Cheaper by the Bushel: Van Dyken Bros.
Italian cooks flock to this Dutch family’s pick-your-own farm in Caledon.
As I walk across rows of vegetables at the back of the Van Dyken Bros. pick-your-own farm, I understand why farmers farm. Situated on the edge of the Peel Plain, the pancake-flat land seems to beg cultivation in the same way a working dog demands a job. Lonely trees demarcate individual well-tilled fields. To the west, an enormous sun is setting behind a ridge of hardwood forest. To the south, an old black bank barn tilts in the wind. It won’t survive too many more Canadian winters.
The house Curtis and Jane Van Dyken rented and used as the basis for their business when they arrived in south Caledon in the mid-1970s once sat next to the barn. About 12 years later, they bought the land next door, built a modest home and have lived in it ever since. Far in the distance, the sun reflects on the low rising hills of the Oak Ridges Moraine. Evening birds hop from tree to field and back again. It’s a peaceful meditative place despite the steady hum of cars charging home on The Gore Road.
“The first number of years it was pretty rough,” Jane tells me. “But since 1979, we haven’t had a bad year.” Those are unusual words from a Caledon farm family, especially one that raised 13 children (nine boys and four girls) almost entirely on the proceeds from the 40 acres they own and about 60 more they rent near the corner of The Gore Road and Castlederg Sideroad. A first-generation Canadian of Dutch descent, their 29-year-old son Paul shares the house with his parents, his wife Anita and two young sons. The only one of the Van Dyken children to do so, he farms full time with his dad during the summer and helps out on neighbouring farms when the snow flies.
“We grow vegetables on about 40 acres each year,” Paul explains. The rest of the acreage is in rotation.
Peas come up first in late May or early June. One of their early customers is Palgrave United Church. It serves Van Dyken peas at its annual Thanksgiving turkey dinner. “I know it’s pea-podding time when Wimbledon comes on,” says Palgrave resident Gail Grant, who is also an avid tennis player. According to Barb Imrie, a dinner organizer, they hold a “pea bee” during which five people spend about three hours podding the candy-like vegetables before they are frozen and stored for the fall dinner.
In addition to five acres of peas, the Van Dykens grow about 12 acres of tomatoes, 10 of beans (romano, white, cannellini, green, snap and flat green beans), five or six of rapini, four of eggplants, three and a half of peppers, one and a half of onions, and an acre of melons and watermelons, as well as some cucumbers and squash.
If there seems to be a theme to these vegetables, it’s not just a question of what will grow on their productive land; it’s what the mostly city folk who frequent their farm want. Jane says, “Eighty per cent of our customers are Italian.”
While at the Van Dykens, I run into Vito and Faelicia Crispo who are picking a bushel of late-season rapini. Pointing to the rundown barn, Vito tells me, “We’ve been picking the Van Dykens’ vegetables since they lived in the house that used to sit next to that old barn.” In response to my query, Faelicia gives me detailed instructions on how to prepare and store the bitter Italian delicacy that overflows their bushel baskets. Then she explains that while her family loves rapini, it’s the tomatoes that really draw them to the Van Dykens’.
Like hundreds of others, Vito and Faelicia arrive not long after dawn on “tomato opening day” in mid-August. “You have to come really early in the morning on that day and line up for the tomatoes,” Vito tells me. “Some days, cars are backed up right out to the road,” he adds, pointing in the direction of The Gore Road, which must be a kilometre away. “We get a whole row of tomatoes to ourselves,” Faelicia brags.
What is especially alluring about the Van Dykens’ tomatoes is their Nova variety of San Marzano tomatoes. “They make really good tomato paste,” Paul says. “The seeds are not sold commercially, so we keep our own seeds.”
San Marzano tomatoes
If you have never heard of San Marzano tomatoes, then you likely aren’t Italian. With more than one website dedicated to San Marzanos, you know they are popular. As one site puts it: “As the most famous plum tomato for making sauce, the San Marzano is preferred by gourmet chefs and cooks all over the world. Foodies and connoisseurs, to put it politely but accurately, are fanatical about certified San Marzano tomatoes.”
The Van Dykens grow about 15 varieties of four types of tomatoes, including small and long San Marzanos, romas and beefsteaks. Paul’s young wife Anita says the bushel and a half of tomatoes she processed in the fall will last her family the winter. She’s more impressed with her mother-in-law who turned an astounding eight bushels of them into soup and juice. I wonder how Curtis and Jane could consume that many tomatoes before remembering that Paul is only the sixth of 13 children. Jane has several more still at home. In all, her kids range in age from 38 to 10. Moreover, this petite, youthful woman homeschooled them all. “We do love children,” she tells me.
I ask Jane if her family is ever tempted to sell their land. “No,” is her simple response. I ask if they have problems with their increasingly urban neighbours. Paul admits that when they spread a bit of composted manure, they are sometimes asked what the funny smell is, but that’s it.
With the Oak Ridges Moraine section of the Greenbelt cutting through only the northern tip of their land, the Van Dykens live in a strip of Southern Ontario known as the “white belt.” People figure it will all be developed one day as the Greater Toronto Area bulldozes north. Anita quips, “Pretty soon we’ll have paved sidewalks.” But the Van Dykens know that for their pick-your-own vegetable business and the largely urban clientèle it serves, paved sidewalks aren’t such a bad thing.
Van Dyken Bros., • Proprietors Curtis & Jane Van Dyken • 14510 The Gore Rd • Caledon • 8am to 8pm late May – late November closed Sundays • 905-857-3561
Crops at Van Dyken Bros.
- 15varieties of four types of tomatoes, including small and long San Marzanos, romas and beefsteaks.