Grandma Lambe’s Legacy

David Lambe
Grandma Lambe's Fruit Market
Meaford locator tag

Grandma Lambe’s is much more than your average family-run local fruit stand.

On behalf of Grey County Tourism, Nelson Phillips conducted the following interview.

It’s overcast, grey clouds swirl in the sky as the birds recover from a good rain the night before. I’m wearing a pair of Vans slip-ons and I’m headed to a wet farm. Perfect, I think to myself. Killer way to start the week. Why couldn’t I remember to grab my Welly’s?

It’s the first week of fall. I’m heading east through Meaford towards Christie Beach and Thornbury. The scarecrows disappear and the escarpment subtly begins its rise upward on the south side of the road. A local institution appears. A barn, a pond, and a roadside hoop house that’s home to some of Canada’s most popular apples. With markets for Grey County fruit on both west and east coasts of the country, and even down into the States, Grandma Lambe’s is much more than your average family-run local fruit stand.

David Lambe shows me the lay of the land. As a third gen local apple grower, he knows this place - and this business - like the back of his hand, but he also has a keen eye for what’s coming in the future. 

Grandma Lambes Mac Apples

Nelson Phillips (NP)

This place is a bit of an institution — it’s a household name, so to speak. How did this place get its start?

David Lambe (DL)

Just beside the fruit market here is where my grandparents lived. Back in the late 40’s early 50’s my Grandma Lambe started selling apples out of her garage in the fall. In 1984, I took over their house so my wife and I and our children moved in. We stuck with it for a couple years… then we decided to start to build a separate entity here for the fruit market itself. When we started it, instead of seeing fruit go to waste my mother started to make pies in her kitchen in the house, so that’s when we started to make the apple, peach, and cherry pies.

 

We’re standing in the back of the Grandma Lambe’s shop, filled with empty fruit crates, signalling a good yield and an even better retail operation. David’s son is cruising the orchard in a tractor. His daughter is busy offloading pies into a walk-in freezer and running the cash register simultaneously. There are Lambe’s everywhere. 

 

NP

So it’s a real old school family business?

DL

Yeah, it goes back. I’m the third generation. My [children] are the fourth. My daughter is here in the store pretty much managing it now. My son works and manages the orchard year-round. My mother - who is 90 - is still at the store every day and takes a lot of pride in making lemon meringue pies on the weekends.

NP

Oh yeah, that’s her specialty?

DL

Yeah [laughs], that’s her specialty now. That’s what she does. 

Farmhouse signs inside Grandma Lambes

NP

This stretch of Grey County is known as Apple Country. What does Grey offer to fruit farmers and to this type of business specifically? Is it superior in some way?

DL

We’ve always been known for our Macintosh in the early years - and our Northern Spy’s. Those were the two biggest volume apples grown in this area and actually, the biggest acreages of any area from Southern Ontario and even Eastern Ontario for those varieties. Georgian Bay creates quite a niche in this area here with the circulation of hot and cold weather off the escarpment. It’s comparable to Niagara-on-the-lake with their protection from the lake. We get a lot of early frost protection from the Bay if it’s open and a lot of snow in the winter for protection for the newer varieties that have shallow roots.

 

I fancy myself an outdoorsman - but my knowledge of the land is nothing compared to David’s understanding of the biological and geographical elements that contribute to the success of Georgian Bay’s apple country. His knowledge is both experiential and rooted in research and science. Farmer’s understand their land like no one else, and David speaks of his a though it’s another member of the family; capable of change, cherished, and even flawed. 

 

NP

In terms of soil, Grey is also a very unique place, am I right?

DL

Yeah. There are all different categories of the soil, but a lot of it around here - I mean, our farm goes from gravelly loam to hard clay, and our other farm across the highway, just 200 feet away is sand. So it’s the diversity of the old shoreline and the old lake bottom that really gives us our better type soil for fruit.

Apple Orchard

NP

How big was the original farm, and how big is it now?

DL

When my grandfather started to plant trees in the 1940’s - we still have some of them here - there’s a row of Striped Snow’s that no one else grows at this point, and those trees are 75 to 80 years old… my Dad bought some property so that gave us about 35-40 acres.

