In a fruit and vegetable consumer universe where ‘fresh and local’ are increasingly important criteria, it’s hard to beat Sam’s Place Farm Market strawberries, grown, picked and sold within a two-hour window on the same 150-acre Norfolk County property.
“The men start at 7 a.m., and by 9 o’clock, when Davina opens, the strawberries are on the shelves,” said husband Tom Komienski.
Growing fresh and local is certainly nothing new for the Komienski family, or the related retail outlet their diverse produce forms the basis for. Tom’s great-grandparents Walter and Stella moved from Ohio to this area in the 1930s, hard work eventually allowing them to purchase their own farm. His grandparents Stan and Alice started fruit and vegetable production, strawberries, potatoes and sweet corn. The family tradition was expanded upon by Tom’s parents Tom (senior) and Joanne, and continued by Tom and Davina, and Tom’s sister Nicole Simons, who oversees the Komienski Ltd. - Fresh Produce office. Their sister Natasha lives in Ancaster and is not directly involved in the operation.
The foundational fruit and vegetable experience has expanded into 1,600 acres in total, featuring a list including asparagus, pumpkins, squash, peppers, watermelons, early beans, strawberries, tomatoes and their two biggest crops, sweet corn and cantaloupe.
“It definitely keeps you on your toes,” smiled Tom. “But we really enjoy doing it.”
Komienski Ltd. - Fresh Produce employs around 140 people between office staff, truckers, the sales team in Toronto and field production personnel. A majority of the latter 100 or so are migrant workers, a majority of those from Jamaica, a smaller group from Mexico.
Norfolk is the most diversified county in the country when it comes to agriculture he points out, and Tom believes the same principle of diversification is key to operation within evolving customer demands.
“You really have to adapt to the changing markets and know what the consumer wants.”
Diversification, for example beginning with asparagus early in May, strawberries June 1st, staggered plantings of melons from mid-July through Labour Day, and pumpkins and squash beyond that rather than riding one or two major harvests also helps provide a more balanced work and cash flow for both employer and employee from spring to fall. Both can benefit from more consistent workforce numbers across a longer time period.
“Trying to be as efficient as possible that way,” Komienski explained.
Joanne Komienski began farm gate sales in tents in front of their home in the 1990s, something Davina, whose own farm family background is tobacco and ginseng in Brant County, always wanted to try. Following Joanne’s retirement, Davina began with a wagon in front of she and Tom’s place. Four years later, she expanded into Sam’s Place, located at the corner of Highway #24 and Burford-Delhi Townline Road.
“This is going to be our seventh year at our new location,” Davina said.
Sam’s Place has evolved into a 7,000-square-foot operation open mid-May to Thanksgiving, based on fresh fruit and vegetables, but also including meat, maple syrup and preserves, bakery items and scoop ice cream.
“She does a lot of behind-the-scenes things people don’t see, there is a lot for her to take on,” credits her husband. “Right down from ordering product to making sure shifts are covered and stuff is on the shelves.”
Naturally, the farm market features Komienski produce, but Davina also brings in local items from Norfolk the family operation does not grow, and some exotics - tropical fruit for example - sourced from the Ontario Food Terminal.
“Every year it seems to get a bit busier,” says Davina, whose full and part-time employee list totals 25, 15 of whom may be working on busy summer weekend days.
In the same manner as he has embraced agricultural diversification, Tom credits Davina for being a ‘real people person’ open to ‘testing the waters’, trying new things that may in fact become the farm market’s next new big thing.
“I feel you always have to try and look at something different,” she explained. “If you see an opening for something, just kind of go for it.”
Their location has proven strategic, welcoming both local and local commuter traffic, as well as clientele from Kitchener, Waterloo and Brantford, heading toward Port Dover or Long and Turkey Points.
“It’s grown a lot,” says Davina of a customer base which appreciates getting access to the front end of produce seasons - “the first strawberries or whatever are always a big calling card,” - and the convenience of being able to get a wide range products in one stop, but is also ‘definitely coming for the freshness, the local.’
“More and more, they are asking if it’s local, where it’s from.”
Where it’s from is as close as Sam’s Place’s own backyard. How it got there is a testament not only to pride of ownership, but the entrepreneurial spirit evident in many Norfolk farm and farm gate operations.
“Small business drives the economy,” Tom summed up in conclusion. “It really does.”