Isbrand Boese: Planting Seeds of Change in Niagara

The Local, March 28, 2022

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the passing of Isbrand Boese. A refugee from the war in Ukraine, he arrived in Niagara in 1930 with his parents and 5 siblings. Within a few decades the Boese family had created a legacy that would change the direction of the agricultural industry.

Rereading his obituary brought back memories of a delightful afternoon in 2008 spent with “Brandy”, as he was known by his family and friends.

I was assisting my friend Janet research farm history for her thesis. Fred and Art Andres invited us to meet with Mr. Boese living at Pleasant Manor, who at 95 was a veritable encyclopaedia of agricultural knowledge.

Delighted to have company, he seated Fred, Art, Janet, and me at the dining room table laden with a treasure trove of books and photos capturing Niagara’s history of farming. Fred and Art eagerly initiated an animated conversation, each one finishing the other’s sentences, a character trait that the twins were well known for.  There was soon plenty of laughter and longing, recalling old memories and local family dynamics.

The Boese family fled Ukraine like thousands of other families in the 1920s and ‘30s. Thirteen-year-old Brandy arrived in Niagara with his parents, five siblings and just a few suitcases in hand. Thanks to MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) and the good credit of Mennonites already established in the community, his parents were able to purchase a 16 acre farm in Beamsville based on only a handshake and a $1.75 down payment. Within four years they bought a much larger farm on Hunter Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake, severing it into three lots for his older brothers John, Martin, and brother-in-law Frank Andres.

Peaches, cherries, pears, and tomatoes were in high demand in the canning industry with close to 35 canneries operating in the region at that time.While most family farms were 10-15 acres, the Boese family’s growing investments in farm land proved lucrative and they soon had the cash to expand once again, this time purchasing 75 acres of prime farmland in Port Dalhousie.

As their farming operation expanded, Brandy recognized that their equipment needed upgrading to manage the growing acreage. He became known as an agricultural innovator during those years, developing the idea of the “cherry picker”. It’s now an essential piece of equipment in the orchards, which raises harvesters in a “bucket” that allows them to work safely instead of relying on ladders prone to tipping in soft soil.

Up until that time pesticides were hauled around the farm on a stone boat or wagon, a two man operation. Art and Fred grew up on the family farm on Niven Road. They remembered their father Bill Andres Sr. hosing down the trees with the sprayer nozzle while their mother pumped furiously by hand on the wagon bed. The Boese farm was one of the first to implement the system driving a fan blown sprayer behind a tractor, the forerunner of the present methods.

In 1946 the Boese family built a large canning factory in the north end of Lake Street in St. Catharines. It quickly became one of the largest in Canada, shipping Niagara’s premium peaches, tender fruit, and tomatoes across North America, with a staff numbering close to a 1000 at its peak.

Niagara was experiencing a post war economic boom, with McKinnons (later GM) and manufacturing plants springing up on former farm land. Competing with the abundance of manufacturing jobs, the Boese family had to find new ways to attract a dependable labour force.

The cannery advertised out west, attracting many young women from Winnipeg and the prairies in search of employment (and husbands).  The arrival of eligible women certainly injected new life and romance into the social life of local churches!

As he pointed out familiar faces in the photo albums, Brandy told us about Mennonite friends and relatives entrenched in deep poverty in Paraguay after fleeing Ukraine in WW2. Having been a child refugee himself, he had a heart for people who shared that experience.The Boese family sponsored hundreds of these families to come to Niagara. Within a year or two these same families were buying homes in north end St. Catharines, thanks to the guarantee of steady employment and Mennonite connections in the community.

Brandy’s story then took us on an unexpected turn as he opened another large book, scanning the pages until his finger alighted on one particular page. It was a book about the Japanese internment in Canada. He told us about hearing firsthand the stories of Japanese descendants who were working for a nursery in Vineland. They had lost their homes, all of their belongings – everything confiscated by the Canadian government in the 1940s, despite the fact that they were Canadian citizens who had lived here for multiple generations.

