Why is Carrot Fest so focused on carrots? The majority of Canada's carrots are produced in Bradford West Gwillimbury and specifically the Holland Marsh, which has undergone an interesting evolution in the past century.
1. The Holland Marsh stretches across more than 16,000 acres and 60% of the area is agricultural, the remaining 40% wetland. These farms were only created in the 1920s through marsh drainage systems.
2. Rotten forest vegetation became the foundation for the first layer of organic soil that formed 4000 years ago in the Holland Marsh area. Roughly 30 cm of dead matter built up every year, resulting in extremely fertile black organic soil (i.e. muck soil). Partially decomposed vegetation accumulated on top of the muck soil, forming a layer known as peat. Muck soil and peat can hold 3-4 times their dry weight in water, which allows the Holland River valley to be a saturated marshland.
3. In the late 1880s to early 1900s, marsh grasses were cut and used for stuffing mattresses. The first hay harvesters used a scythe to cut the hay, and twisted the hay into ropes by hand. The curled ropes were later unfurled and teased by mattress-makers to fill mattresses. In the 1890s, horse-drawn mowers replaced hand-powered scythes in hay harvesting. Horses wore “wooden shoes”, which were rectangular boards tied to their feet, so that they could pull mowers across the Marsh.
4. The Marsh drainage project began in 1925, in which the Marsh was drained of its top layer of mud, so that vegetables could be grown on the muck soil underneath. In the early 1900s, Dave Watson was a farmer who had acquired a grocery business where the Village Inn now stands. He contacted Professor William Day at the Ontario Agricultural College to see if the Marsh could be drained by building a canal. Professor Day recognized the value in the muck and peat soils for vegetable farming, and led the drainage project in which a 24 km canal was built around the perimeter of the Marsh to divert water from the Holland River.
5. Old cars were buried to form dykes and willows were planted over to anchor them, in order to prevent the canals from overflowing into the fields. A dam was also constructed, and pumps were used to control water flow at the dam to bring the Holland River water over the dam and into Lake Simcoe. The Marsh drainage project was completed in 1930.
6. Initially, Canadian farmers weren’t used to farming the muck soil in the Marsh and in the early 1930s, 18 Dutch families settled in the area to farm the Marsh. Today, many farms in the Marsh are run by descendants of the original Dutch families in the 1930s, with 75% of farmers second generation and 56% third generation farming the same property.
7. Today the Marsh is known as the “salad bowl of Ontario”, for supplying 14% of all vegetables in Ontario. The Marsh grows more than 66 kinds of vegetables, with carrots and onions as the predominant crops.
8. Roughly 36% of the Holland Marsh farmland is used to produce carrots. Other vegetables grown include onions, celery, parsnips, beets, Chinese broccoli, and Asian radish.
9. The cost of the Holland Marsh drainage project was $197,000 divided between the three townships, and subsidized by the Ontario government. Today, produce from the Holland Marsh is worth an estimated $450 million annually, from 125 farms.
10. Drones have been used to take aerial pictures of crops in the Holland Marsh, as a new way to detect early signs of crop disease like leaf blight. These tests were performed by the University of Guelph’s Muck Crops Research Station in the Holland Marsh, which conducts research on topics including disease control, insect control, weed control, and nutrient management.
Do you have an interesting fact or piece of Holland Marsh history you'd like to share? Leave a comment down below!