In my experience there are few better measures of the current health and the future success of a farm than the number of children’s bicycles strewn about the dooryard. The Hagermans’ farm is otherwise neat and orderly, but the sheer multitude of trikes, bikes and dirtbikes littering the produce farm on the outskirts of Picton, Ontario suggests a vibrant present and very bright tomorrow.
The Hagermans are the sort of old stock Canadians who have been here so long, they don’t trace their ancestry back to Europe, but rather “the fifth of Thurlow” (the fifth concession of Thurlow Township, northeast of Belleville). Their ancestors established the farm in Prince Edward County in 1905, and they’ve been tilling the soil there for five generations. Today, Peter and Heather Hagerman work together with their grown children Joseph, Jody and Jennifer growing cash crops, selling fresh vegetables, and serving up home cooked meals along the historic Loyalist Parkway. Between the three J’s, Peter and Heather have nine grandkids living within a stone’s throw of the home farm: thus, the bicycles and the special energy that goes along with so many lives sharing in a common goal.
Peter and Heather have inoculated their children with a palpable joy for agriculture and hard work —when you witness where they get to live and toil every day, it’s easy to see what they’re so excited about. The Hagermans’ story is one of people and place, and they’re both pretty special.
With 800 kilometres of shoreline, Prince Edward County is an unusual limestone escarpment that juts out into Lake Ontario where you’re never far from the water. Smack dab in the middle of the county and five kilometres equidistant from East Lake, West Lake and Picton Harbour, the Hagermans’ location gives them a long growing season and moderated climate.
Although scenic, most of the county isn’t really “prime ag” by any definition. If you drive around it, you’ll see its interior is largely red cedar rabbit scrub. According to the 1946 Soil Survey, about 60 % of the land has less than three feet of earth. Despite this, the county also has a long history of growing high value speciality crops: the first cannery in Eastern Canada was established there in 1881. Given the benign climate, when you see the dirt of the Hagermans’ farm, you begin to grasp why.
Through generations of patience and attrition, the Hagermans have come to possess some 600 acres of Percy fine sandy loam: a unique vein of powdered limestone sand. It is the product of a glacial outwash. There are a mere 4,000 acres of it in the whole of the county and this stuff looks like it came out of a bag. Stone-free, naturally warm and well drained with ample organic matter, the Hagermans are known in horticultural circles for growing massive produce like four-pound onions and peppers the size of your head — and paradoxically do it all without irrigation.
Over most of the past 100 years the Hagermans operated a typical mixed farm: milking cows, and growing a variety of truck crops like peas, beans, tomatoes, sweet corn and potatoes for canning and wholesale. As the processors gradually closed and wholesale markets became less lucrative, the family took advantage of their prime location to market at roadside to locals and tourists. Ten years ago, in a situation shared by many Ontario farms, they looked at their 26-cow tie stall barn and deeply considered its future. Weighing it against their expertise in produce growing and the potential for their retail business, they went all in on the market. Selling cows and quota, they expanded their sales area and built a new structure which now houses their offices, dry storage, lunchroom, and daughter Jennifer’s food service business: Farmhouse Eats.
Currently, Hagermans are divided into Team Field and Team Kitchen. Team Field includes Peter, Joe and Jody as well as the help, four Jamaican workers, who have been coming back for 8 to 14 years. Together they manage a whopping 70 acres of mixed vegetables. The balance of their workland is in a rotation of corn, IP soybeans and winter wheat, which alongside his firewood business, is Joe’s pride and joy. Jody’s side hustles include cut flowers and chickens. Peter keeps the machine running smoothly (or as smoothly as it can) and is just tickled to carry on his calling with his family: “It never feels like work around here. We’re just having fun.”
Jennifer’s business Farmhouse Eats started in, you guessed it, the farmhouse kitchen and relies as much as possible on homegrown ingredients. Having worked in commercial kitchens since she was 14, Jennifer now generates a variety of baked goods, preserves and fresh meals. Employing her mother Heather, who with a handful of workers in both front and back of house, comprise Team Kitchen.
As dynamic and impressive as Hagerman Farms is, I suspect it is largely an elaborate way this family has devised to hang out with each other as much as possible. They just clearly love one another that much. Driving me through their impeccable crops and achingly beautiful farmland, Jody interrupts my dorky questions of economics and agronomy: “Here, I want to show you something…”
Over the brook and through the woods, we arrive at a quiet, manicured clearing. There’s a humble cabin, and a number of charming pavilions made with timber from the farm. Quite a few family members have been married there, and many milestone birthdays celebrated as well. I notice a few large boulders with plaques: loved ones’ ashes are buried beneath them. “What do you call this place?” I ask. Jody laughs, “We don’t call it anything, it’s just where we go.”
There’s a noticeable void at Hagermans. This was left by Peter’s brother Paul (and yes, they have a sister Mary). His passion for people and produce was a big part of their current direction. He died six years ago at age 54 of a sudden heart attack at the peak of the season, September 1st. They closed the stand for 24 hours of mourning and opened it right back up the following day. Paul would have wanted it that way. His spouse Marlene remains a huge part of the farm, harvesting fresh lettuce every morning and helping with the farmstand.
The lunch rush is starting for Jen when we get back. “Local working people getting lunch has really been the backbone of my business,” she explains, but as time goes on, she finds the tourist market taking a greater share of her service. Same goes with the farmstand, as Jody echoes: “It used to be that we knew everyone that shopped here: friends, neighbours, our old school teachers. They don’t even bother coming on the weekend now.” Throngs of tourists keep them away. “We see the locals on Tuesday morning now.”
This shift highlights a larger change going on in Prince Edward County, as outside money and population rapidly gentrify the formerly quiet and rural landscape. Jennifer overhears a lunch order from the counter and slaps some veggies on the grill, her attendant cautions her to wait for clarification on the goat cheese option, she leans in to me: “Nah, these guys are 100 % goat cheese – tourists – I can tell from a mile away.” Sure enough, they’re Quebecois, in the middle of a bike journey through some of the nicest scenery in Eastern Ontario, and yes, they would enjoy some chevre on their sandwich.
While new residents and more tourism means new opportunities and more cash in the neighbourhood for their farm business, it also means potential disruption of their normal agricultural activities. An abandoned rail line, which the Hagermans have relied on for decades to access their farmland is now a groomed recreational trail: cyclists and dog walkers are visibly annoyed as Jody draws a load of vegetable starts home from Lockyer’s Garden Centre with the side-by-side. Picton is rapidly running out of development land, but the lure of new residents will probably prove irresistible for local zoning.
The bicycles in the dooryard will have the final say at Hagerman Farms. There’s no “succession plan” in place here. The future belongs to whoever shows up. No one is retiring, and if you want to have a stake in the farm, you’d better be there for coffee at 6 a.m., ready to work. Defying all of the so-called expert advice that you should get as many lawyers and accountants involved in your family farm’s future as possible, the Hagermans instead rely on mutual respect and trust in one another.
“When you have a problem with someone on this farm”, says Heather, “you step outside in private and flush it out, and move on. There’s no union here, there’s no conflict resolution department, you just speak your piece and get on with the season. What we’re doing here is bigger than that.”
Heather is right. The Hagermans are special people, in a special place. Their love for each other and what they do is evident in their fields, in their sacred clearing, on the shelves of their market, and in the look in their eyes as they work together growing a farm with a future.