He invited several of the men to work on his Port Dalhousie farm. With surprising candour, he told us how this decision drew the ire and a racist diatribe of Reeve Robert Johnson, later the Mayor of St. Catharines. It was Brandy’s first experience witnessing overt racism in Niagara.

Shocked and dismayed over the opposition from the Reeve and local politicians, Brandy pressed on with his decision to hire Japanese workers, assisting them to have their families join them in the community.

With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Brandy recalled how Robert Johnson was asked to present the student achievement awards at the public school in Port Dalhousie. Mr. Johnson did not expect to have to present the trophy for highest academic achievement to young Thomas Matsushita, the son of the man whom he had vehemently opposed moving into the community.

The other gentleman, Gary Hotta, became an indispensable employee on the field and in management, appreciated for his ability to connect with farmers and negotiate sales contracts across the region.The experience sensitized Boese to those being discriminated against and marginalized in his own community.It also motivated him to look at other possibilities to creatively solve the looming labour crisis on the farms.

The Beginning of a new era in Niagara agriculture

In the mid 1960s, John Smith, owner of Cherry Lane Orchards in Vineland, and Brandy took a trip to Michigan to meet with a few farmers who had hired Jamaican men on an agricultural pilot program. They were impressed with the fact that men were so quick to develop the skills necessary for high yield crops and that they stayed on until the completion of the season.

Returning from their fact finding mission, they were met with a less than enthusiastic response from some of the most influential growers within the industry. Brandy and John Smith insisted that $1.35/hour was a reasonable wage for skilled labourers. Other employers disagreed, sticking to a $1/hour wage paid to the workers at the completion of each day. Many farmers relied on men who they picked up at the Farm Labour pool on Grote Street in St. Catharines or at the downtown farm market.

Boese and Smith persisted, travelling to Ottawa to present their case to the Federal Government, reminding officials that Jamaica was part of the British commonwealth and it would be greatly beneficial for both countries. Canada had already developed a domestic labour program with Jamaican women coming to work in Toronto during the 1960s, which gave them the confidence to push forward with their request.

Despite much scepticism in the agricultural industry, 273 Jamaicans arrived for the first season in 1966. The excitement was mutual on both sides!

Brandy got his 44 member crew settled, providing them with the proper work gear and warm clothing. On the first day of work he greeted them enthusiastically at a group meeting. The supervisor then took over saying, “OK, let’s go boys.”

Nobody moved. One of the men stepped forward and calmly stated, “We are not boys.”

It was the beginning of a learning curve for Brandy as he began to understand the importance of cultivating a work environment based on respect and dignity.

Brandy was also proud of his latest purchase for the farm – a shiny Bluebird coach bus. On Sunday mornings he would pick up whoever wanted to come to church. It was well attended at first but gradually dropped off as “it wasn’t lively like back home.”

Sunday afternoons were reserved for outings that everyone was eager to join in on. Dressed in their best, Brandy would load up the bus and take them sightseeing to Toronto, Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, fall fairs and Niagara Falls. It was a great way to build a “team“ and created friendships that were treasured for many years to come.

In the winter Brandy and his wife travelled to Jamaica. They rented a car and travelled the country roads, visiting every one of their 44 employees over the next few years.

He sat back in the chair with a smile, lost in his recollections momentarily during our conversation.

“Do you know, they didn’t have road signs back then. It was a lot of guesswork to find those places up in the mountains.” Sometimes they would lose their way, navigating steep mountain switchbacks in the dark.

It would take a while for his wife to calm down after some of those expeditions he mused. He definitely had the gift of understatement!

Meeting the men and their families in these rural towns made it all worth it. On many visits, most of the town would be waiting to greet him, the families of his employees dressed in their finest “going to church” clothes. He especially enjoyed spending time with their children, finally putting faces to all of the family members his employees had told him about back in Niagara.

He began to appreciate how hard it was for them to leave family behind. He also began to understand how important it was for their families to know that their husbands and fathers were treated with dignity and respect during their time in Canada.

That memorable afternoon with Brandy, Fred and Art passed far too quickly but was the beginning of many more conversations to come in the years following.

Today we are able to enjoy the fruits of their investment thanks to the vision of Niagara’s early innovators.