Ben Froese, a third generation farmer, is the Grape Grower of Ontario’s sixth Grape King.
At just 39 years of age, he is operating two farms under the name Willow Lake Ventures, one of which was his father’s, and the other in St. Davids, which he purchased when he decided he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.
In 2002, when Ben was a just a teen, he lost his father James Froese in a tragic collision on Concession 2, when a driver failed to stop at Line 2.
Ben explains his dad and uncle at one time operated the family farm on Niven Road, on land his grandfather Jake Froese, a two-term lord mayor of Niagara-on-the-Lake in the 70s, had started farming. Jake also had property on Lakeshore Road, living there and farming it, but eventually swapped homesteads with James. Ben’s parents took over the Lakeshore Road acreage in 1996.
“My dad wanted to venture off on his own, and I’m lucky he did,” he says. “I took it over from my mom to keep it going, and she sold it to me 10 or 12 years ago.”
His mother still lives there, and Ben runs the farm, which, added to his St. Davids vineyards, “something I started completely by myself with my wife,” equals about 100 acres.
He refers to that as “a small farm,” one that also includes chickens and some pigs, although his focus is on grapes.
After high school, Ben went to Niagara College, graduated with a four-year business degree, and then travelled to New Zealand for a one-year co-op position in farming.
When he returned from New Zealand in his early 20s, he took over the family business, which was planted with peaches, strawberries and wine grapes. He then converted the entire farm to vineyards, and as an Arterra supplier, he continues to grow several different varieties of wine grapes on both properties, including ice wine.
“I felt really clearly that this would be a great opportunity, and it would be crazy to turn it down,” he says of taking over his dad’s farm, and travelling in New Zealand made him realize how much he had waiting for him at home.
“We get along great,” says Ben, referring to the family members operating the Niven Road farm, “but I have a piece of my own now. We have our little piece of heaven here with our kids, and we really appreciate it.”
“It’s the lifestyle we chose,” he explains. “We live a little differently — we live off the land. We really try to just do everything ourselves and be self-sufficient, and that’s what I’m trying to teach my kids.”
He and his wife Pam have four children, aged six to 10, all attending St. Davids Public School, and she works at home with him — helping to run the kids to all their sports keeps them both busy. She has a master’s degree after attending Brock University and then a university in Britain, and may one day pursue her goal of working in the area of criminal justice, helping children.
Ben coaches hockey and lacrosse, and remembers how much he enjoyed sports as a kid, with his dad coaching.
When Ben went to Col. John Butler on East and West Line, “I was always told there had been a Froese at Butler from the day it opened.” That continued until the day it closed, he added.
One of his kids just finished a project at school, he says, on the history of Pam’s family. Her mother Wendy was from a generation of farmers — it’s her family that is represented on the Clark Family Vineyard label on Peller and Trius Wines. Pam, he says, “is a seventh generation granddaughter of Col. John Butler, so she has roots here even deeper than mine.”
He considers their two farm properties the perfect size for them, allowing them to focus on quality, with a small group of people helping.
He stresses the importance of his five workers from Jamaica, men he considers friends, men he has worked with since he started farming.
Before he married and had a family, he says, he used to play dominoes with them, eat pizza and wings, and work along side them every day. Now, he starts every morning by heading to their house to discuss what they are going to do for the day. “We’re always together. It’s those guys who make this possible for me,” he stresses. “I’m just steering the ship.” He also has a Vietnamese couple who live in Niagara Falls and help out on the farm.
Ben says James “was such a good father to me. I feel I got a whole lifetime worth of knowledge and encouragement and blessing from those short years I had with him.”
Losing his father at such a young age made him strong, and that experience, along with his faith in God, and the work ethic his father taught him, “made me choose the steps I’m taking today.”
He and Pam share that experience — she lost her father, Joel Murray, in a horrible work accident at GM, when she was in her first year of high school.
“We think about that all the time. Our kids don’t have a grandfather. That taught us to be thankful every single day. I know I could go tomorrow. Losing my dad at such an early age gives me reason to be thankful for every little thing.”
They are both very passionate about the town, and are grateful to live and work in NOTL. And Ben says he’s also very passionate about farming. “If I do something, I go all out. And we’re just one of the younger generation that’s doing it, trying to be mindful of the environment and making it work.”
The young people his age, bringing up their families and giving back to the community, have their parents to thank for setting a good example, he says. He speaks of the baby boomer generation as “an amazing group of people who worked hard to make this community what it is,” and have passed that on to their kids.
He also speaks of other farmers who have been mentors — Kevin Watson, who took over his farm at a young age after his father died, Doug Hernder, Albrecht Seeger, all three of them Grape Kings, and other “great farmers who set a good example for us.”
Many of his friends have had to move out of town to buy houses and find jobs, and he says he’s fortunate to be one of a core of his generation who has been able to stay and bring up a family here. “There are a lot of people who would love to come back, and sometimes we take it for granted,” he says. “I don’t want to ever take it for granted.”
A Grape King, says the Grape Growers of Ontario, is chosen for being an “exemplary grower,” and also someone who will be an ambassador for Ontario grape growers.
Ben says it’s an honour for him and his family, but stresses again, “what is most important to me is the workers. This wouldn’t happen without them.”