St. Thomas farm focuses on esthetics, not on taste or nutrition
ST. THOMAS — Patrick Butters and his brother Chris grow some of the most beautiful pumpkins, gourds and corn cobs you’ve ever seen.
But forget about eating them. They’re grown just for show — literally.
The Butters Farm, just east of St. Thomas in Elgin County, has developed a thriving continent-wide market for ornamental gourds, pumpkins, corn and mini-bales of hay.
The pumpkins, gourds and corn grown on the farm are all food safety certified, but the focus is on cosmetics, not taste or nutrition.
“We get e-mails every year asking about eating them. Everything we do is food grade but I don’t think it would taste very good,” said Patrick Butters.
The Butters Farm is a true family operation. Patrick and Chris took over from their father, a retired St. Thomas firefighter, who purchased the farm property with another partner about 30 years ago. The ornamental market evolved slowly over the years.
“They were just looking for a better way to sell corn. They started with putting a corn cob on a stick as a squirrel feeder and it just morphed from there into pumpkins and gourds,” said Butters.
The farm has grown to 1,600 acres and now supplies major supermarket chains in Canada and the United States.
Since it’s all about looks and shelf life, processing and packaging are a big concern. All products are washed and disinfected and a coat of apple wax is applied to bring out the shine. The corn cobs are kiln-dried for consistent moisture and to avoid spoilage. The products are shipped in durable packaging in refrigerated trucks.
The pumpkins and gourds require fairly intense management with the help of agronomists who check for insect and disease problems. Harvest time is a scramble because the entire crop is hand-harvested. Butters said the farm hires as many as 200 migrant labourers but has been able to avoid the hassles of immigration by hiring local labor.
The farm also produces traditional cash crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans, but the ornamental produce is the biggest part of the business.
The Butters are just getting over their version of the Christmas rush — the month of October when their products are in high demand for Thanksgiving and Halloween decorations.
Butters said the Covid lockdowns may have helped to boost sales over the past two years because more people are avoiding travel and sticking close to home.
“It`s definitely helped having more people at home. People are decorating their homes more than they would have in the past,” he said.