“At the moment it’s mostly on a cash crop rotation with wheat and barley to get the land established and prepared for cultivation,” says a fifth-generation farmer.
Over 100 years ago, the Hambly family established Gwillimdale Farms in Bradford, which opened a dairy farm on the property in 1903.
The dairy farm continued for years under Jack’s watch before his son, John, planted the first root vegetables in 1995.
Then, 10 years later, in 2005, the Hamblys expanded their role by starting to pack their own vegetables to follow the market.
The name “Gwillimdale” is derived from the naming prefix for dairy cattle. When naming cattle, there must be a prefix before their name. Jack originally used ‘Gwillimdale’ due to the location of the farm in Bradford West Gwillimbury.
Today, the owners of Gwillimdale Farms are John and Christina and their children Alexa, John and Christopher, who are fourth and fifth generation farmers.
The family and staff grow carrots, onions, beets, potatoes and parsnips on over 2,000 acres of farmland in the Bradford area.
“We are one of the largest fully integrated growers, packers and shippers in Canada,” said Alexa Hambly, Director of Business Operations. “Not many companies do the full cycle. Most are either growers or packers, but we do it all here. All of our cultivation is done on mineral soil and we are able to pack 350,000 pounds of vegetables every day.
“We are able to deliver directly to retailers as well as food service providers like small restaurants.”
In 2016, Gwillimdale Farms began buying land in northern Ontario in New Liskeard, with 2,000 acres.
“It’s mostly on a cash crop rotation right now with wheat and barley to get the land established and prepared for cultivation,” Alexa said.
To continue to ensure the highest quality products while maintaining the well-being of the environment, Gwillimdale Farms is focused on producing practices that support both.
“We’ve been able to help our business through many different sustainability efforts,” Alexa said. “One thing that’s really important is to maintain the health of our soil, because if we don’t have healthy soil, we can’t produce the quality vegetables we’re looking for. It’s really important to maintain that and to do that we have crop rotation.
“If one year we grow carrots in a field, there may not be any more carrots in that same field for four or five years. After the carrots we will put in a cover crop to put the nutrients back into the soil. pulling everything from the ground to get the nutrition it needs, which is why it’s very important to us.
As a high-quality producer, vegetables can sometimes go to waste if they don’t have the necessary qualities to be packaged, but Gwillimdale finds a way to use them so they don’t cause unnecessary waste.
“We also use our own natural compost,” Alexa explained. “We mix and make our own compost and we have cattle to help us. Anything (product) considered waste from the packinghouse is mixed into the compost and we spread it on our fields, so nothing is really wasted.
Sustainable agriculture has always been important to Gwillimdale Farms and has been a key value for them, especially as farmland is impacted by development.
“That’s hugely important, as is the educational aspect, because people don’t necessarily understand where their food comes from or how it’s grown,” says Alexa. “As farmers, we will always tell you that we need the nutrients from the land and that the land is healthy.
“Land and land sustainability is so important because you don’t get land anymore and that’s why we started an operation in the north because there’s land there. The land here is tired and devoured by development.It’s difficult because some people might not understand how much of an impact the loss of farmland has, there is only a limited amount of land available to create food.
Recently, Gwillimdale Farms added an expansion in Bradford to help keep up with modern infrastructure and technology as the business continues to grow.
“We wanted to make it more comfortable and efficient for our staff,” says Alexa. “We have installed a new line of potatoes. Currently we have three fully functional lines for onions, carrots and potatoes. The newer one is updated and involves a lot more robotics and artificial intelligence to help take some of the work off of our staff.
Technological advancements in agriculture have helped the industry move light years ahead over the past few decades, and Gwillimdale Farms prides itself on its application of technology.
“We’ve always been one of the leaders in keeping up with technology and bringing new technologies to the industry,” Alexa said. “Even at the plotter level, they are all equipped with GPS to follow our fields, what we have sown and what we have harvested.
“It is important to be up to date, but also to use it for additional sustainability efforts. We have a large storage facility with French technology that saves energy through refrigeration and allows us to store the product longer.It’s not just a farmer on his tractor anymore, there’s a lot more to it.
Marrying efforts to create less waste with updated technology has allowed Gwillimdale Farms to introduce new practices as well.
“Right now, we grade our potatoes and there are certain standards by which they are measured based on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency,” Alexa said. “If you go to a store it will say level one and now we have the ability to do level two.
“That means it will remove a lot of waste from the farm and we are able to package this second grade product as it is edible but it may have a small bruise that you need to cut or it may be misshapen. We are going to to be able to start packaging these products this year, which helps reduce waste.
“We will also be making five pound bags instead of 10 with these to help reduce food waste at home.”
With the pandemic leading to supply chain issues, there has been a greater focus on supporting locally produced Canadian food, and Gwillimdale Farms hopes to help educate the community on the importance.
“People need to keep buying local food and there will be things in Canada that won’t be available all year round,” Alexa said. “As long as you can buy local, you should. People should take the time to read the labels to see where they come from. There are many products produced overseas, such as garlic, that are still available in Canada.
“People will understand better what’s in season if we can educate them because we’ll always have to rely on imported produce, but if you can eat local and support local when it’s local, you’re putting money in your economy.You are also saving money by supporting the locals with rising import fees.
As Gwillimdale Farms becomes more involved in community education, they plan to implement more grassroots initiatives.
“We participate in different committees within the community, such as the Holland Marsh Growers Association,” says Alexa. “We are looking to get more involved at the community level, like entering schools for education and organizing events in town.
“With COVID slowing down, we want to run more tangible events around Bradford.”