When the tobacco buyout was announced in August 2008, Anita Buehner’s tears had long since dried.
“There were several years of mourning before the buyout actually happened,” the former tobacco farmer recalls. “I used to look out the window over the fields of tobacco leaves and just cry. I knew what was coming.”
The government-funded severance package was a death knell for an industry whose days Buehner and other local farmers knew were numbered.
Dave VanDeVelde watched tobacco production on his family farm in Delhi plummet as the provincial government introduced anti-smoking initiatives.
“We went from 50 acres to 12 in six years,” he says. “It was a very drastic decline and there was a lot of uncertainty.”
The government buyout package, offering $1.05 per pound of tobacco for a total value of $300 million, placed Ontario’s 1,083 tobacco quota holders squarely at a fork in the road – accept the package and abandon a livelihood, or stick with a crop that for many farmers had provided for their families for generations.
Either option carried high stakes and even higher risks.
Anita Buehner and her husband Steve chose to leave tobacco behind for a new venture while Dave VanDeVelde and his wife Jenn continued to grow tobacco alongside other crops.
“Leaving tobacco wasn’t a decision we made. The government made it for us,” says Anita, who bought her parents’ tobacco farm with Steve in 1990. “But we realized if we wanted to maintain the value of our farm, we had to focus on repurposing it.”
That meant transitioning into what is now Bonnieheath Estate Lavender and Winery in Waterford.
Growing lavender wasn’t completely out of left field for the Buehners. They had been experimenting with the crop since 2003 when they became involved with provincial lavender trials, testing the fragrant flower’s winter hardiness, yields and oil quality. Just like tobacco, lavender thrives in Norfolk’s sandy soil.
But it wasn’t until the couple attended a North American lavender conference in the fall of 2008 that they decided to expand their planting to a small-scale lavender farm and winery.
“We felt we had potential as a niche market and that maybe we could do this,” Anita says.
Their busy year was 2010, when the couple planted eight acres of vineyards and 7,000 lavender plants by hand. The Buehners haven’t looked back since and are now focusing on renovating their former tobacco barn with repurposed materials, as well as offering new products such as lavender ice wine and hard apple cider made from apples grown on their property.
Their hard work is paying off. Last week, Bonnieheath’s trial cider won second place at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Niagara Falls.
“We have to approach things on a small-scale, trial basis,” Anita says. “We’re very conservative that way, and our experience with tobacco has certainly shaped that approach.”
But the changes haven’t always been so smooth, she adds. “Tobacco is what we knew, what we were comfortable with. It’s what we lived and breathed. Transition is not that easy and we’ve had to be flexible. But I’m thrilled that we’re on our way.”
The VanDeVeldes have also had to cultivate flexibility and innovation. Although they continued growing tobacco, they quickly realized the crop wasn’t enough to rely on.
That was where the idea for Wholesome Pickins was born.
“We started off selling strawberries out of an old refurbished tobacco tying machine at the side of the road,” Jenn says.
Now, the couple farms 12 acres of fruit and an acre of vegetables, with 35 different products from Norfolk County on offer at their retail store and bakery.
The VanDeVeldes have also increased their tobacco yield to 60 acres and added cash crops of soy, wheat, corn and rye.
“We’re feeling pretty comfortable with that right now,” says Dave, whose great-grandparents started the family farm in the 1920s. “It isn’t the same as before – we now market direct to companies instead of the quota system and board-run auction house. But now as an industry we have far less producers and a more stable production base.”
After experiencing the tobacco industry’s decline, Dave and Jenn are careful not to put all their eggs in one basket.
“We’ve realized diversification is the way to go,” Dave says. “If one area struggles, whether it’s because of weather or marketing, hopefully another area is strong enough to level you out.”
That’s a wise approach, according to Norfolk County mayor Dennis Travale, who grew up in the heart of Ontario’s tobacco belt, heading out into the fields at age 11 before becoming a primer at 14.
“If you set yourself up to be a one-industry town, watch out. Diversify so you can take the punches,” he says of a major lesson the county learned during the buyout.
It’s a lesson the Buehners and VanDeVeldes have taken to heart. Both sets of farmers have had to adapt in the face of uncertainty, but they agree there was never any question about leaving farming behind.
“We were born and raised on farms. This is where our passion is,” Anita says.
“There are still some question marks, but this is a ‘one year at a time’ business,” says Dave.
“Farmers are the eternal optimists. Next year is always going to be better.”