After 17 years building a large and loyal base of customers, White Blossom Farms won’t be selling strawberries next season.
Jim Grisdale, who co-owns and operates the farm with his wife Allison, says a number of factors played a role in the decision.
“Most farms had a hard time with strawberries this year,” says Jim. “They ripened too fast. Normally you have an early, mid- and late-season strawberry (yield) that will stretch across five weeks. This year with the
heat in June, they all came due at the same time and lasted about seven to eight days. All done. And small berries, too.”
Jim says farmers in Blind River, Thessalon, Iron Bridge, and Heyden have reported the same problems this summer. Allison says the strawberries were watered throughout the late spring/early summer drought locally. With a tanker and fire hose, the berries received three or four tankers of water and up to 1,500 gallons a day.
“We did stress the well once this year,” says Allison. “But watering just isn’t the same,” says Jim. “You can’t beat rain.”
The effects of intense heat and dry conditions through June were exacerbated by the type of strawberry itself. Three years ago, the farm’s supplier was unable to get their usual brand and the alternative has been a disappointment. “Last year, it was crazy,” says Jim. “I could lay down in one spot and pick
two (three-litre) baskets. We were getting 75 baskets a day just out of one row. But winter killed them. They’re not tolerant of our winter. The supplier said they were but they’re not.”
The shortened season along with the heat and drought cost the farm about 80 per cent of its typical yield.
“If they’re sunburned, they get very seedy. They’re still really good, but I can’t sell them. We never, ever, let a bad berry go off this farm.”
One of the keys to White Blossom Farms’ strawberry success – they sold more than 500 baskets a season most years – is selling fresh. All of their produce is pre-sold. Customers place their orders on Facebook or by phone. , and when they arrive to get their order, they’re getting just-picked produce.
“If they order in the morning, the berries are picked that afternoon,” says Allison. “We don’t pick and keep them overnight. We’re picking them at their prime ripeness, which is not a bad thing, but they don’t have a long shelf life in the fridge. They’re ready to eat.”
Jim says he’ll miss selling strawberries to a customer base of hundreds, most of whom were seniors. The pride of producing and selling only the very best berries and the joy of satisfied customers provided an added raison d’être to excel.
“Our customers are going to miss us. People loved them. And we liked doing it, when we were young, but it’s getting too hard now. All good things come to an end.”
White Blossom Farms is the evolving dreamwork of the Grisdales. They purchased their property, located a couple of kilometres south of Second Line on Leigh’s Bay Road, in 2004. Their land was originally a cattle farm, dating back to the turn of the last century.
Their two-story home, which has been fully updated and looks new, was built in 1912. Jim’s property was one of the first to obtain a building permit from the newly-incorporated City of Sault Ste. Marie.
White Blossom sign The farm is neat, clean and uncluttered. Flowers are everywhere.
It’s a working farm with touches of Rockwell to it. Like most farms, the wide open, big sky lay of the land lends itself to storm watching. “I love a good storm,” says Jim.
A history buff, Jim gleaned as much information about his new farm from older neighbours before they passed on, and other sources. “The Holmbergs were the original family,” says Jim. “They moved off
because there was no water. They had drilled for a well, 45 feet down, but found no water. If they had drilled down another 20 feet, they would have hit the Aquifer and had all the water they could want.”
(The City sent the Grisdale’s a copy of the permit on the 100th anniversary.)
The early years of owning the farm were demanding. Jim and Allison had full-time jobs. There was no shortage of work at the farm and no farmhands to lend the couple a hand. “We worked 16 hour days,” says Jim. “Allison worked at the Red Cross and I worked at the plant. We’d get off work and then work ’til dark. That’s how we built this business. We were younger then, though (laughs).”
Pre-COVID, when there were three acres of strawberries to harvest, the Grisdales hired some local kids to help pick. “They were good kids, from the neighborhood. They were making $60 for three hours. But now with a smaller field and us getting ready to stop selling, it wasn’t worth continuing it.”
Neither Jim nor Allison’s parents were farmers but they did have gardens.
