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ROOTED: Gwillimdale Farms one of Canada's largest fully-integrated growers (5 photos)

Since 1903, Gwillimdale Farms has been a staple in the Bradford West Gwillimbury community

Over 100 years ago the Hambly family established Gwillimdale Farms Ltd. in Bradford which began a dairy farm on the property in 1903. 

The dairy farm continued for years under the watch of Jack before his son John planted the first root vegetables in 1995. Then, 10 years later in 2005, the Hamblys expanded their role by beginning to pack their own vegetables to keep up within the market. 

The name “Gwillimdale” is derived from the prefix of naming dairy cattle. When naming cattle, there needs to be a prefix  before their name. Jack originally used “Gwillimdale” because of the farm's location 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’re one of Canada’s largest fully integrated growers, packers, shippers,” said Alexa Hambly, business operations manager. “There’s not a lot of companies that do the full cycle. Most are either a grower or a packer, but we do everything here. All our growing is on mineral soil and we’re able to pack 350,000 pounds of vegetables each day. We’re able to deliver directly to retail suppliers as well as foodservice suppliers like smaller 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 at the moment with wheat and barley to get the land established and prepared for growing,” said Alexa. 

To continue to ensure the highest quality produce while maintaining the well-being of the environment, Gwillimdale Farms focuses on producing practices that support both.

“We’ve been able to help our business through a lot of different sustainability efforts,” said Alexa. “One thing that’s really major is maintaining our soil health because if we don’t have healthy soil then we can’t produce the quality vegetables we’re looking for. It’s really important to maintain that and to do that we have a crop rotation. If one year we grow carrots in a field, there might not be carrots in that same field again for another four or five years. After the carrots, we would put a cover crop to put nutrients back into the soil. Any root vegetable will draw everything out of the soil to have the nutrition it needs, so that’s why this is very important to us.”

When being a high-quality producer, vegetables can sometimes go to waste if they don’t have the qualities needed to be packaged, but Gwillimdale finds a way to use them so as not to cause unnecessary waste. 

“We also use our own natural compost,” Alex explained. “We mix and build our own compost and we have cattle to help with that. Any (produce) that’s considered garbage from the packaging plant is mixed in with the compost and we spread it over our fields, so nothing is truly wasted.”

Sustainable farming has always been important to Gwillimdale Farms and has been a key value for them, especially as farmland feels the impact of development. 

“It’s extremely important and so is the education piece because people don’t necessarily understand where their food is coming from or how it’s grown,” Alex says. “As farmers, we’ll always tell you we need the nutrients from the earth and need the earth to be healthy. The land and sustainability of land are so important because you don’t get more land and that’s why we’ve begun an operation up north because there’s land there. The land down here is tired and being eaten up by development. It’s difficult because some people might not understand how impactful losing farmland is, there’s only so much 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,” Alexa says. “We put in a new potato line. Right now, we have three fully functioning lines for onions, carrots, and potatoes. The newest one is updated and has a lot more robotics and artificial intelligence involved to help take some of the labour work off our staff.” 

Technological advancements in farming have helped the industry advance by lightyears over the last 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 introducing new technology to the industry,” said Alexa. “Even on the level of the trackers, all of them are equipped with GPS to track our fields, what we’ve planted, and what we’ve harvested. It’s important to be up to date but to also utilize it for extra sustainability efforts. We have a large storage facility with technology from France that helps save on energy with refrigeration and allows us to store product longer. It’s no longer just a farmer on his tractor, there’s a lot more to it.”

Marrying the efforts to create less waste with updated technology has allowed Gwillimdale Farms to bring in new practices too.

“Right now, we grade our potatoes and there are certain standards that they’re measured at based on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency,” said Alexa. "If you go to a store everything will say grade level one and now, we have the capacity to do the grade level two. That means it will take a lot of waste off of the farm and we’re able to package this second-grade product because it’s edible but it might have a little bruise you have to cut off or it might be misshapen. We’re going to be able to start packaging those products this year which helps with waste. We’re also going to be doing five-pound bags instead of 10 with those to help reduce food waste in the home.”

With the pandemic leading to supply chain issues, there’s been a stronger emphasis on supporting locally produced Canadian foods, and Gwillimdale Farms hopes to help with educating the community on the importance. 

“People need to continue to buy local food and there’s going to be things in Canada that aren’t available all year,” said Alexa. “As long as you can buy local, you should. People should take the time to read labels to see where they come from. There’s a lot of internationally produced produce like garlic available that’s always available in Canada. People will understand more what’s in season if we can educate them because we’ll always have to rely on imported products, but if you can eat local and support local while it’s local then you’re putting money into your economy. You’re also saving money supporting local with rising import fees.”

As Gwillimdale Farms becomes more involved with educating the community, they have plans to implement more local initiatives. 

“We’re involved with different committees within the community like the Holland Marsh Growers Association,” says Alexa. “We’re looking to get more involved on the community level, like getting into schools for education and doing events in town. With COVID slowing down we want to do more tangible events around Bradford.”