“Once, we just had a cash box, and a freezer full of beef,” Melinda McArthur tells me, on a sunny day, as we walk up the unpaved drive toward the heart of Heatherlea. Taking in the pastoral scene—a picture-perfect, two-story farmhouse, an old shop, plus a trio of barns and a silo, just rustic enough to seem real—one of their 60 black angus cows wanders past. She’s heading back out to the rolling green pasture, but in no particular hurry to get there. Turning a corner away from the farmhouse, we wander into one of the barns, the sun shafting dreamily through the wooden slats of the back wall, the sweet smell of straw hitting my nose after single step inside.
“Fun fact,” McArthur smiles. “I married my husband in this barn.” And what’s unspoken, at least for the moment, is the reality that this whole, beautiful place could’ve been gone. That if they hadn’t turned that humble cash box into one of the most successful fresh-and-local retail operations in the region, this farm might look a lot different, today.
Set on 118 acres, Heatherlea Acres has gone through a number of incarnations, says Pat McArthur, Melinda’s mother-in-law. (Melinda is married to Don, son of Pat and her husband, Gord, whose descendants started farming in this area back in 1871.) The Farm Shoppe, a handsome wood-and-stone structure that stretches across the front of the property, right on Highway 19 in Caledon, has made this farm a destination in itself. On the day of my visit, the parking lot is full, hungry customers coming in for fresh-cut steaks, handmade sausage, ready-to-serve, from-scratch meals, and much more.
Now a prosperous and popular place, Pat remembers that, prior to its construction, they tried a few different initiatives to inject new life (and cash) into their operation, including running an ill-fated B & B on the farm. It didn’t go well. “I wouldn’t do it again,” says Pat, a little ruefully. (Melinda added a memory—“I remember hearing about maple syrup on the walls.”) Closing the B&B, opened that simple, first version of the shop, originally located in a long, low-slung building set back from the road, in May 2009. In 2011, they added a kitchen to cook and sell hot meals. At some point, they replaced the cash box with a real register. “It cost $300,” notes Pat. “We thought that was a fortune.”
Pat and Gord spent time with a farm consultant to see where they should go from there. He laid out three options—quit altogether, expand the house, or add a new building. They opted for the latter, and Pat remembers that, once they opened the doors on the new Farm Shoppe, it was quickly very clear that they had made the right decision. Because the old, former shop had been set back from the road, she says that only men felt comfortable coming in. With the new building and wide-open location, their business literally doubled overnight. “It was hard to fathom,” says Pat, a little wistfully.
And business just continued to grow. After a walk around the property, Melinda pointing out that the rolling landscape on this stretch of the Niagara Escarpment is perfect for pasturing animals, she takes me into the cutting room in the Shoppe, with big windows looking out onto the retail space. “You can see in, like an old-school butcher shop,” she observes. Here, they make their sausages, press their own hamburgers, cut their own tomahawks and ribeyes and top sirloin and more. And in the room next door they dry-age those beautiful steaks, anywhere from 21 to 140 days. “It’s just like wine, it gets dryer, and more textured, the longer you age it.”
Walking past a display case filled with meat and onto the floor of the store, I see rows of groceries, everything from colourful produce to all sorts of sauces and juices and cheeses and eggs and coffee and quinoa, boutique brands that aren’t mass-produced, and that you wouldn’t find in a typical supermarket. Plus stacks of those freshly prepared meals, which customers can just pop into the oven when they get home, everything from gourmet mac-and-cheese to butter chicken and beef bourguignon, to their all-time bestseller, chicken pot pies. Those are all sold out, today. “They just fly off the shelf,” says Melinda.
And ultimately, Pat says, their greatest joy comes from serving the community, literally feeding the people around them, along with a large contingent of visitors who come from around the GTA. “Literally once every weekend, someone says, ‘We’re so glad you’re here,” she says, shaking her head, a little. “Our passion is to offer them the best food. It’s been an incredible journey.”
By Tim Johnson