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The value of a local food incubator

Northumberland and area farmers have grown their businesses thanks to a multi-service food processing facility

Reading Time: 7 minutes

When Northumberland County opened its Ontario Agri-Food Venture Centre (OAFVC) in 2015, it didn’t know if the farmers who supported the concept in studies and surveys would use it.

Three years later, the centre is used by numerous farmers and businesses and it has helped them take their business to another level.

Why it matters: Value-added processing facilities are expensive to build and can have significant tax implications if built on farms, which makes a local facility of value.

Prince Edward County residents Catherine Crawford and her husband Edgar Ramirez of Pleasant Valley Hops in Hillier, Ont. and Ramirez Vineyard Services, branched out from wine grapes to hops six years ago.

Pelletizing their harvest has long been a challenge, since craft breweries only want hops in pellet form. And while they invested in good German machinery for picking and drying, they had to take their dried hops to Owen Sound for this final step – four hours one way.

This heightens the time crunch a hops grower faces since, once properly dried, hops must be pelletized within 24 hours. Otherwise, Crawford said, they start to lose their essential oils.

“The whole point of growing hops is to have that beautiful lupulin,” she said, referring to the yellowish powder found in the flowers of the female hops plant.

“Lupulin gives beer that bitterness and the flavour and the aroma,” she said.

The OAFVC was approached by the Ontario Hops Growers Association, which wanted to ensure their membership would have a place (and the hops-specific pelletizing equipment) to process their product.

Trissia Mellor, agriculture manager for the Northumberland County economic development and tourism department said a hops grower might invest in expensive machinery but might not be able to help other growers.

Crawford recalled the steep learning curve of transitioning to hops. In fact, she discovered, “It’s nothing like wine grapes.”

For example, hops grow on trellises like grapes, but — at 18 to 20 ft. high — a hops trellis is several times the height of a grape trellis. But they persisted.

“Edgar loves it now — he’s just enamoured of hops,” she said.

“Now that our yield is so much higher, we can make several trips to Colborne, if we have to, by driving for an hour. If we’d had to make several trips to Owen Sound, I’m not sure it would be feasible anymore.”

Crawford said that the quality of the hops is directly related to the quality of the beer.

“It’s got to be fresh, fresh, fresh. That’s why it’s so wonderful to have this facility an hour away. We can get them there quick, pelletize them, vacuum-seal them and put them in cold storage – and they do labelling. It’s what you call one-stop-shopping.”

Nearby processing enables crop growth

Some growers find the Colborne facilities have helped them take a very rewarding crop to an even higher level – like Joe Hayes of Popham Lane Farm.

Hayes’ black currant operation in Brighton is a fourth-career initiative (following stints in the Air Force, with the correctional services and an upholstery business).

Joe Hayes aims to harvest 50,000 lbs of black currants by 2023. photo: Popham Lane Farm

When his eyesight lost some of its sharpness, two factors decided his next step – being British (with an enduring fondness for black currants) and owning a parcel of land on Popham Bay whose clay-shale soil was well suited for the crop.

The only Canadian grower he could find was on Vancouver Island, where he and his partner Priscilla Courtenay were able to purchase the plugs to plant for their new venture. Since 2015, they have planted more than 13,500 currant bushes.

With hopes of reaping 150 lbs., he found his first harvest brought in 600 lbs.

“The you-pick sign went up pretty quick, and we began making jam,” Hayes said.

They harvested about 6,000 lbs. this year and expect to reach 50,000 lbs. by the 2023 harvest.

They soon learned that a product has to be roughly 50 per cent sugar to be called jam. Now they make what they call a spread – 28 per cent sugar, about 60 per cent black currants, plus lemon juice, water and pectin. They also make a lower-sugar concoction they call a sauce. You can pour it on cheesecake, pancakes or ice cream, or mix it with water or soda for a beverage.

Hayes said that most people in Ontario (in fact, Canada) don’t know what black currants are, nor are they aware of their extremely high Vitamin C content (more than three times that of blueberries).

Hayes purchased Polish harvesting machinery to bring in the crop that they have to sort, wash, package and freeze.

These days, he gets the washing and freezing done at the OAFVC, where they put the berries in vacuum-sealed bags and store hundreds of pounds at a time for whenever he rents time for a cooking.

“I said to Priscilla, it’s almost like karma,” Hayes recalled.

