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Sturgeon Falls farm draws customers with a taste for local

Leisure Farms’ model has succeeded for more than 30 years

Mitch Deschatelets scanned the field before him, his attention coming to rest on a row of bulbous, orange globes waiting to be loaded onto the farm truck.

The pumpkin crop is the last to be harvested before this growing season draws to a close at Leisure Farms, and it’s easily the busiest time of the year.

From late September through October, thousands of visitors will descend on the Sturgeon Falls farm to pick out their future jack-o’-lanterns, navigate their way through the corn maze, and scoop up the last of the fresh produce and baked goods that fill the shelves of the farmgate store and bakery.

“During pumpkin season, maybe on a good day, we get up to 6,000 people per day,” said Deschatelets, who manages the family-owned and -operated acreage. “So sometimes they need to control traffic on the road; it gets really busy.”

Fall family visits are just one aspect of the business. The farm, which has been in operation since 1981, grows and sells a variety of fruits and vegetables, building its reputation as the largest pick-your-own strawberry farm in Ontario.

Deschatelets is the third-generation farmer in his family to run the operation, which began with his paternal grandparents, who “had a little bit of corn, a little bit of dairy” on the farm where his father was raised.

When his parents, Mike and Diane, purchased the farm in 1981, they began to expand its offerings, cultivating the first strawberry plants and slowly adding new crops.

As the farm grew and took up more of the family’s time, Mike struggled to run the farm while working full-time at the nearby Weyerhaeuser corrugated paper mill.

“It was getting to be too much to do both, so he had to make a decision: either cut back on the farming, or increase it and quit the other job,” Deschatelets said. “He decided to just go all out and quit his other job.”

It was a prescient choice. By 2002, Weyerhaeuser closed the plant permanently, leaving all 150 mill workers unemployed.

But agriculture is far from a sure thing, and so the Deschatelets buckled down, working hard to keep the farm running.

In the last three decades, the owners have acquired six contiguous farms, bringing the total land package to 600 acres.

“We start the season with haskap berries and then follows the strawberries, which overlaps at the end with the raspberries,” Deschatelets said.

“At the same time, all the vegetables kick in, so carrots, onions, potatoes, kale, beans, beets – I’m probably forgetting something – but a variety of vegetables with the sweet corn, and then our last thing of the season is pumpkins.”

The farm employs 15 people seasonally, and during peak season, about 40 hands are at work in the field and the retail store. Working at the farm has become almost a rite of passage for university students who return home for the summer holidays, and retirees have also taken their place on the payroll.

Most of the produce is either sold at the retail store, which is managed by Mike, or finds its way into the homemade pies, jams, and other goodies prepared by Diane on site. A remaining portion of the produce is purchased by wholesale buyers.

“We have our contacts and whenever the retail sales are down a bit, we already have the contacts established,” Deschatelets said. “So having both (retail and wholesale) helps out that we're never leaving anything out in the fields.”

Customers can travel for up to four hours from any direction to sample the farm’s wares. Deschatelets said he’s seen a marked increase in recent years of clients who are starting to recognize the value of supporting a local enterprise.

Every August, for the last four years, Leisure Farms has hosted Feast on the Farm, a one-day food festival that celebrates products raised, grown and produced within 100 kilometres.

During the event, local chefs are set up at locations around the farm and challenged to create a dish using local ingredients – everything from meat to vegetables to cheese – and guests consult a map to find their way between stations.

The popular event, which consistently sells out, helps raise awareness about local producers, while also connecting those producers to local chefs and restaurateurs.

“Maybe sometimes there’s a bit of a premium on a Canadian product, but I think people have gone beyond that,” Deschatelets said. “If that’s what it takes, they’re ready to support (us) instead of buying from another country, if we have it locally.”

Deschatelets believes Leisure Farms’ unique medley – crop variety, agri-tourism and family-friendly activities – has been a key component of what keeps the family enterprise humming.

But further expansion is on pause for now while the family streamlines operations and perfects their business model.

“So far we’ve been expanding up until now, but I think we’re close to maximum capacity and as far as us having time,” Deschatelets said. “So now I just want to make what I already have better.”