Willowlee Sod

Willowlee Farms, sod, Prince Edward County

Photography by Daniel Vaughan

The grass is greener in the County

The diversity of Prince Edward County’s agrarian economy is evident as travellers cruise the historic roads, named for kings and queens and early settlers.

Rednersville Road is home to orchards – many dormant, most still very much an ongoing enterprise. Loyalist Parkway is home to a significant percentage of the County’s newest agriculture – wineries, with patches of hops as a reminder of a crucial crop of the 1800s. There are fields of barley, thriving almost 130 years after the McKinley Tariff tacked a 48 per cent tax on the County’s exceptionally good grains.

On Victoria Road, another prosperous crop grows alongside this historic route, on property owned by three generations of the same family. That’s a good start, in an area where fifth and sixth and seventh generations of the same family have tilled the land for more than two centuries.

Although the Vanclief family has only called the County home for 73 years, it has made in an indelibly positive mark on the regional and national agriculture industry.

Kurt Vanclief, owner of Willowlee Sod Farms, appreciates his grandfather Clarence Vanclief’s decision to relocate to what is now one of Canada’s most popular destinations. “He came from Coe Hill in 1945 and bought property on Victoria Road. I’m really grateful he chose this location. I’m fortunate it has good soil, stone-free fields, and good access to water, which is not always the case on the County,” said Kurt.

When Clarence arrived, he farmed in a more traditional manner. He grew cash crops, had some livestock, and grew fruits and vegetables. When his son Lyle took over the farm, he did mostly the same, scaling back when he entered federal politics, representing the riding of Prince Edward – Hastings. From 1988, when he was first elected, to 2004 when he retired from political life, he held several portfolios in Jean Chrétien’s cabinet, most relating directly to agriculture, ultimately serving as Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food from 1997 to 2003.

Following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, Kurt planned a career as a farmer, loving the land, and appreciating the family farm. He attended the University of Guelph to study in its respected agricultural program, with plans to get his degree, and continue the legacy. In 1988, Kurt learned his parents were selling the farm. He was 19, had a year of university, and in 1989 bought 160 acres on the north side of the farm while the south side was sold out of the family. Kurt sought financing, getting a real-life lesson in farming. “My parents couldn’t afford to give me the farm or hold a mortgage, so I had to get financing, and no one in their right mind would give a 19-year-old kid money to by a farm. I was fortunate and secured private financing and was able to keep a good piece in the family. My goal was to take a year off school, get the farm established, and finish my degree. I’m still waiting for that,” he smiled.

Kurt followed tradition, planting cash crops, growing market vegetables, raising livestock. It worked for a few years until the weather inspired him to make a change. The 1992 season was cold and wet. It was the year after Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines and the North America was under grey skies and constant rain for months. “Nothing matured,” remembered Kurt of this disastrous year. “I had to adjust the business, which meant getting an off-farm job to maintain it. My goal was to farm full-time. That wasn’t going to happen immediately.”

He sought new revenue streams, working shifts at a local paper mill and operating the farm when he had time off, and he did it with help. “My parents have always been incredibly supportive, and the business grew and is successful because of my extended family.”

He was able to recover, and by 1994 purchased the 100 acres his parents sold several years earlier. “We looked for ways to make is sustainable,” he explained. “We planted cash crops, we did custom harvesting for other farmers, we plowed snow, and built up clientele across the board.” He is proud to share, “We still have the very first customer from 1988.”

By 2000, his dream came true. He gave notice at the paper mill and walked away from a good job with predictable income and benefits. He took another direction and planted 35 acres of sod. From the first harvest, the transition was inevitable. Sod was working. Sod was predictable, and the quality of Willowlee’s sod, along with the work ethic and customer service led to a constant demand.

The company now has 400 acres of Kentucky Bluegrass, the most popular sod. Kurt recently introduced 18 acres of rhizomatous tall fescue and is one of only five licenced growers in Canada. “It’s a small niche market,” Kurt explained. Because it roots deeper, it consumes less water comparatively once it is established, and is sometimes specified on LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) projects.

Kentucky Bluegrass is more common, and Kurt is conscious of growing it in a sustainable manner. In the mid-2000s, he presented an idea to the Nursery Sod Growers Association of Ontario for a green certification program. “We want to be responsible and sustainable, and we wanted independent verification of our process. In agriculture, land is the biggest asset, so the last thing I want to do is devalue that asset by applying chemicals or having a fuel spill. We want our customers and the public to feel good about our products, and we want their trust.”

