Just north of St. Thomas, at Harris Flower Farm and Pastured Pork, Janis and Mark Harris are growing their family business one bloom at a time. Fields of colourful flowers are the crop of choice, while a number of heritage pigs enjoy the good life in a converted dairy barn.
And every weekend from Mother’s Day until Thanksgiving, Janis or Mark and their three children — Cameron (5), Nathan (3) and Megan (1) — can be found selling their fresh-cut mixed bouquets and locally-produced pork sausages and bacon at the Horton Farmers’ Market in St. Thomas. From July to September they are also selling at Covent Garden Market in London.
It’s not the life that Janis imagined for herself when she left her parents’ farm, McSmith’s Organic Farm, to pursue a career in optometry. But the itch to “grow things” never left, so in 2009 she took her mom’s advice and planted a crop of 3,000 gladiolas to sell at the Horton Farmers’ Market.
While she hasn’t quite quit her day job, she has never looked back.
In 2011, Janis and Mark purchased her grandparent’s farm, where they now grow approximately four acres of flowers ranging from spring blooms like daffodils, tulips and peonies, to such summer favourites as snapdragons, zinnias, sunflowers, and of course, gladiolas.
Hoop-house greenhouses and some careful planning help the Harrises get the most out of the flower-growing season, with Janis picking this year’s first tulips on a snowy day in March.
“My dad was involved with the horticulture society in St. Thomas, so I’ve always had flowers in my life and I’ve always loved them,” says Janis.
Growing up on one of the area’s first organic farms taught Janis the value of hard work and what it takes to bring a crop to market. “Farming was always a family thing, and I enjoy that my own kids are now able to help out with the picking and selling,” she says. “I joke that Cameron has been at the market every Saturday except the Saturday he was born.”
Customers are surprised by the variety of flowers she is able to offer and appreciate knowing that the blooms are grown locally rather than being shipped in from places like the Netherlands or Colombia. “People like that our bouquets are always different and that they can last for up to two weeks,” she notes.
Harris Flower Farm also prepares bouquets for weddings and other special events. “It’s a growing part of our business,” says Janis, who hired part-time help to get her through last year’s busy wedding season. Janis works closely with brides to explain the possibilities and limitations of using locally-grown flowers instead of something selected from a catalogue and flown in for the occasion. “I don’t grow orchids,” she says with a laugh. “We discuss colour and feel, because I might not know exactly what will be in the bouquet when we meet. When the time comes, I see what is in season.”
A flower subscription service is also popular, with mixed bouquets delivered bi-weekly or monthly to businesses and individuals throughout London and St. Thomas.
In addition to the fresh cut flowers, the Harrises raise and sell pastured pork.
“We began with a few pigs just for our own pork, but people began asking if they could get our sausages so we bought a sow and just kept going,” says Janis of the unusual combination.
The pigs — three Tamworth sows, a Berkshire boar, and any piglets — are free to root in the dirt and roll in the mud during the summer months. They spend cold winters in the farm’s converted dairy barn.
The heritage breeds are ideal for pasturing, Janis explains. “The Tamworth have a very long snout so they can root in the dirt, while the Berkshire are known for the quality of their meat,” she says. To supplement what they find in the yard, the animals are fed a custom non-GMO vegetable and grain mash, and scraps from Janis’s parent’s organic vegetable farm.
The pigs are processed at a small abattoir in Aylmer. Bacon and sausages — made from “good meat instead of leftovers” and free from added fillers — are particularly popular and are available at the Covent and Horton Farmers’ Markets and at McSmith’s Organic Farm. Other cuts are available by contacting Harris Flower Farm directly. “Last year we sold 30 pigs worth of meat,” says Janis. The family could sell more, she adds, but want to keep their pastured pork production small.
As for the flower business, Janis is delighted to see it bloom into a full-scale eco-conscious operation. Her sister recently returned to the area from Toronto and is looking forward to putting her training as a florist to good use.
This year’s flower crop will include 6,000 tulips, 2,000 lisianthus and 20,000 sunflowers. “It keeps us busy but we love what we are doing,” says Janis. “We’re having fun with it.”
Harris Flower Farm and Pastured Pork
42488 Ron McNeil Line
Harris Flower Farm and Pastured Pork is a member of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers and is a My Pick Verified Local Farmer at the Covent Garden Market.
Nicole Laidler is a London freelance writer and copywriter who has covered the local business and culture beat for more than a decade. Visit her at www.spilledink.ca.