By Stew Slater, Staff reporter
Two weeks ago, when the 2012 drought was eased somewhat in this pocket of Ontario on a Sunday evening, Dennis Aarts was gratified to receive just over an inch of rain on his Uniondale farm. The next day, however, he was surprised to learn that, just three kilometres north at McCully’s Hill Farm near St. Marys, over two inches of rain fell.
Aarts took it as a sign that he and his family, including his wife Kerri and his parents John and Rika, had made the right decision.
Effective Aug. 1, the family, through their business Aarden Farms, took over operation of the iconic Perth Line 9 agri-tourism and farm-fresh produce destination, as well as the farm on which it sits.
“My grandfather always called it Sunnyhill Farm. But when we took it over, we started calling it McCully’s Hill Farm because that’s what everybody in the community knew it as,” explained the grandson of Norman McCully, Dave Pullen, who, with is wife Darlene and family, operated the farm on the banks of Trout Creek near the Wildwood Dam through the 1990s and early 2000s.
The Pullens left about four years ago after a failed attempt to establish a land trust foundation to own the property, as a means of raising money to create a top-level agricultural learning centre. Dave Pullen now works as a forester for the County of Huron. Since then, McCully’s Hill’s employees have continued running the farm store, the kitchen (for baking and preserves sold at the store), gardens, maple syrup production and sugarshack tours, and pasture-based livestock for meats sold in the store.
The farm has remained in the hands of the McCully family. Cropland has been rented out.
A letter from the McCully family appears in this week’s edition of the Journal Argus. It gives a brief history of the farm, and “express(es) sincere appreciation to all of our customers, staff, friends, neighbours and associates. With your help, we have been able to provide memorable experiences for thousands of people, including over 30,000 students on school field trips.”
Pullen said it was a difficult decision for his extended family to sell the farm. His grandmother, Elizabeth, lived in the house at the top of the hill until she was in her 90s, and the family has always been proud of the way her husband, Norman, used the farm as a home base — following his return from the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph in the early 1920s — for taking a leadership role in the transformation of farming in Ontario.
Norman McCully, who planted about 10 acres of hardwood trees upon his return and led the way in fencing livestock out of woodlots, went on to be recognized for his breeding of Clydesdale horses, Holstein cattle and Suffolk sheep, as well as the high quality of the crops the farm produced. He has been inducted in the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame.
But Pullen adds the difficulty of the McCully family’s decision was eased significantly by their realization that the Aarts family is as committed as they are to promoting the idea of southwestern Ontario residents having access to food grown in their own communities.
“I think there’s more awareness now about local food now (compared to when he and his wife took over the farm),” Pullen commented. “There’s an awareness that fresh-from-the-farm produce is so much better than something that has travelled thousands of kilometres on a truck.”
“We’re happy that someone’s going to be able to build on the work that we did there, and make it all that it can be.”
Over the span of just a few years after Dennis came home to begin the transition to the next generation, Aarden Farms has expanded on its production of pork and cash crops to also become one of the most well-respected sweet corn producers in the province.
“Dennis is an exceptional sweet corn grower,” Pullen said. “I’ve grown sweet corn for a long, long time, and he’s as good a sweet corn grower as I’ve ever met.”
And it doesn’t stop at sweet corn. Aarden Farms corn, as well as other home-grown fresh produce such as cucumbers, strawberries, tomatoes, potatoes, beets, onions and egg plants, has been for sale at McCully’s and other outlets, as well as at their own Uniondale roadside stand. This year, in advance of the completion of the McCully’s Hill sale, the Aarts even planted their pumpkins and squash at McCully’s.
Dennis Aarts says it will be business as usual for the first little while — at both the Aarden Farms and McCully’s Hill locations. They’ll look first at expanding the kitchen and assessing the entire store’s inventory, before eventually turning to other elements of the farm.
They’ll definitely, however, keep the “McCully’s Hill” name — because that’s what everybody knows it as.