From 25 apple trees to more than 500,000
Partnerships helped them grow to 700 acres with more than 400 seasonal workers
There was only one Johnny Appleseed, the much-loved historical figure from American pioneer days. Johnny’s famed passion was planting apple tree nurseries into the expanding western frontier, two centuries ago, so that there would be fresh fruit available for the oft-impoverished settlers.
Yet, there are others who have also made notable contributions to our present-day need for that “apple-a-day” by planting acres of apple orchards.
An example is Martin’s Family Fruit Farm near St. Jacobs, Ontario, where Leighton Martin, a fifth-generation farmer on that land, planted his first apple trees over 50 years ago. The idea for becoming an orchardist was not his; the seeds of this enterprise were planted by Branko Premlec, a Yugoslav exchange student that came to his farm, sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee. This young man’s expertise in horticulture recognized that Martin’s mid-western Ontario farm was well-suited for growing apples.
So it happened that back in 1971 when Leighton planned to replace a few dying trees with 25 young ones, Branko suggested that he plant the whole 100-acre farm in apple trees. But rather than scale up that quickly, Martin planted 200 more trees the following year.
Now, with three generations involved since that humble beginning of several acres of trees, the Martin family’s orchards contain more than half a million trees covering over 700 acres, making them one of the largest producers in Canada.
Over four decades, one significant theme became clear: the Martins were adamant in claiming that the success of their enterprise was not just a result of their own efforts. Foremost, the family was quick to give full recognition to their dedicated and highly-qualified team of workers including office staff, production employees and seasonal workers, giving employment to as many as 400 in peak harvest season. Many of the seasonal workers are also multi-generational returnees to the Martin orchards. In that sense, Martin’s Family Fruit Farm is a true family enterprise.
Additionally, rather than taking personal credit for the growth of the ever-expanding enterprise, Leighton Martin noted that business success is often the outcome of favorable circumstances, or providence, and not entirely a result of giving it one’s best effort. “Being in the right place at the right time,” he said.
Another counter-cultural philosophy became evident during discussion with the now-retired founder of this large and diversified apple business: In an age where farming is hyper-competitive to the point where stiff rivalry between neighbours is quite common, Leighton described a very different mode of operation; one of mutually beneficial cooperation. On a learning trip to view horticultural operations in Europe, he noticed that much of the fruit produced there came from a multitude of relatively small orchards, perhaps 5 to 10 acres. This small-scale enterprise provided a livelihood for many farm families instead of concentrating production into a few hands.
This concept took root in Leighton’s mind and upon returning home, he approached several neighbours to gauge their interest in planting orchards and co-operatively marketing their production through Martin’s state-of-the-art facilities, rather than competing with each other for market share. The offer was accepted and today there are a significant number of local farmers who have various acreages of apple trees, all benefiting from uniform husbandry practices and a steady market provided by the Martin enterprise. This cooperative approach has given opportunity for these small, family farms to remain stable and competitive in an economically challenging time.
While the vast majority of their sales are packaged apples, their product lines also include packaged, dried apple chips and pureed apple snack packs. These are marketed through numerous retail outlets across Canada and the United States. In addition to processing their own products, Martin’s also provide packaging and processing for other Ontario orchards.
Their cooperative approach came to the fore when one family member emphasized that when dealing with others — whether suppliers or customers — a vision of partnership is what enables everyone to benefit.
Perhaps the dynamic impact of that philosophy best shows itself in the growth of Martin’s Family Fruit Farm over the years. When company founder Leighton Martin took his first apple crop to the market at Elmira in 1970, he had a total of 4 ½ bushels of Tydeman Reds to sell. Now their production is measured in thousands of 20-bushel bins, all made possible by the helping hands of the hundreds of people who have become a part of the Martin family story.
John Schwartzentruber is a Huron County farmer.