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Quality remains priority number one for Den Boer Farms

John Den Boer is closing in on 30 years of vegetable farming experience in Canada, with close to that in wholesale and retail in his native Holland.

The Den Boer Farms farm family: from left, John, Willemina, Willow, Joyce, Logan and Raymond. 

But he still considers the end consumers his products serve are the ultimate experts.

“I learned a long time ago, what I think is not important,” he said from his Otterville-area operation, deferring to the opinions of those who put Den Boer Farms products on their plate, eat and enjoy them. “That’s my verdict.”

Born on a vegetable farm whose operation was ultimately taken over by his elder brother, Den Boer instead got into vegetable wholesaling and retailing.

“But my heart was always in farming.”

He first considered emigrating to Canada in the 1980s, with wife Willemina deferring.

“I think if she says ‘no’, it is a no,” he smiled. “It is a big step.”

They finally took that ‘big step’ in 1992, beginning in the Bradford area before purchasing the first of what would eventually become three properties in a row, the result of good luck over good management, Den Boer insists.

His first crops were leeks, potatoes and beets, shipped to Toronto for a memorable opening day of selling.

“We had no sales, no sales,” he recalled, pocketing just $67 from an effort indicative of a ‘brutal’ first year. “Not only did we have to get adjusted to the land, you had to find customers.”

Much has changed in 30 years, Den Boer Farms now grows 13 different crops on 300 acres of productive ground, a list including green, red and yellow onions, shallots, leeks, asparagus, cabbage, beets, turnips, carrots, cabbage, six varieties of radishes, and sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichokes.

“It’s really hard to do all the different stuff,” Den Boer concedes, operating on the theory a typical year has two or three crops which don’t perform as well as might be hoped.

“Because we have such a diversity, we always have a couple of good ones too.”

The farm sells product 51 weeks of the year, taking the week around Christmas off, allowing a family that works together throughout, to also holiday together.

“I think that’s a good sign,” John smiled. “We work all year together and still have fun together.”

His working principle is that at least one Den Boer Farms truck per day heads to Toronto’s Ontario Food Terminal. “And that truck should be filled.”

Beyond the food terminal, they also sell to mid-size stores, such as Longo’s, and customers mainly within a 4-500-kilometre range. ‘Almost 69,’ Den Boer still enjoys taking ‘one or two runs a week’ to Toronto himself, leaving Otterville around 1 or 1:30 a.m., arriving at the terminal around 3 or 3:30 a.m. It’s a point of pride his trucks are clean and that each skid of produce is arranged precisely in its stall.

“It’s the package,” says Den Boer, noting the most important part of that ‘package’ is quality. When he first began farming, Den Boer was looking for quantity, a focus that quickly shifted to prioritizing quality.

“Quantity doesn’t pay, quality pays,” he says. “Every day our focus is quality. If something comes from the field and it’s not the quality we are used to, we don’t sell it, no questions asked.”

It can be tempting to harvest product that may slide below standards he says, but believes that is a short-sighted approach.

“The guy in a ten-storey high-rise in Toronto doesn’t see what kind of weather it’s been,” Den Boer explained. “Building up your name takes years and years and years - one bad sale can ruin it.”

The couple’s children are deeply and becoming more and more involved in the business, son Raymond and ‘second in command’ daughter Joyce.

“I’m still working but on the sliding scale off,” smiles John, who makes it a practice to park the truck upon returning from Toronto and head straight home rather than poking his head into the production facility.

“Your eyes see - that’s the problem when you’ve done it for so long,” he explains. “You need to give your kids space to grow up. If you follow them too closely, they can’t develop.”

Den Boer believes the fact they are family members involved in an established business has facilitated their entry, concerned about trends he sees within the industry that may not only challenge Canadian production, but the country’s feed security.

“My son could never start in this business,” said Den Boer, pointing to the illustrative fact that when he began selling green onions he was one of ‘ten or 12’ producers and is now one of ‘two left.’

“In ten years it will be really, really, really coming to an issue.”

In very basic terms, Den Boer says input costs are ‘going through the roof’, citing a box for bunches of carrots which cost ‘two dollars and change’ five years ago, projected at ‘four dollars and change’ this year, part of a trend which has seen some items double or triple in price. Land values and other inputs including fertilizer and fuel have dramatically increased, and in a world sensitive to global market pricing, Canadian farmers are at a significant disadvantage to many countries in terms of labour costs.

“Harvesting is still hand labour.”

Den Boer was historically unsuccessful at sourcing local workers noting experience with some who ‘showed up one day, the next day half a day’ and not at all when it rained.

“The people in Toronto still want to eat even if it rains,” he observed drily.

Like many other producers, Den Boer Farms relies on migrant workers, typically 25 annually, although pandemic-related issues provided additional challenges last year.

“At the peak we had 16, so you are short.”

Ballparking migrant labour costs at around $20 per hour, Den Boer contrasts that to other international locations which might run one quarter of that.

“Don’t get me wrong, our guys earn the $20,” he emphasized, pleased with both the value he receives and a program that sees worthy, hard-working individuals - ‘a great crew’ funnel money back to their homes to improve their lives and those of their families. “But I have to compete with green onions from Mexico.”

This year’s cost projections indicate the requirement for a 25 to 30 per cent rise in his prices.

“And we’ll still make five per cent less than last year. I don’t dare to increase it more, I price myself out of the market if I go too far,” Den Boer continued of a delicate balance. “But I have to raise my prices or I’m done.”

Den Boer Farms has striven to adapt technologically, installing a high-tech packing line that automatically weigh, packages and stacks produce. He is also recently returned from Holland where he checked out a spading machine which can run at nine kilometres per hour compared to the current 3.5. Den Boer also says developments like an automatic hoeing machine are ‘on the horizon.’

“That’s the way we have to go,” he said. “Make our work more efficient, the hours we work more productive.”

Laughing, Den Boer mused aloud it might be easier and smarter to simply sell out and retire. Having left Holland and a business employing 25 determined to find a simpler life, Den Boer Farms now employs 30 in an environment with more rather than less government regulations.

However, the simple fact is, he still loves what he does, the ‘wow factor’ of putting together a great display of the farms’ produce in Toronto, working with his son and daughter on a regular basis, or that his work day may start by sharing breakfast and a smile with a grandchild.

“It’s a way of life,” he concluded with a smile. “It is my life.” 

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