New building dramatically increases Fenwick farm’s capacity, efficiency
BY DAVE BURKET
The DeVries Fruit Farm, a family owned fixture in Fenwick since the 1980s, has vastly expanded its physical footprint.
Just in time for peach season, the farm’s latest addition—12,000 sq.ft. of processing and storage space—opened on August 1.
The greatest benefit, says Field Manager Dan DeVries, is the storage.
“We were renting space, on Balfour Street, for the last 15 years,” said DeVries, when the Voice visited last month, on a bright, picture-perfect autumn afternoon.
“We were bringing the product there, then bringing it back here to get packed. So, it’s just constantly back and forth, back and forth, with hauling fruit. And then the same with all the apples for rented storage for the winter months—it was all going in trucks, going to different facilities in Simcoe, Smithville. So, a lot of road travel.”
Consolidating harvesting, processing, and storage in one location saves both labour and the farm’s use of fossil fuels.
“We’re reducing our carbon footprint, one apple at a time.”
Now the farm has its own set of enormous, climate-controlled storage lockers. They were installed by the Canadian subsidiary of a Dutch company, with some technicians flying in from B.C., and others from the Netherlands. Work started on April 1.
“There was a huge time crunch to get everything done. All the trades that we had working were just fantastic, and we had no hassles with the Town or anything with getting permits or building inspections or anything. It was a seamless transition.”
The cold storage specs are impressive. An on-site generator feeds nitrogen to each of four huge rooms, automatically dropping them to as low as 2% oxygen, at a temperature just above freezing at 34 F. Each room is tightly sealed, and will remain so until the stored fruit is ready to market over the winter and into next spring.
This isn’t just cold storage, but “controlled-atmosphere,” or “CA” storage.
Speaking to Modern Farmer magazine in 2013, Jim Allen, then president of the New York Apple Association, a growers’ trade group, summed up the science. In CA storage, oxygen, temperature, humidity, nitrogen, and carbon monoxide are each precisely regulated. “Apples breathe,” said Allen, and the deeper they breathe the longer they’ll remain alive. CA storage slows breathing, which slows ripening.
“The old tech would have to run every other day,” said DeVries, of the nitrogen generator. “This one runs once a month, maybe for 10 minutes.”
The family spent two years researching which system would work best for them, visiting other farms.
Virtually all of their long-term storage is devoted to apples, which represents 50% of the farm’s business, with assorted tender fruit—peaches, plums, cherries, pears—the other 50%. Each of the four rooms can accommodate 200 bins, equaling 175,000 lbs., or roughly 240,000 apples. Some 10 varieties of apples are stored in each room, to provide wider marketing choices over the winter and into spring.
One room was sealed and another nearly so when the Voice visited. DeVries said that the first would be opened in January, the second in late February, the third in late March, and the fourth in late April. Their farm store is open all year round, and they sell at farmers markets around Niagara.
The timing was right to expand, said DeVries.
“I’m 36, my brother’s 30, and if we want to make this a long-term success, it was a needed project to help grow our business. My parents are still actively involved. My dad, Leo, is still actively involved. My mom, Margaret—she does all the books and office work. My brother Mark, he looks after a lot of the sales. And then I look after a lot of the day-to-day activities out in the field, as far as tractor work, harvesting, putting stuff in storage, all that kind of stuff.”
DeVries said that the family’s priority was to ensure the farm’s long-term stability.
“It’s supporting my parents, it’s supporting my family, it’s supporting my brother’s family. And then, it’s supporting the 22 migrant workers that we bring up every year [from Mexico].”
Despite a rocky start, 2019 was also a great harvest year.
“In April and May, it was so wet that even when the blossoms were on the trees, it was terrible pollinating weather,” said DeVries.
“But yet, all the crops were just beautiful. Peaches, plums, cherries, pears, apples. It’s not too often that you have it that in a year, like all your crops are average to above average. You always have one that’s below average. But this was just one of those years you’ll look back and say, ‘Wow, 2019 was a good harvest year.’”
Beyond an annual Strawberry Social the farm hosts each June, DeVries said he’d like to add additional events throughout the year, possibly each weekend.
“Our biggest problem is a staffing. Maybe about 10 schools come here [on field trips]. I’d love to do more of that, but I don’t have time. Once my kids get a little older, hopefully if they like to be involved with the business.”
One of DeVries’ sisters, Andrea, also helps in the summer, then goes back to her full-time work as an education assistant in the fall.
“As a family we all have been involved in one way or another, and yeah, we’ve been blessed along the way. It’s not by all our means that we’ve done what we have. We have a Christian faith and we believe that God has blessed us and called us to be doing what we’re doing here in farming, and growing food and fruit for people. So it’s rewarding. You know, if you see people coming back every week, or whatever, for fresh fruit, it brings a joy to your work because you know that they like what you’re doing, otherwise they wouldn’t come back.”
The DeVries farm store is located at 825 Canboro Road, in Fenwick, open Monday to Friday, 8 AM to 6 PM, and Saturday 8 AM to 5 PM.