Diversification has been key to the success of Jordan and Alex McKay’s family farm at Port Perry, Ontario and is a big reason the brothers have been named as Ontario’s 2018 Outstanding Young Farmers (OFY).
Willowtree Farm is a third-generation farm that started out as a dairy operation until 1979 when the McKay’s parents grew their first strawberry crop. Since then it has grown into a diversified operation. On the 600 acres they now farm, 150 acres is in fruits and vegetables, while the rest of the land supports the production of beef and lamb that’s processed at their on-farm butcher shop. Farm products are sold through 13 farmers markets, an on-farm retail store, and they’ve also established a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
“We have so many different things we do through the seasons, it really helps the farm be sustainable and sets us apart,” says Jordan. “Especially because we retail meats and produce side by side — the new on-farm market is definitely our anchor.”
On-farm market is key
In June 2016 the brothers opened a new, year-round, on-farm market that includes 4,300 sq. ft. of retail space as well as offices. The area also includes a butcher shop and processing and packaging areas to supply their retail store and café. “It was the single biggest investment the farm has made over the last few years other than purchasing land, but it has allowed us to grow the retail operation significantly,” says Jordan.
The brothers have diverse skill sets that are complementary to the farm business. After obtaining their degrees —Jordan has a Bachelor of Commerce in Ag Business and Alex a Bachelor of Science in Forestry — they worked and travelled extensively abroad before coming back to the farm in 2007 and 2008. Jordan has a passion for marketing and works in the retail and operations side of things, while Alex, who loves production, runs the farm. Jordan’s wife, Alyson manages the store, while Alex’s wife, Kelty divides her time between the CSA, farm work and raising their two small children, Ian (two) and Roddie (three).
A major challenge for the brothers came with the unexpected passing of their mother to cancer three years ago, followed by the death of their father a year-and-a-half later. They are grateful their parents provided them the opportunity to be involved in management and take the farm in a new direction that has helped it to grow.
The farm currently has more than 90 seasonal and full-time employees, including three butchers and year-round retail staff.
There’s more diversification and growth on the horizon for Willow Tree Farm. The McKays want to buy more land and expand the agri-education side of the farm that is a passion for them all. They hold regular on-farm events like a maple syrup festival in the spring and September strawberry festival to help people learn about the food they produce.
Meeting OYF alumni who are true innovators in the industry has been the highlight of the competition for the McKays. “They represent progressive producers who have made changes and really get where the industry is moving,” says Jordan. “It’s great to be part of that group because they span all sectors of agriculture, and even though we all have different types of operations, we are discovering that we have many similarities and challenges.”