Family farm serves up meals, sanitizer and drive-thru spirits

Waterloo alumni, who transformed an ailing dairy acreage into a sustainable farm, distillery and restaurant, respond to COVID-19

On a family farm in Ayr, Ont., brothers Jordan (BES ’13) and Nolan Vanderheyden (BASc ’16) have transformed their thriving business so they can serve their community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID-19 has had a significant impact on our business,” Nolan says. “We had to pivot in major ways, but they’re all gaining positive traction.”

Willibald, the Vanderheydens’ distillery and farm-to-table restaurant, changed dramatically when Ontario declared a state of emergency on March 17. With their doors closed to diners, they started providing fresh farm-to-home meals that included appetizers, pasta, sauces, desserts and pizza kits. To support physical distancing, they also created a drive-thru for Willibald’s beer and spirits.

Meanwhile, the distillery pumped out hand sanitizer for the community, including local charities, shelters, front-line workers and essential businesses. Their sanitizer followed the formula provided by the World Health Organization and received a stamp of approval from Health Canada.

“We’ll continue to make sanitizer for anyone who needs it to get through this difficult time,” Nolan says. “Our operations will stay the same until post-COVID plans roll out.”

Willibald distillery

A look inside Willibald Distillery.

The transformation of Willibald during the COVID-19 crisis was just the latest change to the 100-acre farm. Today’s operation looks nothing like the hobby farm that Jordan and Nolan’s parents imagined when they bought the property in 2000. They had no idea that their sons would transform it into a leading local business, or a prime destination on southern Ontario’s culinary scene.

The property connected the Vanderheydens with a piece of their history: Jordan and Nolan’s father came from a family of farmers. The family decided to embrace life on the land after retiring from their travel business.

Originally used for dairy production, the farm had fallen on hard times.

“It was in pretty rough shape,” Nolan says. The land had been farmed conventionally for decades. Chemicals and poor crop rotation had depleted the nutrients in the soil.

Jordan, who was in the environment and business program at Waterloo, wanted to restore the farm. With his parents’ blessing, he started looking for ways to bring it back to life.

Jordan Vanderheyden in Willibald distillery

Jordan Vanderheyden (BES ’13) in Willibald Distillery.

Returning to its roots with sustainable farming

He found that there was room in the market to start a distillery, so he recruited Nolan, a mechanical engineering student, and their childhood friend Cam Formica to help him launch the operation. While they produced spirits, they would also tend the farm using sustainable practices.

They called their company Willibald, the middle name of Jordan and Nolan’s paternal grandfather.

Before the founders could begin working on recipes for gin and whisky, they had to rebuild and rezone their barn for distilling. Next, they installed a geothermal loop under the parking lot to cool the stills and reduce water consumption. Between the barn and the fields, they erected solar panels to offset their energy use.

When it came to caring for the soil and crops, the team chose to turn back the clock. The young farmers let their cattle graze in the fields under the watch of a neighbour. Leftover sludge from distilling, a mixture of water and finely ground grain, became their fertilizer. A lifelong friend built an apiary on the property, which allowed bees to pollinate the plants.

After just a couple of years, the farm started to bounce back.

Nolan Vanderheyden with puppy

Nolan Vanderheyden (BASc ’16) holding a puppy.

Sustainable practices mean better crops and higher yields

“We’ve seen a better-quality product, and the land is healthier,” Jordan says. “We have higher yields as well.”

With more food on-site, Jordan, Nolan and Cam expanded their business to include a farm-to-table restaurant. The menu features beef from their cattle, vegetables grown on their land by a local gardener and honey from their friend’s apiary.

The Vanderheyden hobby farm has become a popular destination in Ontario, with more than 20,000 visitors to the restaurant last year. With the addition of a brewery to their operation, the brothers expect that number will grow once their regular business resumes. As for the food waste that comes with expanding their business, they direct it away from the landfill as much as possible and use it to nourish the fields and livestock on neighbouring farms.

“To have everything work together is really cool and exciting,” Nolan says. “Every year, we have big goals, big ideas. We’re gaining inspiration and doing one thing at a time.”

Photos by Aaron Wynia