“Here I am starting this, then I hear there’s going to be a centre in Colborne. I saw the writing on the wall that this would be a good thing, and it has been. They supply kitchen staff, freeze for me and do all this sort of thing. I’m hoping maybe next year to do a juicing press.”

An ability to experiment with new products

The centre is also used by one of the biggest commercial saffron growers in Canada, True Saffron, which is owned by Warkworth resident Martin Albert and his partner Eric Charbonneau.

A spate of recent publicity has put sales through the roof, Albert said, and they have created eight saffron-infused products just since July.

They’d always enjoyed growing edibles for themselves and friends – garlic, tomatoes, even shiitake mushrooms in a log in a forest. In April 2014, a friend suggested if anyone could grow saffron, they could.

Pistils composed of three stigmas make up saffron and are harvested from crocus by True Saffron Producers. photo: True Saffron

Within two weeks, they had ordered 50,000 bulbs and had nowhere to plant them and no idea how to make them thrive.

They found a grower in Quebec who was scaling down to instruct them in planting depth, drainage, appropriate locations. They now plant 37 cm down, he said – deeper than any crop they know of, and deep enough for peace of mind in Northumberland’s bitter winters.

The second piece of the puzzle was locating sunny vacant land with no forest or other obstacles to obstruct the warmth of the sun. The unsprayed tract they located proved to be ideal for the organic methods they wanted to use.

The first year’s crop suffered for these delays, as well as the ones caused by regulations and inspections at both ends of the bulb purchase – in Europe and in Canada. They got only 65 blooms the first year, but that grew to 78,000 flowers in the second year.

They lost no time in having their product analyzed for authenticity, Albert said.

“Saffron is subject to so much fraud around the world. Seventy- to 90 per cent of the saffron on any shelf in the world is either fraudulent, transformed in some way, or not saffron at all.”

They aced the tests in terms of quality, flavour and antioxidants, which give it healthful properties in terms of fighting depression, early-onset dementia and eyesight issues.

Even though saffron from Iran or Spain is supposed to be superior, Albert pointed out that the crocus sativus linneaus bulb is universal. The key is in the processing.

They researched and developed a secret but very painstaking method that relies on just the right heat, and they keep hawk-eyed watch over their trimmers to ensure they keep the entire length of the red supernegin that provides the health benefits as well as the vivid colouring. Finally, 30 days of rest in the dark are needed to intensify and set the colour and flavour.

They package it in glass (because it can oxidize in plastic or metal) with a cork stopper to absorb oxygen, and sell it in a small black-velvet bag to protect it from light.

The idea of involving the OAFVC came to them last spring when they wanted to make saffron more mainstream. The mystique of saffron can work against it being an everyday cuisine resource, Albert said, but this means people are missing out not only on a flavourful product but a healthful one as well.

They applied for a grant, did some research and testing, then got to work on new saffron-infused products.

Their first was a mustard that combined Canadian mustard seed with Canadian white-wine vinegar for a product people are loving in everything from charcuterie to barbecue burgers.

Their saffron-infused crabapple jelly won best-crabapple-jelly honours at the Warkworth Fair, and they also have a saffron jelly that’s great with charcuterie and cheeses like Brie and sharp cheddar.

They have two saffron vinegars, a white-wine and an apple-cider variety, plus a new hot sauce with a long-lasting punch.

Saffron-infused maple syrup still tastes like maple syrup but packs an antioxidant wallop. And there’s a simple saffron syrup for people who want to discover the flavour.

Doing much of their work with the OAFVC made it so much easier, Albert said, even beyond access to equipment that would have been prohibitive to purchase (like a liquid-nitrogen flash freezer).

“You can rent a half-day, you can rent a full day, you can rent the prep kitchen,” he listed.

“You can hire two, three or four of their employees at $20 an hour. It allows you to know that people in the know are on your team and know the best way to do things.

“It makes you feel like you can lead a team in the production, and that’s how we felt confident enough to get out four products on the same day,” he recalled. And the staff’s professional clean-up between batches ensured that the flavours of one product wouldn’t mix into another.

A staffer with another kind of expertise worked with them via e-mail to produce their initial labels.

They appreciate how the centre is set up for shipping, and the fast and efficient employees always seem to be able to get the answers they need.

“We are lucky we live up the road (from the centre),” he said.

“For small commercial producers, it would be difficult to have any of these products without their help and their presence.”

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