by George Fullerton
The Slocum family’s history of farming alongside Grand Lake in central New Brunswick dates back to 1785 when George W. Slocum took up a property in Waterborough.
Slocum, who had been a sea captain, arranged for produce from farms along the Saint John River and Grand Lake to be shipped via sailing vessel to Saint John where he would retail it at the Saint John City Market.
The Slocum family continues to farm in Waterborough. Nowadays, Slocum’s Farm Fresh Produce Ltd. relies on truck transport to move produce throughout southern New Brunswick. They also operate an on-farm store.
The farm operation and its business management are handled by Mike Slocum and his wife Tammy, and Mike’s parents Reg and Carolyn. Mike and Tammy’s daughters Alexandra, Clowie, and Emma also contribute to the family enterprise, both in the fields and at the store.
The store carries fresh produce and small fruits in season, as well as an extensive line of baked goods, jams, and preserves. Mike pointed out that about 40 percent of the farm’s produce is marketed through the store. The shores of Grand Lake host a large summer-cottage crowd, which is a major customer base for the farm.
Tammy manages a Facebook page for the operation, providing updates on what’s available in the store and when farm activities such as the strawberry U-pick are taking place.
The area comprising Waterborough, Youngs Cove, and Jemseg benefits from a heat sink created by Grand Lake, resulting in a relatively long frost-free growing season.
“In 1962, the Grand Lake and Washademoak Lake areas had 190 strawberry producers,” said Reg. “Now we have only three commercial producers. The world has changed a lot. Consumers have the opportunity to go to a store and pick up strawberries any time of the year.”
The Slocums have around 80 acres of land in production, including 40 acres in early and late potatoes. They also have strawberries (U-pick and commercial), tomatoes (ripe and green marketed), Sweet corn, peppers, and a wide variety of other mixed vegetables.
In addition to supplying their own store, which is open June through Thanksgiving, they also supply produce markets and supermarkets in the Fredericton, Moncton, and Saint John regions.
It takes a lot of labour to operate a widely diversified cropping operation. Traditionally, the Slocums depended on local labour. But rural depopulation has depleted the labour pool, and many of those remaining don’t relish hard physical labour.
“The struggle to find and maintain labour became an increasing challenge,” said Mike. “In 2009, we applied to and were successful in recruiting through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. We hired labourers from Jamaica, and we have continued to hire Jamaicans through the program over the past 10 years.”
Mike said Wayne Ellis was one of the first Jamaicans to work on the Slocum farm and has continued every year since.
“He knows our operation and can operate equipment and is a big part of our success,” said Mike. “We have to go through a lot of paperwork for the program. We have to provide good housing and we have to provide transportation so they can get into town (Sussex) to do their banking, shopping, and other needs.”
This year, the Slocum farm’s work crew of around 25 includes 10 Jamaicans.
“The Jamaican workers come here to work,” said Mike. “They make a big commitment to leave their homes and families and they are focused on working and providing for their families back home. We can rely on our Jamaican workers.”
Local labour is not always so reliable despite promises.
“Sometimes, when May rolls around, they are out West or after a few days or weeks decide our kind of work is not agreeing with them and they miss time or disappear altogether,” said Mike. “But we do have a very dedicated local labour source who come back every year and are dedicated to working hard and consistently. Reliable labour is absolutely essential to our operation.”
Reg outlined their production strategy and noted that they pay particular attention to maintaining soil heath and productivity.
“We apply a couple loads of ag lime every year to balance our pH,” said Reg. “We also follow a crop rotation system, which includes a crop of grain which we often plow down to add organic matter to the soils. Organic matter is very important for soil health and biology, and helping to ensure productive cropping.”
The Slocums also subscribe to the CanadaGAP food safety program, which promotes good agricultural practices for fruit and vegetable suppliers.
“The GAP program records a lot of information about our day-to-day operation, from tillage through planting and fertilization to irrigation and other applications to handling produce from the field thorough our warehouse right into the markets that retail our products,” said Reg. “The third-party certification process looks over our records and also inspects our operations to ensure compliance. The certification process helps ensure to our customers that our produce is safe as well as highest quality.”
Mike has served on the Agriculture Alliance of New Brunswick (AANB) board of directors during the past six years.
“The Agriculture Alliance serves a very important purpose for our industry,” said Mike. “Until you sit on the board and attend a number of meetings, you do not appreciate the work and commitment that the staff give the organization.”
He added that being an AANB board member has given him the opportunity to meet and work with farmers throughout New Brunswick.
“You soon appreciate that we all deal with similar challenges,” said Mike. “I have approached some producers to encourage them to serve on the board, and often they reply that they would not be comfortable to get involved. (But) it is very important to have farmers along with Alliance staff in meetings to represent and voice the interests of farmers.”
The Slocums are currently focusing on building brand recognition for their operation. Their initial step was to create a “Grand Lake” brand for their early potatoes.
“We based our brand label on a label that a strawberry association based on Grand Lake used many years ago,” said Mike. “It features an outline of the lake and marks our location with a star. We hear from store managers that their customers relate to the label and request our product. We are also in the process of using the brand illustration on our tomato baskets. Branding helps consumers recognize our high-quality produce and that we are local producers based in southern New Brunswick.”