At Willowlee, sustainability is paramount. “We build ponds for water retention, and we only water the sod about four or five weeks before harvest, if necessary. We manage our crops so we always have lush green grass available for our customers, but a lot of our sod is dormant,” explained Kurt. “Our Bluegrass is rated by the Turfgrass Water Conservation Alliance, and we are producing top varieties for reduced water consumption.”

Quality service and products take a team effort and a long-term vision. “We look after our sod through soil quality, environmental awareness, watershed management, fuel storage, minimal fertilizer and herbicide use, and well trained dedicated employees.”

Crops are planned well in advance. The 2018 harvest was planted in 2016, and the 2019 crop is already seeded. Crops take more than a year to mature to harvest, and seeding is done only from mid-August to mid-September. Soil loss is minimal, about the same as a continuous corn crop, or three-eights of an inch per harvest. “Ten crops can take 25 or 30 years to harvest,” continued Kurt. “Once we have bare ground, we plant a cover crop to avoid wind and water erosion. When we harvest, we leave behind an immense mass of fibrous roots, which keeps the soil stable.”

A typical harvest starts at 4 a.m. Landscapers – one of Willowlee’s biggest sectors – can call in orders up to 6 p.m. the day before and are guaranteed next day delivery. “They expect it first thing in the morning. They don’t want their workers standing around waiting for us. We respect that. We’re in the fields early and will have 1,700 rolls loaded by 5:30. We’ll hit Kingston by 7, and two hours later five customers will have their sod.” The average order is 400 to 600 rolls, some are as high as 2,000, and most days see the company harvest 6,000 rolls.

“We cover from Port Hope to Gananoque. There are a lot of sod farms around Toronto and Ottawa. We’re in a small market in between and that caused us to diversity. We are somewhat unique in that regard, and we’re well-positioned, geographically,” he added.

“New home construction is a significant portion of our business, and it’s important for local economies. In the County, the wineries have created a lot of interest. People are coming here to build their second and third homes, creating a lot of work for contractors. That allows us to keep people employed all year. Our key people have lots of opportunities, and we want to keep them happy; keeping experienced staff is key to our growth,” he acknowledged, adding a busy snow removal service keeps more than 30 workers employed during the winter.

Although Willowlee is defined as a sod farm, it has a much bigger scope. “Half of our work is in seeding and erosion control, and some of it is on high profile sites.” Kurt and the Willowlee team worked with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change at the Deloro Mine Site Cleanup Project on erosion control, where the team worked to a high degree of specifications. On the Madawaska Mine Cleanup Project in Bancroft, Willowlee helped develop plans pertaining to its area of expertise.

They worked with a solar farm on the side of hill in Northumberland County, where erosion was imminent. In all these industrial applications, Kurt and his team used a combination of hydroseeding and emulsions to stabilize the soil and get roots established as quickly as possible. Once the ground cover takes hold, they return with nutrients and fertilizer.

The company helps municipalities, sports fields, school boards, and colleges with turf grass management plans, and upgrades. The new fields at Albert College and Loyalist in Belleville and St. Lawrence College in Kingston are proud achievements for the company. “They’re high profile in terms of use and location,” said Kurt. “Our work is pretty visible at times.”

Offering solutions for many sectors keeps the company growing.

“Our industry needs people to keep digging holes,” he simplified. “Whether it’s remediating a contaminated site, water and sewer work, ditches, road construction, or home building, getting a ground cover established as soon as possible is important.”

The benefits of a healthy lawn are equally important in a residential setting. “There is more surface area on an acre of lawn than on an acre of trees,” Kurt explained. “Grass grows April to November; trees are in leaf from late May to October, and 2,500 square feet of healthy turf grass produces enough oxygen for a family of four. A healthy lawn produces a lot of benefits.”

Working in the industry his entire adult life, Kurt credits networking for the level of service he offers his clients. He is a member of the Nursery Sod Growers Association of Ontario, serving as president for three of the nine years he has been on the board, Turf Producers International, and Turfgrass Water Conservation Alliance.

“We learn so much from other growers; we network and study how each other works, and we help each other with solutions for our clients,” said Kurt, recently returned from a tour of Florida turf farms. “The association with other growers is incredibly helpful and we have a network across North America. We can find a solution for a lot of challenges.”

Kurt values relationships, particularly those with local contractors. “We have a lot of close personal relationships with our customers. We’re friends when the work is done.”

Looking over his fields on Victoria Road, over the land his family has called home since the Second World War ended, Kurt smiled. “We see some beautiful homes, beautiful spaces, and we see the difference our work makes to a property. We’re just digging dirt; it’s not glorious or glamorous, but it makes a huge difference.”

On this historic property, the sod isn’t Kurt’s favourite crop. “What I love growing most? Customer relationships.”

Photography by Daniel Vaughan

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