It was just a fall thing. All the neighbours got together and got their extra cash - their Christmas money for buying gifts or whatever. I remember as a kid not seeing some of the pickers that we had because the farmers and their wives wouldn’t get here ‘til the ploughing was done… Over the years it went from 20-30 acres, then to 75 or 80 acres, and now we’re about 145 acres. With newer volumes and the new style of trees we’re planting, 40 acres gives you as much as the old 100 used to thanks to spacing.

NP

As you’ve expanded, did you stick to those staple Grey County varieties?

DL

With all the different root stalks that are coming out, you can pretty much program your orchard to the root stalk that’ll grow in your soil, so other apple varieties that weren’t available in the Georgian Bay area are available thanks to heartier root stalks.

NP

A bit of science behind ‘er then.

DL

They’re always trying to develop new varieties. Honey Crisp came in here eight or 10 years ago and it was actually the saviour of the apple industry because it’s a premium fruit - growers get a premium dollar for it, so that really helped keep guys in the fruit growing business. 

apples

NP

I’m from Owen Sound and my parents live over in Craigleith, so I drive this route a lot. You notice when a whole orchard is torn out, or burned to rotate the trees. How does that work in terms of maintaining a sustainable business?

DL

When you go out you’ll see the cash crop grain growers - they’ll go from corn, to beans, to fall wheat - and they’ll do that all within three to five years. Whereas the apple guys — I mean we’re looking at an apple orchard that’s 25-40 years old that we’re going to take out, but we’re looking at three to five years before we’ll get any kind of apples off that new tree at all.

The cost of replanting? When my grandparents originally planted the spacing was 40 feet by 40 feet, so you’d get about 33 trees per acre. Now some of the guys are planting 1000-1500 per acre - but in all fairness to the guys and to ourselves who are planting more trees per acre, we’re cutting down on labour costs. No one has ladders anymore. 20 foot ladders used to be the norm for standard sized trees, now if you have a seven foot step ladder, away ya go. 

Over looking the field

NP

We’ve talked about the past and the present - what about the future? Where are you headed?

DL

I don’t think there're any limits to what we can do in this industry. It's all about keeping up with new varieties, keeping up with quality for our markets and our packers so they can pack a superior apple to what may flood in from the States or somewhere else.

NP

Any new innovations or proprietary Grandma Lambe’s process?

DL

The big thing for us is that we’ve developed as a family, so when new generations come in they always come with fresh ideas. Back in 1984 we had no idea that this industry would grow to where it is now.  We’ve got another store south of Owen Sound near Chatsworth, so if you can get your product direct-sales to the customer themselves it’s a lot better for your pocketbook.

 

I’m always humbled to see or hear about people enjoying local products in faraway lands. Imagine heading to Italy and finding a Sicilian who loves the Hip - that kind of glee. So to understand that Grey’s apples are nationally coveted, means there’s a taste of this place occupying innumerable kitchen tables, restaurants, and pantries all the way from Antigonish to Tofino - and that’s somethin’ special. 

 

Crate of pears

NP

Where are people eating Grey County apples? How far does your distribution reach?

DL

We’ve got two really great packers in this area. Global Fruit and Bay Growers near Thornbury. They’re packing them to the west coast and to the east coast - there are people in the grocery industry who want a specific apple from our area that grows better here and keeps a little better on the shelf.

NP

Literally Canada wide?

DL

It’s Canada wide, and you know there used to be markets for our Empire apples in England. Products of ours, are even going into the States, too. It would be tough to say worldwide, but it’s getting darn close.

 

When David and his family aren’t growing the fruit that makes Grey County such a revered growing region across the nation, they’re avid supporters of the hospitality hubs and cultural institutions this neck of the woods has to offer.

 

DL

We’re busy for six to eight weeks but there’s always something else to do here. There are museums and art galleries popping up all over the place - in-house art galleries, that type of thing. Restaurants - you can go out anytime you want and get yourself a really great meal. And you know what, there are always those great Sunday afternoon drives in Grey County.

It’s getting to the point where it’s a lot like Niagara-on-the-Lake. Where you can bike around and visit wineries, taste-testing - that type of thing. And it’s getting there, it’s just Grey County is so vast you may just need a motorcycle to get around instead of a bicycle. 

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