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Jun. 17, 2019 | Monday
Local News
Thwaites Farms: Asparagus, celebrating Niagara’s first spring harvest
From left, John Thwaites, Lebert Dawson and Nelson Thwaites are ready for customers. Asparagus is the only produce Thwaites Farms retails. All other produce from its 500 acres — peaches, pears, nectarines, eating grapes and wine grapes — are sold wholesale. (Tim Taylor/Niagara Now)

Ontarians love asparagus, the first local crop in the spring. We celebrate its arrival. We revel in its short season. And we mourn its passing.

Luckily, four generations of Thwaites – the fifth generation of eight grandchildren is coming along soon — make certain that people in Ontario and Quebec get their annual fill of the green spears.

Family patriarch Reginald Thwaites was a Barnardo Boy, arriving in Canada in 1909 as one of an estimated 100,000 destitute English orphans sent to start a new life. He bought his first 25-acre tender fruit farm in Jordan in 1925.

Reginald’s grandson John and three of his four sons have since nurtured the family farm into almost 500 acres in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Norfolk County, on Lake Erie’s north shore.

The focal point of their business is the storage and packaging operation (and now retail, for asparagus) on Firelane 11, just north of Lakeshore Road, west of Old Town.

By the turn of the millennium, Thwaites Farms had become a highly successful fruit farm, focusing on pears, nectarines, peaches, seedless grapes and wine grapes. It was not until 2013 that the opportunity to expand into asparagus surfaced.

Their middle son, Nelson, explains how it happened: Members of their seasonal crew of Jamaican workers, who worked on an asparagus farm in Norfolk Country from May through June and then moved on to Thwaites Farms for the Niagara fruit season, mentioned the asparagus farmer was thinking of retiring.

“I thought, ‘I’ll kick myself if I don’t look into it,’ ” recalls Nelson. “It just all worked out really well.”

Now during spring Nelson and his brothers Graham and Corbin share the day-to-day operations of the asparagus side of the business. Nelson also handles the marketing and sales.

John explains that the addition of asparagus lengthens their productive season by two months, helping them justify more and better equipment and making their key seasonal crew much more efficient.

“We’re harvesting almost seven months of the year now,” he says. “Starting in May with asparagus and through to grapes right into October.

“Asparagus is the only crop that we grow that we retail. When we are in peaches and pears, it is strictly a wholesale operation.

“Local consumers are asking for local product,” he adds. “Sure, the big companies have their long-term contracts, but they are also out here looking for local products.

“Asparagus is the first local crop of the season, so everyone, including the large retailers, get very excited about that. They want to put their ‘grown close to home’ signs up.”

The Thwaites’ asparagus field operation employs about 50 workers on 180 acres every season, reaping some 10,000 cases, each filled with 28 pounds of spears. The mechanized sorting and packaging operation in Niagara-on-the-Lake employs another 20-plus workers. A tractor-trailer travels between the field and the NOTL plant pretty much every day.

Nelson says asparagus is a fairly simple crop to grow. The plants mature from “crowns” (asparagus seedlings) that are grown locally in Norfolk County.

“Unlike peaches and grapes, there is no trellising, there’s no pruning and there’s very little spraying,” Nelson says. “There’s harvesting and that’s all there is to it.”

Father and son chuckle when asked how they get along in the family business — looking at each other to see who wants to answer first.

“When he listens to me, we get along fine,” John jests.

“When he’s on holidays, there’s no problem,” quips Nelson.

All teasing aside, having four decision-makers doesn’t mean they are not agile in their business. It is clear they respect what each brings to the table.

“The four of us are different personalities, so we don’t always agree all the time,” says John. “But most of the time the different opinions help us analyze things better.”

John notes the younger generation is much better at high-tech things, whether it is GPS on tractors or computers on packaging lines. For example, Nelson, being of the younger generation, hooked up a $10,000 GPS unit that drives the planting tractor, with no need for a human to steer it.

“There has to be an operator on board, but only to monitor the machine. After a while, if he hasn’t done anything, the unit stops until he pushes the ‘operator alive’ switch.

It’s John, however, who gets a lot of the credit for the farm’s timely decision to get into asparagus.

It was a swift move to replant 70 acres of canning peaches, they recall. In 2008, when it was announced Niagara’s canning industry was closing, John moved “that day” to purchase as many seedlings as he could find, in order to move away from canning peaches and completely into all fresh market produce.

John Thwaites and his sons have used almost 90 years of family experience to drive their business into the forefront of Niagara farming.

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Lebert Dawson looks after the little asparagus retail store that juts out into the parking lot from the main door of the Thwaites Farms plant in NOTL. In many ways, he also keeps watch over the fast-moving packing and storage operation. Dawson, from Saint Catherine parish in Jamaica, just outside Kingston, is the middle child of eight children. He first became a seasonal worker for the Thwaites in 2009. He comes north in March and returns home at the end of October. “I miss my family,” says Lebert. “But my wife and I are accustomed to this. We have a nice time when I go home.”

“Lebert’s an excellent worker,” says Nelson Thwaites. “He has the right personality for retail.

“I think some people come here just to see Lebert,” adds John Thwaites.

Asparagus should be available into late June, says John. Bundles sell for $3.50 and $2.50 each, depending on their grade. The main differences between Grades 1 and 2? The latter’s spears might be a bit crooked.

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