A John Deere Publication

Closeup of cucumbers growing on a vine

The Eng family grows 60 different crops, just under half the crops listed in the Ontario Seed Guide. Their specialty is Shanghai baby bok choy. Most are sold to organic wholesalers in the Greater Toronto Area.

Agriculture   June 01, 2024

Catering to the Market

Eng family finds success anticipating public demand.

by Lorne McClinton

Ted Eng, president of Zephyr Organics, one of Ontario's largest organic vegetable producers, keeps a close eye on what his customers are looking for. The third-generation operation, located 100 kilometers north of downtown Toronto near Zephyr, has become adept at supplying the stream of fresh produce his customers are looking for.

The operation was founded by Eng's father, Ng Fat Chung Eng and his French-Canadian wife, Joan of Arc. He'd dreamed of being a farmer from the time he immigrated from China in 1923. But it took the couple until 1950 to make his dream come true. When they retired, Ted—the 9th of the couple's 18 children—and his wife Jannette took over the farm, in 1973. Today, Ted, Jannette and their oldest son Doug have grown it into a 160-acre, 45-greenhouse operation. Ted is the president and Doug is now the CEO and manages the farm.

In their early years Ted and Jannette specialized in conventionally grown crops like broccoli, pumpkins, squash, and kohlrabi for the wholesale markets in Toronto, Ted explains. But as margins on these crops grew tighter and tighter, the couple made the decision to convert to organic vegetable production in 1992, and embraced a whole-farm system to use and reuse as many on-farm resources as possible.

"We base our farming methods around building healthy, balanced soil, supporting biodiversity, and extending the growing season to provide fresh, local produce throughout the year," their website proclaims. "We have some beehives on site, a variety of birds, and bears and other animals that find shelter and food in our back forest and ponds."

Getting through the three-year transition phase was an arduous process; it came with a steep learning curve. Ted reluctantly had to abandon growing one of his favorite crops, broccoli. He tried every insecticide permitted under the organic certification to combat Swede midge—including using pheromones, but had minimal luck.

"It was very expensive and wasn't successful," Ted says. "I had 20 acres of broccoli for two years in a row that was a total crop failure. I only got five cases. It was terrible! And my wife said, 'you grow any more broccoli, I'm going to leave you.'"

While the Eng family no longer grows broccoli, they do grow 60 different types of crops, just under half of the crops listed in the Ontario Seed Guide. Their specialty is Shanghai baby bok choy.

"We try not to overgrow anything," Eng says. "The only exception is lettuce because we're never certain how much we'll be able to sell."

Above. Zephyr Organics is a hive of activity from early March until freeze-up in November. Ted Eng says that crops are planted and harvested in stages to always have fresh product on hand. Doug Eng now manages the operation.

Hive of activity. The farm is a choreographed hive of activity from the time their 12-man Jamaican workforce arrives in early March until they leave after freeze-up in November. Growing field crops like carrots and radishes in greenhouses at the start of the season allows them to offer Ontario fresh vegetables months before the field ones become available.

Roughly 40 of their 160 acres are dedicated to growing red clover to provide nitrogen for future crops. They augment their fields' fertility by incorporating horse manure and with compost sourced from nearby mushroom operations. They use cover crops, crop rotations, use companion planning and manage pests using simple barriers.

"'Many hands make light work' they say, and we couldn't feed the thousands of families we do each year in our wholesale division without our amazing team of experienced employees," the company's website states. While the farm employs both Canadian and foreign workers, Eng says their 12 hard-working and skilled Jamaicans are a key part of their operation's success. Their importance was driven home in 2020 when the COVID pandemic delayed the farm workers' arrival until mid-June. The Engs were caught short-handed for much of the critical spring growing season. It had a huge impact on their balance sheets.

Most of Zephyr Organics' production is sold to organic wholesalers in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). They also supply some health food stores, restaurants, and several area farmers' markets. Now, with the northern suburbs getting closer every year, they've launched their newest venture, a farm store to sell direct to consumers. Ng Fat Chung and Joan of Arc would be proud of how their dream worked out. ‡

Read More

Person smiling on a rooftop farm with spotted olive green baseball cap on holding a flat bin of small golden carrots with a building in the background


Car Park Produce

RISE Farm is Wichita's first rooftop farm.

Smiling person with eyeglasses and arms crossed wearing a heathered grey collared shirt


The Man from Muscotah

Jay Armstrong pays forward the lessons he learned from his ancestors.