Picture this: It’s a sunny day in southern Ontario and you’re in the middle of a lush, green field of organic asparagus. You rock out to your favourite summer jam on your iPod while you harvest tall, thick spears of asparagus that will be graded and then sold to local customers later that day.
You can feel the heat of the summer sun on your skin, but you’re totally enjoying it because you slathered on a layer of sunscreen earlier that morning.
“We hope students will come away from our farm with a greater knowledge of how an organic farm works and what goes into running a small business.” —Sarah Harrison, Owner, Mazak Farms
Suddenly, someone taps you on the shoulder. You turn around, pull out your earphones and smile; it’s your boss, the owner of the farm. Who do you imagine?
If you said a stay-at-home mom in her early 30s who married her high school sweetheart and also teaches part-time at Georgian College, you’re right!
Sarah Harrison doesn’t look like your stereotypical overalls-wearing, grass-chewing farmer, but she grew up on the St. Thomas, Ont., farm that she and her husband Barry bought from her parents, Rick and Mary Mazak, two years ago. It’s also home to a third generation of her family – her daughters Beth, three, and Abby, one.
“People are always surprised,” she says. “Barry and I often hear, ‘You don’t look like farmers!’”
She says she has always loved the farming lifestyle, so it was an easy career choice. “Being able to go to work every day knowing that you are providing a healthy, environmentally responsible product is something we take a lot of pride in.”
Each spring, the Harrisons hire seasonal Harvesters to harvest asparagus, white asparagus, garlic and scapes (the curly green shoots of garlic bulbs), and also grade and sell the products at Mazak Farms.
They’re currently accepting applications, so keep reading to find out what it’s like to be a young farmer and why you should consider harvesting asparagus with Sarah and her family this summer!
What is a typical day at Mazak Farms during the harvest season?
Sarah: I’m not sure we have had a typical day yet! No two days are the same. We usually start harvesting at 8 a.m., but prior to the staff arriving, we have many jobs such as checking the fields for growth, making sure the equipment is ready and, of course, putting the coffee on for our helpers!
Once everyone is in the fields, I usually go back to the barn to take care of the administration part of the business – calling customers, creating invoices and taking care of the payroll. On a perfect day, we are done the field work by early afternoon and then we go into the barn to grade that day’s harvest. In the evening, we clean and wrap up any loose ends from the day to ensure we are ready to go again the next morning.
There are other chores throughout the day as well: Barry and the girls collect eggs in the late afternoon, and bring them to me to be washed. We also have to keep the grass cut, the gardens in check and look after the kids! There is never a dull moment around the farm.
Why do you grow organic products?
Sarah: I think it should be important to all of us to grow organic foods and treat our animals with kindness. We have eaten many meals that were 100% produced on our farm; it is such a feeling of accomplishment.
We face many challenges on the farm daily. But that is the business of farming and what we have come to expect, but with those challenges come so many more rewards that it makes the challenges less significant. Our greatest reward is knowing that we are doing something good for our family.
What’s it like to be a Harvester at Mazak Farms?
Sarah: There is no way around the fact that harvesting asparagus is hard work. We provide our staff with various opportunities around the farm, such as exposure to different crops. We give everyone the opportunity to do each of the jobs, both the outside harvesting and the inside grading. We usually find that, by the end of the first week, people have ‘found their groove’ in one particular area.
We sell our products off the farm, so there is also an element of customer service. Oh, and there is always that job of cleaning out the chicken coops!
We also try to include the Harvesters in the decision-making process. We are always looking for ways to be more efficient, and we find that our students are usually the ones to come up with the great ideas!
Why is working on a farm great experience for students?
Sarah: I received an email last week from a college student who worked for us last year. We were the first job he ever had, and he wrote to tell me that he was going for interviews and would like to use us as a reference. He also shared that he “learned life lessons and skills that he will carry with him.” That was a proud moment for me. We saw the potential in this young man and we were able to provide him with a unique experience that provides many transferable skills.
We hope students will come away from our farm with a greater knowledge of how an organic farm works and what goes into running a small business. It gives you the opportunity to work hard and support the local farming movement.
Working on a farm opens a lot of doors. And, when you are riding the picking machine, you will have lots of time to contemplate your future career decisions!
What do you look for when hiring Harvesters to work on your farm?
Sarah: The most important thing is that you’re able to commit to the entire harvest season. When people leave us before the season is over, it’s really hard on the whole crew. We work as a team and if one team member leaves it puts everyone in a hard spot. We also look for people who are keen and willing to learn.
What are your plans for the future of Mazak Farms?
Sarah: We would like to expand the farm and hope to do so in the near future. We strongly believe that the local food movement, and especially the organic movement, is here to stay and we want to continue to be a part of it. There are many people out there who grow a number of different crops, but we would like to stick to one or two things and do them well. Our motto is: if you are going to do it, do it right. So that is the plan!