Congratulations to our 2018
Ontario Regional Winners!
Willow Tree Farm – Alex and Jordan McKay – Port Perry
They’re busy enough with a butcher shop, growing their own meats, fruits and vegetables, running a retail store and cafe, preparing baked goods, and attending multiple farmers markets. Still brothers Jordan and Alex McKay; owners of Willow tree farm, a CSA and market at Port Perry, take time weekly for an hours long business planning meeting and build time into their schedules for family activities.
The two were selected as Ontario’ Outstanding Young Farmers when the competition was held at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in Woodstock in September. Jordan said the farm is constantly “looking to see what we can do better, what we can get away from and what we should keep doing.” “That’s the great thing about being a smaller producer; but very diverse. We can respond quickly to the market. We can just pick up a crop and try it or drop a crop.”
McKay added that the judges were interested in “internal family dynamics,” he recalled. “Being two families running a family business as opposed to a couple….we talked a lot about communication because that can be a challenge but it can be a strength if you use it to your advantage.” Willow Tree’s mission of providing fresh food by sustainable farming, takes local farm fresh food to a whole new level.
Jordan, Alex and their wives Alyson and Kelty are all active in the business and operate sectors which work together to make Willow Tree probably the most diverse family-run farm market in the province. In 2016, they opened a year round market that includes a commercial kitchen, fresh butcher market and 4300 sq. ft. of retail space. They have designed the market to tell a story about buying food locally. The brothers say that selling the experience while buy groceries from a farm market is what keep customers coming back to their store.
The farm offers free weekly farm tours, a petting zoo (which has a horse, alpacas, goats, lambs, pigs, rabbits and birds), a maple syrup festival, a grain corn box instead of a sandbox, a customer appreciation corn roast, pumpkin palooza, an outdoor skating rink, photos with Santa and Easter egg-stravaganza. “Everything we do, we’re trying to drive traffic to our store,” said Jordan McKay. “People can get food anywhere. But when they come see us, they’re going to get a different experience. They’re going to get better transparency of where their food came from and where it grew.”
The on- farm market – located 10 minutes off Hwy 7 – opened in 2016, replacing a 2,800 sq. ft. open-air market that had stood for 25 years but was open only five months of the year. There are three full-time butchers currently on site that will cut the meat to meet customers’ demands. The butchers will also take the time to explain how the animal was raised and how to best cook the meat. The farmers raise beef and lamb and grow grain crops and 30 types of fruits and vegetables on 600 acres.
They also sell memberships and provide weekly produce pickup, commonly call Community Supported Agriculture. They sell crops wholesale at the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto and have stands at 13 farmer’s markets. The farm hires 90 employees during peak time in the summer, and keeps a staff of 24 full-time and part-time employees in the winter. Almost everything in the 4,300 sq ft store comes from Ontario. Willowtree Farm supplies about 60 percent of what is sold, and most everything else is purchased from nearby farms. Extra lamb comes from the neighbour across the road, while extra beef is from a nearby ranch. Pork comes from a farm that is now run by friends that were in 4-H with the McKays when they were kids.
To make the business viable year-round, the McKays create different uses for their products. Some sweet corn, for example, is frozen to be sold in the winter, and is also used to make corn chowder and corn bread. Fruits are turned into smoothies. Products at the in-store cafe are made from food grown on the farm. The soup specials are available fresh in store or frozen to take home to eat later.
The farmers plan to keep expanding the business. They are looking to purchase more farmland to improve crop rotation and to expand the livestock aspect of their operation. They would also like to open a second smaller market at some point, and to build an on-farm event center to help with their maple syrup festival. “It’s all done to drive people here. We want to show people a great time, we ant to teach them about their food, but we need them to buy the food too.” said McKay.