Remaining Faithful to Core Values While Embracing Innovation Keys to Gwillimdale Farms’ Multigenerational Success
For any business to be around for almost 150 years, you have to be doing something really right. In the case of Bradford West Gwillimbury fresh produce producer Gwillimdale Farms, that ‘something’ is a combination of timeless values working in tandem with a philosophy of innovation and forward thinking.
In essence, it’s about being ethical about all aspects of your business, including ensuring that what leaves the property is the best quality food possible. It’s also about working hard and doing whatever it takes, how long it takes, to get the food out of the ground, into its packages and on store shelves as rapidly, as safely, sustainably, and environmentally responsible as possible.
But to not just thrive and survive, a business in such a competitive and sometimes fickle industry as farming, seeking new ideas, new processes, new best practices, and new technology is vital. On all counts, Gwillimdale scores high, which is no wonder since it is one of Ontario’s largest producers of root vegetables, particularly carrots, potatoes, onions, and beets (see their website for the full roster of products available.)
Gwillimdale Farms has approximately 1,750 acres set aside for its vegetable growing operation, with the large majority of that land in the Holland Marsh, and the rest in the neighboring uplands. Its products appear regularly in Metro, Food Basics, Sobeys, Freshco, Foodland, Longo’s, Giant Tiger, and many independent retailers, and are also regularly delivered for wider distribution through the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto. As well some restaurants order their fresh vegetables directly from Gwillimdale Farms, and importers from throughout the U.S. eastern seaboard are increasingly trucking in their produce from BWG.
Throughout the year, the company boasts a workforce of 75, bolstered by a significant number of seasonal workers who come from outside Canada to work for about eight months of the year. Most of the permanent workforce comes from the BWG area, augmented by some newcomers to Canada, and also folks moving out of the GTA and into the more rural areas north of Highway 9.
Ground was first ploughed by the pioneer of the Hambly family, who subsequently sired a food production dynasty that is starting see involvement of a fifth generation. That gentleman, John Franklin Hambly (Frank) first started farming a 100-acre parcel on Line 11 in the late 1880s, as a tenant farmer. In 1903, he was able to purchase the land from the Crown and build a house – raising grain and livestock.
As things do, markets, the economy and needs of the consumer changes, more land was acquired, new crops were planted and that initial sense of dedication, of having respect for the land, for one’s customers and employees has carried through.
John Hambly and his wife Cristina are the fourth generation of the family to run the organization and have not wavered from the formula that has brought so much success to Gwillimdale over the decades.
“Every generation has taught the next one the core values and that ethics come first. You have to do your job with transparency and honesty. We tell them that they have to work hard. It’s a seven day a week business, sometimes you have to work 24 hours a day. You can’t sit back and put something aside until tomorrow. This is not an industry that stops if we decide to close our doors for a day. People eat every day, and most grocery stores are open seven days a week,” said Cristina Hambly.
“You also always have to be on top of the market. You have to be connected with what is going on in the industry not just in Ontario but in all of North America. It’s just part of our [business] culture here that we are always paying attention to what is new, what is happening, especially in Europe. We travel a lot and communicate with companies around the world to try and see what is working in other places and if we can adapt those to our farm and make it work over here. We put a lot of thought and analysis and investment into new technology, so innovation has always been one of the things that drives us and it’s a central part of the whole way we operate.”
This philosophy was why in 2008 Gwillimdale Farms began its own packaging operations. They now run three packing lines, capable of processing about 250,000 lbs. of vegetables daily. To keep the lines running and customers’ orders supplied, the farm not only processes vegetables grown on its own land, but also contracts with local farmers in the Bradford West Gwillimbury area and, seasonally, with preferred partners in the U.S. and Mexico – all certified for food safety.
To get full value, and build market recognition, Gwillimdale chose to develop its own brands: Premium Crisp, Gwillimdale Farms, and Gwilly’s Best, marketing to grocers, wholesalers and the open market in Ontario, Quebec and the U.S.
When asked about the pros and cons about operating as a family business, Cristina said that since it’s the only business model they know, it’s the best way for Gwillimdale Farms to be run.
“It hasn’t been without it’s challenges, as any family farm or family business., because everyone who is coming up in the next generation, they all have their own way of thinking and doing things. I think that’s what makes it interesting and keeps it fresh and moving forward when you have to listen to everyone. But the key is, we all know that we’re working towards a common goal and that’s the most important thing. You may have different ideas but if you have a common goal then everyone can focus on that. And that common goal is to be successful so we can be around for another five generations,” she said, adding that she and husband John’s kids are now involved in the company.
“The culture is changing a little bit. We’re not a small family business run by three or four people, we have a corporate structure now. The core is family, but the structure is changing as the business changes and grows. It’s still important to have the consistency and continuity of the family and the core values that we’ve always have, which have been passed down through to all the employees. We have workers who have been with us a very long time, as well as those who have been here a sort time, but they all come to work with the same attitude. They do a very good job every day to make us all successful as a company.”
John Hambly knew he found something special in the land and soil of what would become BWG all those years ago, and the importance of the location and the earth remains of great significance to the Hambly family and Gwillimdale Farms.
“The location is great because we are close to all our customers. We are close to the food terminal for deliveries, we are only a few minutes from Highway 400, so most of our main customers and deliveries are only about 45 minutes to an hour away. There is definitely an advantage to being where we are,” Cristina said.
“This family has been working the soil here since 1874, but my husband John is a huge believer in preserving the land for future generations. So, he monitors the soil and makes sure its refreshed by regularly rotating the crops, and sometimes not working parts of it for a year so that it always replenishes.”
Working closely and collaboratively with other growers, as well as with the Town of BWG is also an important factor in the success of Gwillimdale Farms, and the entire farming sector in the Holland Marsh area, according to Cristina Hambly.
“If we have any challenges, it’s important that we always connect with the right people to make sure that we can move forward together and be able to work co-operatively. Communication is key in this industry, you need to know what one another is doing because you have to help each other,” she said.
“BWG is always there, and we work very closely with them all the time. They are always there any time we have concerns or challenges. Like everything else, we support on another. You have to support one another to keep moving forward, because we’re not the only company in town. We all have to work together for this area to flourish and keep growing and keep giving local people work and attracting more people to come and live and work on the town.”
For more information, visit https://gwillimdalefarms.com.