Community & sustainability at heart of local blueberry farm

This is the week we mark Earth Day, on Tuesday to be exact.

Many of us give a bit more thought to the environment this week or do a few extra things to mark this day. And those are all good things.

Farmers, in my opinion, have a special relationship with the environment, a stronger bond if you will.

They work with the soil and the water every day to grow crops and raise livestock – and unlike most of the rest of us, they also live where they work.

That’s just the way farming is, and this makes them all the more aware of what’s going on with the environment and of the need to be good to it.

This week, in honour of Earth Day, I will be introducing you to some of the many Ontario farmers I’ve met over the years and sharing with you some of the unique and interesting things they’re doing on their farms where the environment is concerned.

Sometimes it’s a better farming practice to save time or money (or both!), other times it’s purely for the good of the world around – and most times, it’s a little bit of both.

Pink tractor at Blueberry Hill EstatesSt. Williams – Blueberry maple syrup, widespread environmental improvements, a rural events centre and a pink tractor that raises funds for cancer research are all part of Dale Vranckx’s approach to sustainable farming.

Together with his wife, Angeline and family, he runs Blueberry Hill Estate on the shores of Lake Erie near the Norfolk County hamlet of St. Williams.

The farm, which overlooks the Long Point World Biosphere Reserve, had its start in 1975 as Ontario’s first commercial blueberry operation.

The Vranckxs, former tobacco farmers, have owned it since 2005 and when they took over, adopted a fully sustainable model for the property.

This includes everything from establishing a farm outreach program and diversified products to environmental improvements and giving back to the community by raising funds for cancer.

“We did a lot of research on sustainable model operations to find something that makes sense with what we’re doing. It’s been just over five years since we developed our overall strategy and everything is now just finally coming into operation,” says Vranckx.

In addition to blueberries, Vranckx also produces a blueberry maple syrup, made from sap collected from the 700 maple trees on the farm, a naturally sweetened blueberry dessert topping, and fruit wines.

In an effort to show the public what they were doing on their property – outreach is one pillar of their sustainable model – the family started opening its farm up to the public.

They opened a café and winery with tasting bar on the main floor of the home that was on the property.

The building’s second story serves as a 163-person event centre that is used for events like biosphere meetings, farm education programs and others.

A large commercial kitchen on the same floor is where Vranckx’ wife prepares preserves and baked goods for sale in the farm’s market.

And in 2011 and 2012, the farm was the host site of Canada’s Fruit and Veg Tech Exchange, Canada’s first outdoor horticultural trade show.

The environment is also prominent in the farm’s sustainability strategy.

Erosion control along the biosphere is a priority so Vranckx installed 14 catch basins for water control along the buffer strip and planted native grasses that are mowed periodically; together this has solved the erosion problems.

The Sustainable model blueberry patch, combined with tilling the soil, has resulted in the farm producing three times more crops than it used to, he says.

Snake hibernacula overlooks a wetland at Blueberry Hill Estates
Snake hibernacula overlook a wetland at Blueberry Hill Estates

Last year, Vranckx built several hibernacula on the property, which serve as habitats for an endangered snake species that is present in the area.

Over the years he has also introduced a sustainable Integrated Pest Management strategy – one using good pests to eliminate bad ones – which has helped boost the natural bee population.

“We wanted to see what would happen if we took care of the natural bees so we changed some of our pest control methods and over two years, we noticed we were getting more and more native bees,” he explains. “We have excellent pollination now so we haven’t had to bring in outside bees for the last three years.”

But probably the most visible of the Vranckx’ community involvement projects is their big pink tractor. It participates in parades and agricultural events to help raise awareness and funds for cancer.

When not on parade, it sits in front of the farm market. The tractor is in its second year on the fundraising trail and although Vranckx isn’t sure how much money has been raised to date, it is sponsored by Scotiabank, which doubles any funds it raises.

“Some of my family members have battled cancer and cancer affects many people in agriculture, so we wanted to do something to make a difference. We had an aging tractor that was very large and didn’t get a lot of use anymore so we decided to paint it pink and frequent local events,” he says. “It’s big so people can’t help but notice it. There are hundreds of signatures on the tractor of people who have made a donation or are survivors.“

Note: This article was originally written as one in a series of profiles on Ontario farmers produced by Farm & Food Care Ontario and published on www.caringfortheland.com.

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