The Groenewegens: A Farming Family

Angela Saxe

Olivia Groenewegen and her mother Kathie, grandmother Lilianne Grooms, and Olivia's father Francis.
Photo by Barry Lovegrove.
[This article ran in the August/September 2012 issue of The SCOOP.]

“The most insistent and formidable concern of agriculture, wherever it is taken seriously, is the distinct individuality of every farm, every field on every farm, every farm family and every creature on every farm.” --Wendell Berry

Agriculture once employed most of the population in Ontario and farming families formed the backbone of the communities in our area; now only 1% of the population is involved in agriculture. Land was cleared of trees and rocks to make room for crops and pasture for animals; now houses sit where cows once grazed. Yet farming is experiencing a renaissance as new markets appear and customers are demanding better quality food. Encouraging the next generation to invest their time, energy and education to help build and expand the family farm seems to make good sense and the
Groenewegen family is doing just that.

This summer the Limestone Organic Creamery opened its doors to the public selling high-quality organic milk as well as a variety of other organic and locally-grown food. It is located on the Groenewegen farm just north of Elginburg on Sydenham Road where parents Francis and Kathie
Groenewegen have been joined by their daughter Olivia, a recent graduate from Guelph University with a Science degree in agriculture and son Patrick, who apprenticed at Steens Dairy in Guelph and is now certified as a Milk and Cream grader and processor. Together they farm the land, raising cows, pigs, turkeys, chickens and now processing the milk from their dairy herd and selling and delivering, a variety of milk products.

The Groenewegen family has deep roots in the dairy business. Checking out the Album section on their website and you’ll see a photograph of Francis’s father, Henny, who delivered milk in a horse-drawn cart in his native Holland. He, his wife and three children emigrated to Canada and eventually settled in Harrowsmith where they operated a dairy farm. His family grew to include 11 children, many of who went into dairy farming as well. Francis’s brother Martin and his son Dave now run their parents’ original farm. On Kathie’s side of the family, her parents Gerry and Liliane Grooms left Montreal in the mid-60s, buying a farm north of Eliginburg and in 1989 Kathie and her new husband Francis took over the farm. With Olivia and Patrick joining the family business, another generation of Groenewegens are now working together to build a local, sustainable organic farm that provides people in the area with tasty, milk and meat products.

A farm family can only be successful in today’s highly competitive marketplace if they share the same vision and contribute their individual skills and knowledge as equal and important members of the enterprise. As self-employed entrepreneurs, they have to be efficient and pitch-in to help when a job needs to be done. Olivia’s description of how it all works reflects this formula.

Olivia and her mother Kathie share many of the same tasks. Olivia usually milks the cows while her mother takes care of the heifers. After opening the store, she may spend time serving customers or doing the paperwork: invoicing, ordering, purchasing – tasks that she again shares with her mother.
Kathie can often be found in the new commercial kitchen in the main section of the store baking cookies or scones with plans to make soup and sandwiches for takeout. When the store and the
office upstairs closes at six, (four on the weekend) they go back to the barn to milk and feed the cows.

Meanwhile, Patrick is busy helping his father feed all the animals, clean out stalls – all the farm chores that need to be done. Summer, of course, brings the additional task of cutting, baling and storing the hay. On Thursdays, he does the retail and home deliveries in an old milk truck. On days when they will be processing the milk, he oversees the facility and ensures that the milk meets the family standard.

The milk processing takes four people to do, so Olivia may join in to help. They don their clean white high rubber boots and sterilized coats and head into the processing facility. The first thing they must do is pasteurize the milk – heating it at a high temperature for a short period of time. Patrick prefers the taste of the milk when he pasteurizes it at 76 degrees Celsius for 20 seconds.

There are three basic processes: pasteurization, homogenization, and bottling. All the milk at the Limestone Creamery is homogenized except for one. For those readers who remember the old days, this is the milk bottle where the cream rises to the top and the skim milk sits at the bottom. Many
people still enjoy scooping the cream out for their coffee. At this time they sell 2%, 1%, skim, 3.8% homogenized and 3.8% unhomogenized, as well as 3.8% chocolate milk.

Deciding when to process the milk is something they are still working on. Currently, all the milk that is processed is bottled with an expiry date of 14 days. But as Patrick continues to test the milk he hopes to improve the shelf life to 20 – 25 days. It is only at that point that they will know how much milk they can store before having to process again.

Olivia assures me that even though everyone has their specific areas of responsibility; it’s really her father Francis who oversees the farm, making sure that everything runs smoothly so as to allow them the time to focus on the milk processing and the retail outlet. “We rarely see him except when he sneaks in for a bottle of chocolate milk.”

Labelling their milk and meat products “organic” requires that they meet specific criteria: the land must be herbicide and pesticide-free. No chemical fertilizers can be used – only manure and compost. The animals do not receive any antibiotics or hormones and the cows must be taken out into the pasture where they graze and socialize – an important condition for being identified as organic.

The successful farm today has to be totally self-sufficient, especially if it wants to minimize costs and ensure a healthy, safe agricultural product. The Groenewegen farm grows all its own feed: organic peas and corn (to supplement the cows’ diet) and hay are grown in their fields that are fertilized by manure and compost from the farm. “The organic feed helps all our animals not only grow but also
stay healthy,” says Olivia. “We rarely call or use a vet and when any of the animals are sick or hurt, we use homeopathic remedies.” Olivia and Kathie have attended courses on homeopathy, read widely and have the support and expertise of a veterinarian in Eastern Ontario who has taught them a great deal and helps them to make their own tinctures. “Like cures like and it works. We use arnica
for bruises or cuts and the animals respond quickly.”

The Groenewegens are not only marketing a quality product but they are doing it by embracing the philosophy of a small-scale, sustainable, local farm business. They use glass bottles that keep the milk colder and tastier, are reusable, and prevent any type of leaching from plastic bags or cardboard containers. There’s a one-time $2 deposit for each bottle of milk which sells for $2.99. Their bottle washing machine can handle 600 bottles at a time and their water recycling system minimizes the amount of water used.

Home deliveries are transported in an old milk truck and the order is placed in an attractive porch box made of insulated, galvanized metal with a lid that protects the milk from heat and cold. A deposit of $45 is required and there’s a $3 delivery charge. Right now they distribute to the Kingston area, north to Petworth Road, east to Battersea and all the way to Gananoque. Not only can you order include Limestone Creamery milk but also any of the Organic Meadow products, Reinik Organic Eggs and prepared products from Pasta Tavola.

As I was leaving, Kathie, who was busy making chocolate-chip cookies and serving customers, confirmed that they enjoy and get a great deal of satisfaction from working together as a family. “It works well for us. Our children are still living at home and they are just as committed to our vision of providing healthy, safe food not only for ourselves but also for our community.”

Olivia echoed her mother’s words: “I love that we are self-sufficient; I know where everything comes from. We are grateful that we have the opportunity to offer fresh, organic food and milk to so many people.”

The man in the parking lot who had just picked up a couple of bottles of milk, quickly responded when I asked him what he thought of the milk: “Not only is the milk really delicious but I love the fact that I know that the milk I’m drinking came from cows down the road from me. That’s the best!”