on the kill floor with Sam, Tony, and Peter, they shed some light on the Ministry of Agriculture and Food requirements they must strictly meet, and how meat inspectors are always present when animals are slaughtered and processed.
“We actually exceed the Ministry’s requirements,” said Sam. “For example, we use a non-rinse sanitizer, and then we go and rinse our cutting tables again with water to ensure there is absolutely no bacteria. We feed our own families the meat we process.”
Our next stop on the tour was the walk-in freezer filled with lamb and full sides of beef.
“Breaking down sides is tough, hard work, and I think most people don’t realize the extent we go to preparing meat for the market,” said Sam, who then introduced me to their 84-year-old father, Charles, who was born and raised in Sicily.
“I’m the boss,” said Charles, greeting me with a firm handshake.
“Actually, our mom’s the boss,” said Sam, which drew chuckles and nods of agreement from the rest of the family.
Peter, who is in charge of livestock and works closely with his father, told me how their father immigrated to Canada in 1962.
“He was a shepherd back in Sicily, and he had incredible skills with animals since childhood and showed the three of us how to raise them,” said Peter.
“He was on a train going from Montreal to Winnipeg and he got tired of the long train ride, so he got off in New Hamburg in the middle of the night, only able to speak Italian and German. He liked it here so he set up home, went back to Sicily and met our mom, then came back here with our mom, then all my aunts and uncles came over.”
Charles shared how proud he is to have been a part of this community for the past four decades, raising his family, building relationships with customers and making many friends along the way.
“I still work and I have a customer who has been coming to the market for 42 years,” said Charles. “They have 12 kids, and now all of the kids are coming.”
Sam, Tony and Peter all credited their father with teaching them the importance of friendly and efficient customer service at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market.
“He taught us that we’re feeding families and how important it is to make great connections with our customers and for them to trust us,” said Sam.
Charles added that, when his boys were young, he told them to never chew gum, and always greet customers with a friendly stance (no crossed arms) behind the counter.
Peter recalls when he first started working at the market, at just six years old, he was in charge of opening bags because he couldn’t see over the counter.
As we walked to the barnyard, the brothers told me about the prominent breed of cattle they process — Limousine, with a mix of Angus and Charolais.
“The thing about processing cattle is, when you move them around too much, they get a little high strung, and if they get too excited it toughens up the meat,” said Sam. “It gets really dark red and we don’t want that so we strive to make sure there is very little stress on the animals.”
Tony said, “There is no heavy pushing on cattle here because it messes everything up. There isn’t an electric cattle prod on the property and if anyone were to bring one on this farm my dad would grab it out of your hands and use it on them!”
Lamb, however, is the family’s real specialty. “It’s our claim to fame,” said Tony. “And again, all the livestock we keep at low stress, and it has taken our father 40 years to perfect the science of what to feed them, when to feed them, and how to feed certain types of animals to achieve a light colour and tender meat.”
Keeping Charles Quality Meats a small, family-run business has been key to their success, said Sam.
“We could get bigger, but we would compromise our quality control. We made a decision a long time ago that we’re not about doing volume but rather quality,” he said, taking me into the barn to show me the animal feed they developed about 35 years ago.
“It’s a scientific concoction that includes mixed greens, molasses, cracked corn, whole corn, and a touch of soy bean. The other important thing is hay. You want first cut hay, with no rain on it because the animals won’t eat it, and it’s got to have enough energy and nutrients to feed the lambs and goats so they will perform well. You are what you eat, and the same goes for animals, so you give them good feed and good hay and they become better-quality animals.”
Currently, the LoBrutto family are gearing up for Father’s Day celebrations, both at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market and their store on Weber Street in Waterloo, which they opened three years ago.
“Father’s Day is one of our heaviest meat producing weekends, because every dad wants lamb chops or pork chops,” said Tony, who manages the Weber Street store, open seven days a week.
“And of course, there’s nothing better than a nice prime rib steak on the barbecue when summer arrives. We have other great Father’s Day gift ideas at the store as well with lots of local ice cream, perogies, gluten-free pastas, cheeses, honeys, jams, and sauces. We’re butchers, right, so whatever we can put in here that will go great with your meat, we’re happy to support small local business owners.”
Tony added: “We’re lucky to live in an area with so much great food and people who want it. Working at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market since we were kids, we’ve watched our customers’ kids grow up. Our customers care about where their food is coming from, and its important to me that the families we’re feeding are getting quality food.”
I asked Tony if he enjoys the hectic pace of the Market District on a busy Saturday in the summer, working now with his own kids behind the counter.
“It’s called organized chaos,” he said with a laugh. “The St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market is known around the world, it’s the biggest in Ontario and possibly in Canada, people are coming from all over. We have regular customers coming from Sudbury to Windsor and everywhere in between and we greatly appreciate those customers and the personal relationships we’ve made with them.”
As I was leaving the farm, I asked who owns the dark navy 1994 Cadillac parked at the front entrance to the property.
“When our dad came here in 1962, he saw the Cadillac for the first time and said he wanted one,” said Sam. “So, for his 60th birthday he got one.”
Charles, clearly still in love with the car, said: “That was my dream.”
Achieving that dream was the result of a strong work ethic, and an equally strong commitment to his family and community.
“Everybody who knows us knows what we stand for,” said Sam, “and how we stand behind our products. And it hasn’t been easy. At times we fought like cats and dogs but my mom and dad kept it all together. My dad’s driven, he’s driven too hard and he’ll never be satisfied, because he always wants our business to be better. That’s just the way he is.”
It takes incredible dedication to bring great food “from the stable to the table.” The LoBrutto family puts a lot of emphasis on the word “quality” in the name Charles Quality Meats, and they’re confident you’ll see it in how they run their business, and taste it in their products.