Heritage farms from across the country – Part II

Farms from PEI to B.C. share their history – and their present-day activities that honour the past
Treena Hein
September 12, 2017
By Treena Hein
Frank Whittamore and son Gilbert in 1927 taking a load of produce to sell door to door in North Toronto.
Frank Whittamore and son Gilbert in 1927 taking a load of produce to sell door to door in North Toronto.
Whittamore’s Farm – Markham, Ontario

The early beginnings of Whittamore’s Farm started when Henry Lapp settled a 200-acre plot next to the Rouge River Valley in Markham, Ontario (northeast of Toronto) in 1804. As a market gardener in Richmond Hill, Ont., Frank J. Whittamore sold vegetables door-to-door in the Yonge and St. Clair area from the 1920s through to the 1950s.

In 1952, Frank's son, Gilbert, bought a 50-acre farm on Steeles Avenue in southeast Markham, next door to the Lapp Farm. Here he grew strawberries and vegetables, which were wholesaled at the Toronto Food Terminal and local stores. Gilbert married Evelyn Lapp and together they established a small pick-your-own strawberry and raspberry operation in the mid-1950s, a first of its kind in Ontario.

Over the next 60 years, the couple expanded the variety of crops they grew, and their sons, Mike and Frank, plus Frank’s wife, Suzanne, went on to build the farm business into one of the largest agri-tainment sites in Canada. It includes pick-your-own fruits and vegetables, a Farm Shop (featuring freshly-picked produce, baked goods and preserves) as well as a Fun Farm Yard and Pumpkinland with farm-themed activities. Mike grows the crops and owns the Pick-Your-Own and Frank and Suzanne own the Farm Shop and paid-admission play area.

Whittamore’s Farm welcomed close to 300,000 customers annually, but all that changed this year. After the fall season in 2017, they are closing their gates to the public one. Mike and Frank will continue to farm the land, but not with fruit and vegetables.

The bulk of the Whittamore Farm staff has always been high school and university students, and for many, it was their first job.

“Several of them came to us when they were about 15 years of age and continued to come back for five or six seasons until it was time for them to start their careers,” Suzanne notes. “I’ve often heard them say: ‘Working for you was the best job we ever had’ and ‘Thanks for teaching us how to be responsible young adults.’ It’s great to know they have appreciated our guidance and we know the lessons they learned will stay with them for life. Not a week goes by when we don’t have a visit from a former staff member who wants to stay connected and keep us informed on how they are doing.”

Suzanne says it’s been a labour of love and an honour to be a part of Whittamore’s Farm agri-tainment business.

“Organizations such as Ontario Farm Fresh and the friendships formed with other colleagues in similar businesses have also played an enormous role in our success,” she says. “We have also learned together through workshops and conferences. Sharing about our success now validates all the work involved to get here.”

For more information, visit: www.whittamoresfarm.com

Burnbrae Farms – Lyn, Ontario

The story of Burnbrae Farms, one of Canada’s oldest and most well known farming businesses, began in 1874, seven years after Confederation. A 17-year-old named Joseph Hudson left Stranraer, Scotland, on ‘The Scandinavian’ passenger ship with his parents and five of his siblings. The Hudsons settled in Leeds County in Eastern Ontario and Joseph married his wife, Jean, and welcomed three children.

By 1891, he had purchased 100 acres of land near Lyn, Ont., and named his farm Burnbrae – ‘burn’ being the Scottish name for a stream and ‘brae’ referring to a hillside.

In 1922, the farm was passed down to Joseph’s only son, Arthur Joseph. Arthur Joseph and his wife, Mary Evelyn, raised five children, continued to cash crop and expanded their dairy herd of Ayrshire cattle. The youngest child was named Joseph, born in 1929. Like his sisters and brothers, Joe started each day milking the cows before going to a traditional one-room schoolhouse.

In 1943, while he was in high school, Joe and his brother, Grant, took on an agriculture-related project. They raised 50 leghorn laying hens, and by the time Joe had finished high school, there were 3,000 hens on the farm.

Indeed, this small focus on eggs grew, and the first Burnbrae laying hen barn was built in 1952. Joe began buying eggs from other farmers in addition to grading and packaging his own. Burnbrae acquired its first grocery store sales at Steinberg’s in Montreal.

Over the years, Burnbrae Farms continued to grow and added more barns and further expanded its grading facility. A further processing plant to break, pasteurize and package eggs sold to bakeries, restaurants and industrial customers was also added. Today, the business has farms and grading stations across the country in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia. Processing operations in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba ship egg products across Canada and parts of the U.S. Burnbrae is the sole egg supplier for McDonald’s Canada.

The five generations of Hudsons in Canada are still actively involved in the business. In terms of what it means for the company to be celebrating this year as a historic Canadian agri-food business, president Margaret Hudson says, “It’s so important for us to celebrate Canada’s birthday, because we’re proud Canadians! This country symbolized so much for my great-grandfather Joseph when he took a chance and emigrated from Scotland 143 years ago, and we continue his farming legacy to this day.”

For more information, visit: www.burnbraefarms.com

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