Although Canada is renowned for its sprawling farmlands and agricultural abundance, as a Canadian, I’ve seldom visited a farm nor given much thought to where my produce comes from. This all changed one sunny afternoon as I jumped in my car and drove for almost four hours from Toronto to Kingsville, Ontario. I was headed to Trison Farms to meet the owners, the Mastronardi family and to learn more about what happens behind the scenes before Ontario produce debuts at a grocery store.
The drive was long and dull. I literally had to pinch my face repeatedly so I wouldn’t fall asleep at the wheel. Some might describe the landscape as picturesque – I only saw an endless monotony of flat cornfields that stretched beyond the horizon. Mile after mile, no stores, no people… just a homogenous sea of green. The only sign of life was the occasional herd of cows, grazing at a glacial pace.
Initially, the mammoth 200-meter tall wind turbines in Chatham-Kent were quite impressive, but they quickly lost their novelty as they too became a repetitious part of the monotonous landscape. There were 124 of them to be exact. In retrospect, I don’t think counting wind turbines helped the cause of trying to stay awake. I may as well have been counting sheep.
Left only with my thoughts (I had given up on trying to find a radio station that wasn’t playing country), my mind wandered. I kept thinking, “I could never live here.”
In fact, one of the questions I had prepared for the three sons who had just taken over the family farm business, was, “If you had a choice to be doing anything else, what would it be?” I anticipated I would get an earful of woeful tales of being stuck on the farm and yearning to escape to the bright lights and fast pace of the city. Armed with my city-centric questionnaire, I finally reached my destination.
Brothers Jordan, Joshua and Joel Mastronardi are fourth generation farmers dating back to1962. Their grandfather Gino had started the now massive produce empire, with only a half-acre glass greenhouse. Today the greenhouse spreads over 25 acres and at peak season employs almost 80 full-time, temporary, and migrant workers.
As we conversed, I learned more about their family and the illustrious story behind their operations, it became evident that there were no fantasies of escaping to the big city. Here was a family so passionate and so deeply knowledgeable about what they did, that I began to feel remorseful for my narrow-minded views. The three boys like their parents Rick and Mary, continue the hard work with dedication but with a more innovative approach.
“The boys have definitely evolved the farm into a modern, efficient and forward-thinking facility. I was just growing and selling produce. These boys are taking it to the next level,” previous owner and father, Rick, proudly quipped.
Although he claims to have passed the baton onto his sons, they are quick to inform me that he is still just as immersed in the day-to-day operations and refuses to take a vacation.
Mary, the matriarch of the family is no different from her husband Rick – There’s no sitting on the porch sipping lemonade and eating bonbons for her. She continues to manage the retail marketplace which is a cozy, roadside open-concept shop. She runs this business with produce from the family’s greenhouses as well as other local grower’s products.
The brothers are continually looking to grow not only their produce but innovative machines, and software to increase their efficiency and develop new varieties of berries. Josh who is in charge of sales and marketing tells me at times they can’t keep up with demand. Not only do they grow their produce, but they pack and distribute almost 200’000 pounds of quality berries, peppers and tomatoes per week. And they’re not planning on slowing down this uphill growth.
Joel, the eldest of the sons, helms the development of the produce itself, growing crops. So many factors to consider here from irrigation, to pest management, crop pollenating, planting, fertilization…the list is endless and so is Joel’s work load. Jordan the youngest is in charge of warehousing. Sorting, packing and filling orders all with the utmost attention paid to quality and efficiency.
Three sons, three very busy departments mean some days the brothers may not even run into each other on any given day. Which Joshua says “…helps create a great working relationship as no one hovers over the other”.
As for my initial question? Josh simply answers: “I never really thought about anything else. My brothers and I always worked on the farm growing up and knew we’d continue to be a part of it.”
I left with an incredible and informative education about greenhouse farming. Which yields higher attractive crops, uses minimal and natural pesticides when compared to field farming, makes the most efficient use of water and has longer growing seasons due to a controlled environment. But greenhouses are more expensive both to operate, install and maintain. What shocked me was how everything was hand-picked. Be it peppers or grape tomatoes…Someone was hand selecting and packing every single fruit and vegetable.
I was totally wrong. Farm life is not slow, dull or isolated. In fact it was quite the opposite. It involved so many facets of business and life. Agriculture, sales, innovation, technology, marketing but ultimately a passion to grow and perfect a necessity to every human’s life – food. As I made my four hour trip back to Toronto, somehow the endless fields and wind turbines looked different this time. I no longer saw a monotonous sea of nothingness…I saw endless hours of labour, love and rich history.
As I ran the events of the day through my head – the wonderful earthy fragrance of the greenhouses, the moving stories of a family-built empire, and the symbiotic balance of raw nature with new technology…I found myself thinking…”I could live here.”