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 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.
“We employ offshore help,” he said. “We used to have students help out, but most students these days have lots of activities in the summer, and by the fall they’re busy with homework and sports and aren’t available.”
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.