Twenty years ago, Dave Cohlemeyer would have been considered weird. Futurists usually are. Dave adopted and adapted a lifestyle commitment, wound it around his beliefs, nurtured it into a business that is today at the pinnacle of national reputation.
Twenty years ago, Dave crammed himself into a little house on the 9th concession of Essa Township, south of the Baxter sideroad, and planted greens. In the two decades since, he’s built a mecca of fresh food, using ancient seeds, hothouse coaching, natural earth, and incredible commitment. His produce has graced the tables of kings (most recently HRH Prince Edward) and he’s sought after by top-flight chefs from the best kitchens in the province.
Hundreds of words, dozens of interviews, media focus well deserved has been directed to Cookstown Greens and still Dave labours on, rotating crops, selecting only the perfect vegetables for the high end retail food preparation market.
Four full time employees act as department heads for the business, and one heavy equipment operator makes sure land is ploughed and crates are moved. Four guest workers, the same four, come every year for eight months and they live on site and rotate through a variety of jobs.
For Deb McKay, one of the enthusiastic Cookstown Greens employees, working there is like living in heaven. “I’m part of the whole food movement, I’m part of taking care of the land, I work outside and I love what I do,” she says.
“People get really confused about the term ‘organic’,” she says. “We’re beyond organic; we’re super sustainable, biodiverse. We grow a lot of different products and rotate crops that benefit the soil.” Deb points out that they leave weeds and pests, beneficial insects that help to keep the soil and the plants healthy. Insects help plants build their own immune systems which makes them even healthier products.
The Cookstown Greens team has 30 varieties of tomatoes available right now, dozens of kinds of lettuce, fabulous beets, carrots, turnips, melons, on and on. Their greenhouses are full of salad product all winter and a separate greenhouse acts as a hothouse for seedlings and flowers.
The company ships to all its high end food service customers twice a week with separate distribution to the north and west.
What about ‘seconds’? I’m not sure if you can call a tomato a ‘second’ but the restaurants demands absolutely perfect food because they’re in a high end business. The less than perfect food that would look perfect on my table or yours, well, Deb makes regular drops to the Women’s & Children’s Crisis Centre, the Salvation Army, the Food Bank. Giving away, rather than composting product, is a current goal.
She’s also anxious to start a Field to Table program where people can receive a weekly basket of in-season, top quality vegetables at a regular price. The late summer root crops would be a perfect addition to a regular vegetable basket.
They have a few customers who stop in on their way to the cottage, but they’re not really set up for roadside sales. They have strong business relationships with a healthy butcher, with area organic farms. They sell at Toronto’s Brickworks Market in the Don Valley every Saturday and would like to ‘grow’ that part of their business.
Starting a potential client email list is the first step to launching the Cookstown Greens Vegetable Basket program… and Deb says she’ll work from that starting point. Have a look at www.cookstowngreens.com and if you’re interested in joining the Field to Table client list, contact Deb at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks, Dave Cohlemeyer, for your vision and your tenacity.
Thanks, Deb McKay, for your story.