OYF winner gets back to his roots

On the north shore of Lake Erie near Langton, ON, lives a whirlwind who goes by the name of Dusty Zamecnik. When this fourthgeneration farmer has an idea, he gets it done through pure energy and hard work … not to mention a little calculated risktaking and sheer chutzpah.

Last fall, Zamecnik won the 2017 Outstanding Young Farmers’ Program award for the Ontario region, which is quite a turnaround for a guy who didn’t imagine his future lay back on the farm.

“I wanted to mix things up,” he says of his post-high school choices. “I had the opportunity to go to ag school, but I never thought I’d be back on the farm.” Instead, he went to St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia where he graduated in 2011 with an economics degree.

The farm he left behind was started by his great grandfather, who grew tobacco — a staple and well-paying crop at the time. It was Zamecnik’s grandfather, Ed, who first envisioned more. “He started the ball rolling in the ’50s and ’60s, asking how do we do more than just grow tobacco?”

Over the years, EZ Farms (named after Ed) expanded into other crops, including tomatoes, rosebushes, blueberries and eventually strawberry plant propagation, and didn’t get fully out of tobacco until 2004. “I was in high school at the time,” says Zamecnik. “I remember how nervous my dad was about that decision.”

After university, Dusty took a sales and marketing position with Labatt Brewery in London, ON, which put him about an hour away from the family farm. This was a difficult time for his parents, Helen and Darryl, as cash was in short supply and bankruptcy loomed. Darryl had expanded the strawberry business, shipping plants to Florida, but it was tough going.

“Instead of working extra curricular activities with Labatt, like festivals, or taking holidays in Mexico, I’d come back to the farm,” says Zamecnik. “I saw how hard Mom and Dad worked and I loved what we were doing. My whole life, I looked up to them, they made forward-looking, good decisions. I knew they’d built something truly amazing with great people and I thought we could take it to the next level. So in 2014, I made the conscious decision to come back to the farm — much to my friends’ dismay!”

In a “go big or go home” move, Zamecnik convinced his parents they should get out of tomatoes and rosebushes, keep the blueberries and expand the strawberry propagation business to Europe and Mexico. He visited his father’s customers in Florida and identified ways to improve that business and saw the need to find new avenues, new customers and new products.

He also joined and took on leadership roles in grower associations, partly to learn more and partly to expand his contacts and connections. In 2015 those connections led to the Sonata strawberry — a Dutch-bred variety ideal for greenhouse production.

“I found out who the breeder was and pitched for exclusive rights for North America,” says Zamecnik. Even he admits he had no idea what he was doing at the time, but he sensed the opportunity, knew enough to sound credible and secured the rights.

It’s a long story, but the short version is that Zamecnik thought his excellent growing conditions and micro-climate would allow him to propagate Sonatas faster than what is typical — about two years — and get plants into the European market quickly. He was wrong and his first attempt at EU expansion cost the farm $100,000.

“We thought we were smarter than the Dutch,” he says, ruefully. “They’re 11 nautical degrees north of us, which isn’t much, so we thought we could do it all in one year. What we were trying to do was avoid building a million dollar greenhouse.” Day length and temperature were not to be overcome however, and the plants were not ready in time. “Part of that 100K we lost was eating all the contracts and sales we had booked.”

Through adversity comes strength. “It put a lot of fire under my butt to learn and learn quickly,” says Zamecnik. “I needed to become the master of this plant. We had to become Sonata. I worked with the team that bred the plant and they took me to Spain to see how it was being propagated there. I learned so much and brought that home.”

Today, EZ Farms has built the necessary greenhouses and produces three different styles of strawberry plants for sale: bareroots, plugs and tips. Roots are just that, a plant with roots attached. Strawberry tips are the young, rootless plants that form on the parent plant’s runners. Zamecnik explains that customers buy these to grow their own plugs, which is why they’re a bit cheaper to buy than the plugs themselves. Plugs, it follows, are tips that have been rooted out in soil-filled trays and are ready to plant for production. “Once we started specializing in plugs, that’s when things really started to pick up,” says Zamecnik.

And because becoming a Sonata strawberry plant wasn’t quite enough to do, Zamecnik decided to join his cousins, Matt and Tommy DeVos, in a craft brewery venture. “I’d been talking with my cousins for years about starting a brewery,” he says. “At the same time as we were going through these holy crap moments with the strawberries, they called and said, ‘Are you in or are you in the way?'”

By November 2016, Hometown Brewing Company was registered and the first beer, a blueberry saison made with EZ Farms blueberries, was released in January 2017. Later that spring, Hometown Hop Company was launched with the planting of three hop varieties, to be used for brewing in 2018.

The brewery adds a social side to Zamecnik’s busy life — a place where he doesn’t talk about strawberries all the time, he says with a laugh.

After that initial stumble, EZ Farms has found its feet, growing orders from six million plants a year to 16 million, shipped to strawberry producers around the world. And while he completely owns that early mistake, he is quick to share the success.

“Without our team believing in our vision and taking on a lot of extra work and learning, we’d be nowhere.”