To every food there is a season
People and innovation.
Those are the keys to running a successful farming business, says grower Gerry Rochon.
The Edwards ON-area farmer recently hosted Ottawa area food writers and home economists on his farm as part of ongoing efforts by AGCare and the Ontario Farm Animal Council to debunk myths related to food and farming.
“You’ve got to always try new things and you’ve got to be good to your people,” says Rochon, who supplies six Ottawa farmers markets with fresh fruits, vegetables and bedding plants from early April through to the end of November.
Rochon’s growing repertoire includes Mesclun lettuce mix, greenhouse tomatoes and cucumbers, peppers, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cauliflower, broccoli, field tomatoes, turnips, carrots, Spanish onions and over 3000 hanging baskets.
“We try to have fresh product available for as long as possible so that we always have something to offer customers,” says Rochon. Everything he sells goes directly to the consumer, which he says people appreciate.
They like meeting growers and often ask many questions about what they’re buying and how it is produced.
Rochon credits his family and his workers with helping to keep his farm running smoothly.
He currently employs six full time seasonal workers from Mexico, as well as up to 20 part time students to help out during the busy season.
“My people are my biggest asset. If I don’t have good people, I can have all the equipment I want but it won’t help me,” he says.
Some of his seasonal workers have been with him for many years, including one man who has worked on his farm for 15 years and knows the business inside out.
Rochon is the second generation of his family in the business and he farms together with his wife and children.
His twenty-three year old son is now contemplating a future on the farm, but Rochon admits it can be a challenging lifestyle.
“It’s hard to find a partner who will put up with this kind of lifestyle. Eight months of the year it’s a seven day a week job and it’s hard, hard work,” he says. “I got lucky with my wife; I don’t think I could find another one like her.”
The business season officially wraps up in mid-December and that’s when the Rochons take three weeks of well-earned vacation.
The winter months mean planning for the upcoming year, ordering seed, completing paper work and working in the greenhouse to get ready for spring planting.
Rochon is always on the look out for new products to add to his line up.
Not only will that extend the time he can be present at the farmers markets with fresh products, but it can also open up new markets.
One such example is novelty produce.
Rochon began growing red and orange cauliflowers before it became widely popular, with great success.
“I was growing them three years before Loblaws was selling them and now everyone wants them so it took off,” he says, adding that listening to the needs and wants of his customers is crucial.
If one or two people ask for something, he usually won’t do anything about it, he says, but if twenty people ask for it, it’s definitely worth looking into.
His wife works at the Byward Market and his son is at many of Ottawa’s other markets, so there’s direct interaction with consumers on a regular basis.
Rochon is also keenly interested in innovations that will lower his costs, make his work load easier or help the environment.
This includes biodegradable tomato clips and field plastic, timers for his greenhouse sprinklers and a unique vaccum seeder he developed using a shop vac to make the seeding process easier and quicker.
“You have to be innovative and ahead of the times to survive,” he says. “Otherwise there are much bigger players out there that could easily eat us alive.”