Vanderhaeghe 'sticking' with traditional tobacco curing method
The aroma of curing tobacco can take one back 30 years in an instant.
There's nothing inherently unique in that smell - the game may have changed, but tobacco has made a comeback in the area. Apart from the obvious visuals, it's the quiet hum of the elevator and tying machine punctuated by the uniquely electrical/metallic clang of the string cutter that lets visitors know they're on what may be the last surviving island of traditional stick-based curing in a sea of bulk kiln technology.
"We've just never changed over to bulk," said Brian Vanderhaeghe, who is 'sticking' with a traditional tobacco curing method on the family farm a few miles west of Langton's main corner. "We did this year put four bulks in, but we just never changed and stuck with what it was."
Brian's grandfather Gerrard and grandmother Marie emigrated from Belgium in 1938, growing one year in Aylmer in 1939, and again on shares in 1942 and 1943, before buying their own farm in 1944. Gerrard's son Gilbert, four when he came to Canada, continued the family tradition along with wife Arlene. Brian, wife Carol and their children Ashley (11) and Bryce (9) have been growing tobacco together on their current farm (in the family since 1970) since the buyout. This year, they were contracted to grow 52.4 acres, with Norfolk Leaf for the second season.
The Vanderhaeghes' navigation of a transitional industry is not unique. What does make the family's approach continue to stand out however, is they have resisted an near-industry-wide shift to bulk kiln curing. The change was driven by factors including a gradual transition towards the technology in earlier years, and more recently by automatic harvesters and contemporary grading methodology. There are those who still hand prime and either rack their tobacco in the field or kiln yard for curing in bulk kilns, but the Vanderhaeghes' traditional stick kilns may well be the only regularly-used ones in Ontario.
"There's a lot of hand primers, but I think I'm the only stick guy left," said Brian.
The old-school approach does generate its share of attention, says Vanderhaeghe.
"I get people all the time looking, looking from the road, coming in to take pictures - anything - wanting to hang kiln."
Vanderhaeghe isn't concerned about being a living history exhibition, simply trying to make a living in a challenging environment.
"It's not easy money, since the buyout, you've got to work to make your bottom line and it's tight, it's a tight bottom line."
By filling stick kilns, Vanderhaeghe believes he can prime in weather less-than-ideal for automatic harvesters, and also doesn't have to keep his crop as free of suckers. But he also contends automatic harvesters have benefits over his more traditional approach.
"There's advantages and disadvantages to everything"
Quality is job one for every farmer, says Vanderhaeghe, who believes more work to that end is done in the field, than the kiln.
"I think tobacco is grown in the field, it's not changed in the kiln," he said.
"Whatever you put in, that's what's coming out, put it that way," Vanderhaeghe added. "If it's not good going in, it's not good coming out. Norfolk, they want high quality, that's what I go for."
His bottom line is his traditional curing method continues to deliver results buyers are satisfied with.
"There's no issue about the stick kilns, actually, I think they like it."
Having said that, after filling four bulk kilns this year, Vanderhaeghe has absolutely nothing against that technology.
"We look for high quality out of both. I filled them and it's good quality comes out of the bulk, it's not that, but I've got good quality out of my stick kilns too, so I think we'll stick with it."
Overall, those in Ontario growing tobacco destined for either bulk or stick kilns didn't have ideal conditions this summer.
"It wasn't a good tobacco crop year," said Brian. "Wet and cold, that's not tobacco weather. But you take what they give you, you can't say no."
As Carol Vanderhaeghe pointed out, 2013 was breaking down better than 2012, which featured an early frost.
"We've had a great year, can't complain," she said. "The leaves aren't big, but last year we lost 15 kilns to frost."
And in the end, that kind of eternal optimism, combined with the 'push' ingrained in those who grew up on a farm, was not only keeping the Vanderhaeghe family going through the final few kilns of a long 2013 season, but already looking forward to 'sticking' with it through 2014 and into the foreseeable future.
"Same thing, same ball game all over again," Brian concluded. "Same stick kilns, four bulk, the same thing all the time."