Getting and keeping Canadian greenhouse operators into the winter strawberry production business is a passion for Ontario farmer Dusty Zamecnik.
And he’s not just focused on Canadian berry production — that’s already gaining some ground in Ontario, and B.C. with a small start in Alberta. But, some of the 16 million strawberry plants he produces annually now, on EZ Grow Farm, are being shipped to the U.S. growers and even as far as the Caribbean. “Our main interest however is to promote and help develop a domestic market for strawberry production in the winter,” he says.
And when he’s not selecting new strawberry varieties to be produced in his new 40,000 square foot propagation greenhouse near Langton (southeast of London) Ont., he might be out tending to or marketing some of his 35-acre blueberry crop. And on another day he could be helping to manage his recently launched microbrewery (with a strong emphasis on fruit-based beers) or out tending to hop production.
Zamecnik is a going concern. And it’s that drive, passion and commitment to a diversified agricultural operation that earned him the honour earlier this year of being named Ontario’s Outstanding Young Farmer for 2017. He will be among seven regional finalists from across Canada competing for national OYF honours in Penticton later in November.
As the fourth generation on the family farm, Zamecnik says he comes by his passion for agriculture honestly. “My parents grew everything,” he says. “You name it, and they grew it. It was sort of a revolving door and they were always open to new ideas.” The farm is located in what at one time was known as the prime tobacco-growing region of southwest Ontario. Over the years the farm has also grown everything from blueberries to potatoes, to raspberries, to roses and a whole lot more.
After obtaining a business degree at Francis Xavier University and working for Labatt Breweries for a time, Zamecnik returned full time to the family farm in 2014. While berry propagation had been part of the farming operation for several years, Zamecnik decided to focus on that enterprise. The farm produced about 250,000 plants in 2001 and today is shipping out about 16 million plants to growers.
Zamecnik works closely with berry producers and breeders in Europe and working with consultants selects varieties with the most promise for Canadian conditions. He’s been able to obtain exclusive Canadian rights to some varieties. Back in Ontario he works with tissue samples and then grows root stocks which develop into plants for marketing. Producing strawberries in greenhouses in winter is a fairly new concept in Canada. Several greenhouses in Leamington, Ont. are producing the berries and Zamecnik is also working with a few growers in B.C. and has interest from growers in Alberta.
While he has several varieties suited to Canadian greenhouse production, the strawberry is a sensitive plant from many breeding aspects. He’s selecting for varieties with consistent size and quality of fruit, improved disease and pest resistance and also that perform well under varying sunlight conditions over a large geographic area.
Along with strawberry propagation, EZ Grow Farm also produces about 35 acres of high bush blueberries. They are all marketed as fresh product under the EZ Grow Farm label and arrive in grocery stores, mostly in Eastern Canada, in a patented EZ Grow designed basket called the Waki-Pint (Waki stands for what a crazy idea).
In 2016 Zamecnik and two cousins launched Hometown Brew Co. — a microbrewery with a strong emphasis on making beer from fruit. Beer products are marketed mostly in Ontario, although can be found in other retail outlets across Canada. And to compliment the brewery, Zamecnik also launched Hometown Hop Co. to produce some of the hops used in their brewing operation.
For EZ Grow Farm, Zamecnik says one of the greatest assets contributing to the success of the farm has been continuity of the family name. Over the years his parents developed many customers and contacts and now he is dealing with many of those customers as well. “I believe it is important for our customers to see and trust the succession of our family operation,” he says. “Customers were dealing with my parents, and now they are working with a 27-year-old, so I believe it has been important to them to see that transition.”
He also says it is important for him to remember that the success of the farm is not a one-person story. “We have excellent employees and this is a team operation here,” he says. “As we branch into new projects people have really stepped up to the plate putting in extra work. It is a learning curve for all of us, but that team effort needs to be recognized.”