Redefining success, Growing things she loves

Vicki Emlaw knows what success means — growing heirloom tomatoes and working barefoot in the soil. She went to the top of her game and to the bottom to find it. Now she runs a gardening operation that pays and makes her happy — on her terms.

By Phil Norton

It’s near the end of the Ontario winter, and Vicki is spreading snow in her greenhouse. Her starts of kale and cilantro will soak up the meltwater. It’s still freezing outside but on this sunny day it’s warm enough inside to steam up your glasses.

Soft green wheatgrass provides a lush carpet underfoot. She planted it mostly to invite friends over for yoga but will harvest it for juicing. She points out this huge plastic-wrapped building is not officially a greenhouse, but a cold frame, because it is not artificially heated. Two smaller greenhouses on the property use propane to keep a constant warm temperature for her heirloom tomato seeds and sprouts.

“In April and May I’ll have 5,000 great seedlings, 300 varieties, for my heirloom seedling sale in June,” she says. “Later in the summer you won’t be able to see the roof as tomato plants are strung up on cords and get so tall they start growing downward.”

Half-way between corporate-ladder Toronto and joie de vivre Montreal lies Prince Edward County, an island in Lake Ontario where the fast track and the slow lane meet.

The traditional, predictable rural life that County folks like Vicki knew growing up here began to rock unsteadily on the wave of this new urban hype about 15 years ago. Every time another social influencer spent a weekend touring the wineries and beaches, the county’s dot on the tourism map expanded, bringing more visitors and more new residents. Many long-time locals didn’t favour the change. For real estate agents, homebuilders and Main Street businesses, it has been an economic boom. But for conventional farmers and people living with meagre means, the gentrification trend brings increased land values and rising taxes.

Vicki Emlaw steps seamlessly between both worlds. She used her local farm upbringing to her advantage as an entrepreneur. Since 2003, Vicki’s Veggies stood out as one of the most recognizable brands in Prince Edward County as it transitioned from peaceful and pastoral to a bustling upscale terroir mecca. Her eye-catching publicity was everywhere — from the print rack cards at the Chamber of Commerce to her search-engine-optimized website with hyperlinks from PEC’s official tourism page.

Their family farm business delivered door-to-door baskets of produce each week and developed face-to-face relationships with shoppers at popular farmers markets and at high-end restaurants in Toronto. Customer Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a marketing concept where subscribers pay an annual fee to get a bountiful supply of whatever is being harvested through the growing season.

As County insiders, Vicki and her husband were intimately tied to those in charge of reaching out to new markets. Like her, many of the official promoters of tourism and economic development were women. She stood alongside the leaders who were making Prince Edward County one of the coolest and fastest-growing regions in Canada.

She drew inspiration from her county roots while branching out with the new technology to customers who longed for grounded, earthy authenticity.

Vicki pivoted before pivoting was cool, from everyday farmer at the mercy of the market, to specialty supplier of fresh locally grown produce sold directly to the newcomers. She loved growing things and made it her career.

Her success drew others to open similar small-but-serious farm operations along the back roads — labour-intensive production of cash crops on a few acres. She was a leader through teaching. Several of Vicki’s employees went on to careers in agriculture.

“I really love helping people to figure out a way to grow,” she says.

These market garden businesses keep their input costs down, are often organic and find lucrative specialty outlets for their herbs and greens and unusual squashes. This includes Prince Edward County’s top-ranked chefs, as well as farmers markets in Toronto and nearby Kingston and Belleville.

But during those years, her career path took precedence over her happiness and in 2016 everything came crashing down. The marriage broke up and the farm had to be sold. She took a year off to redefine what it meant to be successful and happy. After her business achievements early on, she left it all to do the personal work, travelling, becoming a yoga instructor and surrounding herself with her circle of friends.

“People loved our farm and the feeling of it, and I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t happy. I was in the situation that I thought I had wanted my whole life — being busy, having a farm, a husband, a beautiful daughter, wonderful staff.

“I have had a lot of challenges and obstacles but my biggest obstacle has been my mindset and my thoughts. Not believing in myself; not believing I was good enough. Not believing I was worthy of love after the separation from my partner and the farm.

“I believed life was hard and so it was. I believed that I had to stay because everyone needed me solid. I used to think it was my partner’s job to make me happy. Somewhere along the journey I discovered that that was my job so when I started to take responsibility for myself everything changed for me and I learned I am not responsible for anyone else’s happiness.

Vicki says separation motivated her to find happiness.

“I couldn’t find it outside of me so I turned inwards and started asking myself what made me happy and followed that quest for happiness and joy which took me a lot of places and also brought me back to growing food on a much different level.

In 2018 she was able to rent back the farm fields that she sold a year earlier and reinstall her storefront in the little roadside shed, well-situated along a scenic drive in a hamlet with a constant flow of visitors for ice cream cones at the historic Black River Cheese factory.

“My goal is to keep doing the things I love that make me happy. I love heirloom tomatoes and I love growing them. I love growing hundreds of different varieties because of their beauty and the difference in taste and shape and size and colour and the way the plants grow, and I love saving seeds to make sure that the most rare varieties of tomatoes survive in this world that I live in. I love sharing anything heirloom tomato with other people who are interested in growing or saving or eating.”

Vicki says she likes growing what she loves and only selling what she can sell at a nice, slow pace from the farm stand.

“I didn’t want to hire anyone therefore do it all on my own… but I recognize there are things I need another person for to help… and what I really want to do is teach people so I figured that I would work that into my farm life… knowing that it’s my contribution to the people who work for me… who have been women.“

What Vicki has done is what many of us need to do — find back what we have lost or neglected. In the rush of life and the pressures of business, we lose touch with the basic goals and, most of all, the love we first had for what we do. We also need to concentrate on only doing what we do best.

Vicki’s resilience has enabled her to rebuild and rediscover happiness with a changed business goals mindset by scaling down and focusing on what she really loved and now loves anew.

Let us know your thoughts or experiences on this topic in the comments below!