Not your traditional farmer: Tony Neale of Wheelbarrow Farm
Have you heard this one before? A boy grows up in Toronto, gets a political science degree, and considers a career in social work. But then he takes up farming instead. That’s not a punchline, but rather the story of Tony Neale, owner of Wheelbarrow Farm in Newmarket and one of Karma’s produce and pork suppliers.
After university, Tony worked in restaurants to make some money. Then he spent a summer volunteering on organic farms in B.C., an opportunity offered by the non-profit organization WWOOF Canada. (WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and people of all ages and backgrounds can do a stint of WWOOFing in dozens of countries around the world.)
Tony returned to BC the following summer to apprentice on a farm. He saw an opportunity to get land when his father was looking to buy a house in Newmarket, northeast of Toronto – he convinced him to buy a 10-acre farm instead. That was nine years ago, and since then Tony has expanded production onto another four acres nearby.
Although he raises about a dozen heritage-breed pigs each year, vegetable-growing is 95% of the focus at Wheelbarrow Farm. When I visited one warm May morning, the unheated greenhouses (called hoop houses) were bright with a variety of spring greens in tidy rows. Seedling trays were set out in the sun, and the crew of five helpers (one staff and four seasonal apprentices) was busy planting while Tony gave me a tour of the property.
Tony hosts an occasional WWOOFer, but the apprentices are a key part of his operating model. He pays them above the going rate, giving him his pick of candidates. He tells me they are all humanities grads like himself. He offers them eight on-farm workshops during their stay, in addition to the monthly workshops organized by CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) for farm apprentices across the region. As we walked past a chicken coop, Tony mentioned it’s there for the apprentices to keep hens – and that when he wants eggs, he buys them from his apprentices.
Wheelbarrow Farm is not certified organic. From Tony’s perspective, “organic” is an expensive word, with certification costing about $1,000 per year. He farms ecologically, the way he wants to farm, and he hasn’t found that customers are concerned about certification.
Tony describes the market for Ontario farm produce as a “boom industry” with an educated customer base. And with the increase in farmers’ markets, there is still room for expansion even though there are more young farmers now.
The big barrier to new farmers is the high price of land. And of course it’s hard to make money in the first five years, as with any business. But the internet helps spread success; for example, Tony is a member of a market gardening success group on Facebook. His experience is that, in Ontario at least, ecological farmers can earn a living by working relatively small acreages.
Despite its name, Wheelbarrow Farm’s most useful piece of equipment is the tractor. Tony got one after five years of farming with only hand tools, and estimates that with it, he can get 10-15 times the amount of work done. His beds are set up so that the tractor wheels never roll across the growing areas, and only the soil in paths gets compacted.
These days Tony is working to reduce the use of plastic on his farm. This is the last year he will use black plastic, which farmers commonly lay across beds to suppress weeds while boosting the temperature and growth rate of tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. He’s using it under half these crops, to figure out differences in yield. He’s also looking to move away from plastic drip tape for irrigation in the hoop houses. And he has introduced an incentive to his customers to bring their own bag for greens, with the chance to enter a draw for free produce each time they do so.
Permaculture is on Tony’s mind, too. He hopes to buy another property with a small group of people, to turn into a 20-acre food forest. He has already planted 200 fruit and nut trees on his farm, and has experimented with growing perennial food crops – one bed was devoted to grapes, Siberian kiwi, rhubarb and asparagus for some years – but growing annual vegetables is his livelihood.
Look for Tony’s greens, beans, new potatoes, purple peppers, eggplants, cabbages and other vegetables at Karma this summer, as well as sausages, pork chops, ribs and bacon in the freezer.
Amy Stein is writing a series of profiles of Karma’s farm suppliers. If you have suggestions for future profiles, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more articles like this one in Karma’s summer 2016 member newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here.