And farming wasn’t the central focus when the couple were house-hunting in the early 2000s. They were simply looking for a rural property. “My dad was an insect pathologist. We had a farm in Thessalon where we grew vegetables, a three-acre garden and that’s what we did to feed the family. My Mom was a nurse. Back then, they weren’t high-paying jobs.
They had seven kids to feed. All of our vegetables were grown and frozen. Two freezers in the basement and big potato bins. And that’s the way I grew up.”
After purchasing the land, Jim and Allison spent the first two years cleaning up the property and removing old fencing. A neighbour tilled a small area and the Grisdales planted some berries. The berries grew so well, the couple began researching berries and attending Ontario Fruit and Vegetable conventions in southern Ontario.
They were both on their way into new professions.
“The first year attending we met a guy named Tony, I had let him cut in front of me in a dinner line, and we hung out all weekend,” recalls Jim. “He was berry farmer in Guelph. He taught us a lot that weekend. That fall, we were invited to his farm for a weekend and he taught us everything he knew. He even sold us his old strawberry planter. We continued to attend the conventions where classes were held in strawberry production. And here we are 20 years later retiring from the business.”
“You’re always learning. New varieties coming out. I’m the equipment man, field prep. I fix the tractors and the bailors. Allison is the grower. She’s the one that studies all the time and tries to find a better fruit for this climate. “
Farming has been called ‘a profession of hope.’ The hope for a week of Sun, or a day of much-needed rain. It’s a hope compounded by the need to have those things happen at favourable times.
“Timing is everything,” Jim says, emphatically The random nature of weather aside, other issues can and do, pop up.
Equipment failures, roaming – and hungry – wildlife, and as the Grisdales discovered six years ago, weeds.
White Blossom had a load of hay trucked in from Bruce Mines. It was layered atop the soil and under the plants to help keep the strawberries clean. But little did the Grisdales know, a fast-growing weed was in the load and proceeded to grow, well, like a bad weed.
[ Jim plucks up one of the few remaining culprits. There’s more than a little contempt in his tone as he describes what transpired with the arrival of the green and yellow el prolifico. ] “That summer we lost five acres of strawberries,” he says, still holding, maybe slightly strangling the plant. “By the time we realized what was going on, it was too late. You can’t eradicate them unless you turn the fields over. They got all over the place and we were constantly pulling them up.
This one plant here is enough that, within a year it could take this (field) over. That’s how fast it reproduces.
That’s how we got into haying,” Jim continued. “We started doing our own bales, and never had an issue.”
Jim with hay bales
Producing hay for horses is an operation of steadily rising importance at White Blossom and will be subject to greater focus now that strawberry sales will cease. The farm’s horse mixture of Timothy, Alfalfa, and cloves has been a hit with horses in the neighborhood.
“The people we sell hay to just love it. They’re smaller bales, so people can handle them and their horses love it. They’ll hold the bale out and the horses come running in for it. That’s how much they like it. Hopefully we can keep doing that.”
White Blossom produced 1,000 bales in its first year, 1,300 in the second and this past year, 1,800. Jim concedes he’s new to the hay game, but intends to get better. “Allison and I are perfectionists,” he says.
While strawberries rose up to be a challenge this year, the Grisdale’s vegetable gardens are having a banner year. Jim is particularly excited about the farm’s cabbage, corn and squash.
“A bumper crop this year,” he says. “We’re already selling cabbage that’s this big [ extends arms to indicate basketball-sized cabbage ]. They’re a special cabbage for doing cabbage rolls. They have smaller and softer veins in them, so they roll easy.”
Sept. 1 marks the start of White Blossom’s vegetable sales. Cabbage, onions, garlic, squash, corn and pumpkins are among the veggies to be sold. Jim expects the three-acre pumpkin patch will produce about 300 pumpkins this year.
“We’ll have about 20 different types (of pumpkins) this year,“ adds Allison. “Everything from yellow ones, a pink one, blue ones…The blue ones are supposed to be a delicacy for cooking.”
The Grisdales love celebrating Hallowe’en and every year, they decorate the farm accordingly. Pumpkins not sold will likely be part of their display.
With a lighter autumn work load, they’ll be up for some spooky fun. Would be awfully tough to argue it isn’t well deserved