‘It’s a lifestyle:’ Cornish family named 2022 Peterborough Farm Family of the Year

The Cornish family, operators of Indian River Acres farm in Otonabee-South Monaghan Township, have been named the 2022 Farm Family of the Year by the Peterborough County Federation of Agriculture and the Peterborough and the Kawarthas Chamber of Commerce.

The yearly award acknowledges a farm family that has displayed good farming practices, an interest in the farming community and participation by the family in the farm’s operation.

Kevin Cornish and Janet Dawson have been running the farm — with the help of their sons Liam and Lucas — since buying the 93-acre property in 2010.

“We’re ecstatic,” Dawson said. “When we received the notice, my husband and I were completely speechless. It’s such an honour.”

Dawson is the third generation of her family to operate the farm, which is located at 2275 Indian River Line, about one kilometre south of the hamlet of Indian River.

Dawson’s parents, Marg and Allan Dawson, ran the then-Almar Acres as a beef operation. Dawson’s grandfather helmed the farm as a dairy operation.

Initially, Dawson and Cornish weren’t sure if they wanted to raise cattle or take the farm in another direction — but with a shared passion for growing their own food, the pair soon settled on operating a vegetable farm.

Every year, the Cornish family grows 12 acres of sweet corn, five acres of pumpkins, squash and gourds and around 15,000 garlic bulbs, along with 1 1/2 acres of picking and field cucumbers, asparagus, beans, beets, herbs, lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, potatoes and zucchini. Pumpkins and sweet corn are the only vegetables on the farm planted by machine — the rest are planted by hand and hand-weeded. All the produce is hand-harvested.

The farm is open annually from the first of July to the end of October. A farm store is managed at the end of the family driveway, selling freshly harvested produce directly to customers over the three-month period.

As Dawson explains, a lot of work goes into preparing for those three months each year.

The wrap-up fall months are all about re-nourishing the soil. In the winter, Dawson and Cornish attend conferences and trade shows, seeking the best seed varieties.

When spring arrives, they’re preparing the soil, planting early seed varieties and carrying out 10-weeks of sweet corn planting.

When the family isn’t selling produce in the summertime, they’re donating to food banks and Kawartha Food Share.

“We feel very strongly about making sure everybody in the community has access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Dawson said.

Dawson said the pandemic brought challenges — but also pushed the farm to adapt and embrace versatility.

Dawson and her family used to allow customers to follow the honour system to drop off cash and pick up produce.

hen COVID-19 hit and health regulations arrived, that all changed. The family applied for a grant and hired summer students to manage what is now the farm store, and Indian River Acres set up an online store and began offering a curbside pickup program.

“The pandemic really forced us to think critically about how we were going to market and sell our produce. If you look at the silver linings of the pandemic, it led us to modernize our operation,” Dawson said.

Liam and Lucas found new ways to pitch in, too. The duo began growing and selling fresh-cut flowers — now a popular staple.

Reflecting on the award, which will be presented at the Peterborough Business Excellence Awards on Oct. 19, Dawson said running the farm isn’t just about operating a business.

“It’s a lifestyle. What we love most is being able to work together as a family to produce food for our community. We feel a strong purpose to be stewards of the land and share with our community all that it can give.”

Brendan Burke is a staff reporter at the Examiner, based in Peterborough. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

Brendan Burke, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Peterborough Examiner