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Cover Story Spring 2021 - Shabatura Farms Ltd. has grown over the past four generations

‘We’re feeding lots of people, which is rewarding in itself.’

Shabatura Farms Ltd. has been operating in Norfolk County since the beginning, and now the fourth generation of the family is in charge of operations – including members Eric Chanyi, left, John Shabatura and Peter Shabatura.

It all started with strawberries, said Eric Chanyi, vice president of Shabatura Farms Ltd.

“We’re a family-run operation, currently in our fourth generation,” he said.

The enterprise is owned by Chanyi and his wife, Tiffany; her brother, Peter Shabatura; and her parents, John and Mary Shabatura.

Normally, Shabatura Farms Ltd. farms about 1,600 acres to grow a wide variety of crops.

Strawberries was the first crop grown by Shabatura Farms Ltd., and the fruit continues to be a staple item in their produce lineup.

It was John’s grandfather who started the business in Norfolk County, where it remains to this day. “We’ve been here the whole time,” Chanyi said.

With the strawberries going strong, more crops were added to the farm’s roster.

“We did a lot of processing tomatoes for a lot of years,” Chanyi said.

The farm’s tomatoes were used to make products like ketchup, tomato sauce and tomato paste. At the same time, “We slowly started evolving into fresh mar-ket, as well as processing.” Gradually, though, the processing side of the business was phased out.

“We weren’t able to compete with the cheaper imports,” to the processing plants, Chanyi explained. “That’s business, right?”

As the saying goes, though, when one door closes, another one opens, and “That’s how we got into the fresh market, and we’ve slowly grown that business over the years,” Chanyi said.

Now, Shabatura Farms Ltd. focusses solely on the fresh market; they regularly sell their produce through the Ontario Food Terminal.

“We service all the major chains in Ontario,” Chanyi said; this includes stores like Walmart, Sobeys and Loblaws. “We’re a full-service supplier … we ship right to their distribution centres.”

From those centres, their produce gets shipped throughout Ontario and as far south as Florida and Texas, as far east as Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, as far west as Calgary, “and everything in between.”

Shabatura Farms Ltd. grows a wide selection of produce: zucchini, sweet corn, cantaloupe, bell peppers (green, yellow, red and orange), Shepherd peppers, hot peppers, eggplant, cabbage, Roma tomatoes, as well as field tomatoes, and, of course, “We still do strawberries.”

Given the large volume and variety of what they grow, Shabatura Farms Ltd. purchases their seedlings – primarily using greenhouses in Leamington – rather than trying to cultivate seedlings themselves. “That’s their bread and butter; that’s what they do, and they do a good job at it,” Chanyi said. “So, we just let them do it, then we do our job.”

Throughout the years, Shabatura Farms Ltd. has had their ups and downs, just like any farm; and again, just like any farm, the most recent challenges have primarily been because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because of the diversity and volume of the crops they grow, Shabatura Farms Ltd. hires a lot of migrant workers.

“If we didn’t have migrant workers, we wouldn’t have a business. You would have no fruit and vegetable farmers period, because of the labour reliance,” Chanyi said.

“Everyone says to mechanize, but you can’t pick a tomato by machine. And even growing it, it’s super labour-intensive. Ev-erything’s hand planted, hand picked, hand harvested; staking, tying, weeding …” Before the pandemic, they would usually plant around 1,600 acres.

In 2020, the farm planted about 1,100 acres. For the 2021 growing season, they’re hop-ing to plant about 1,400 acres, “So this year, we’re up a little bit from last year. But that could still change, depending on whether the workers arrive or not,” Chanyi said.

If we didn’t have migrant workers, we wouldn’t have a business. You would have no fruit and vegetable farmers period, because of the labour reliance

So far, they’ve only been approved for about two-thirds of their traditional migrant workforce.

While they can and do hire local labour-ers, including students, “The busiest time of year for us is late August through September (and) October – that’s when a lot of the crops are ready for harvesting, and of course, that’s when all the students go back to school,” Chanyi said.

Not only that, but “It’s hard for the hours. Farming’s 24/7. You can’t tell that tomato not to turn red because it’s Sunday afternoon.”

Despite the ups and downs, Chanyi said farming is still worth the work.

“It’s been challenging, but at the same time, it’s rewarding,” he said. “We like seeing that seed turn into that finished fruit. That’s satisfying at the end of the day. We’re feeding lots of people, which is rewarding in itself.”

Shabatura Farms Ltd.’s influence goes beyond people’s tables. They are members of multiple agricultural organizations, including the Canadian Pro-duce Marketing Association, the Ontario Pro-duce Marketing Association and the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

“We’re members of everything that we can be,” Chanyi said. They also do what they can to support their local community. They sponsor local sports teams and schools. “If people ask, we like to help,” Chanyi said.

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