Chatham-Kent produce steps into the local food spotlight
Farmer Joe Grootenboer grew up on a dairy farm in Thunder Bay. He moved west to work as an engineer in Edmonton, but his love of gardening drew him back to Ontario to run a certified organic vegetable farm. The diversity of produce available in the area was appealing, and Joe’s research to find good climate, a supportive market, and affordable land prices led him to some Dresden farmland, where River Bell Market Garden was born.
Joe operates the farm on twenty acres of land, with three greenhouses linked onto an adjoining retail area with refrigerated cases to display the vegetables in season. When I visited in May, asparagus, rhubarb, and pea tendrils were front and centre; kale would be offered soon and could be seen peeking out of the land dedicated to the organic growth of River Bell’s vegetables. Spinach, beets, radishes, and a bounty of other crops were planted and ready for the progression of summer to allow them to emerge. Joe checked some rows where sweet corn was hidden from view, saying he expected to see some breaking through any day.
Joe will soon be selling to an organic distributor and getting early batches of kale into chain grocery stores. More locally, William Street Café provides a storefront for pickups in Chatham. Both are good for business, but not as impressive as the volume he is expecting with an organic vegetable box delivery program introduced this summer to serve ninety customers in the Chatham-Kent area. Joe started strong last season, his first year in business, with a presence at an outdoor farmers’ market at the Downtown Chatham Centre, gathering a base of repeat customers who have bought into the box program to keep a steady supply of his crops moving into their kitchens.
Also last summer his farm was host to a dinner party, The Chatham-Kent Table. This culinary event drew attention to both his quality produce and to the co-operation he has achieved with other farmers, to fit in as a driving force behind the local food community.
The success of the inaugural event in 2012 has resulted in a repeat dinner planned for September of this year. Parks Blueberry farm near Bothwell will host the same type of dinner party with Rossini’s restaurant of Chatham developing a five course menu featuring in-season products from several local farmers.
Joe sends out an email newsletter to keep non-farmers in touch with what is available as things come in season at River Bell, and what is coming down the pipe. The type of farming Joe engages in is about interdependence with nearby farms to support food going out to the community. It is an interdependence that is gaining ground in local food movements, allowing for the farmer-to-customer business model to succeed. He may be an engineer by trade, but his business sense and passion for farming seems to be on track to thrive, and the community has already benefited from his efforts.
River Bell Market Garden
559 Sydenham Street
facebook: River Bell Market Garden
DARIN COOK works and plays in Chatham-Kent and regularly contributes to eatdrink.