By Ann Marie Chechalk
John Wiens is ‘in a jam’, not a pickle, a definite jam. Up to his elbows in 39 different kinds of jam and he loves it. “I like to do this, I need to do something and I like to do something for others. “I enjoy making jam immensely,” he says. “Everyone asks me, how did I get into making jam? My story starts back in 1945,” he shares.
“After the war ended in 1945 there was a food shortage all over Europe. My mother taught us to pick wild berries in the forests. She also showed us how to dig for leftover potatoes after the farmers had harvested their crops and because of our mother’s resourcefulness we rarely went hungry. This foraging I have carried with me all through my life and today much of my jam comes from gleaning. Friends and acquaintances share fruit that is too small or too ripe and it is perfect for jam.” They share what they have in their gardens and on their fruit trees. People have many rhubarb plants but they only need rhubarb from one plant and then they offer the rest to John. Word gets around and friends are always sharing their harvest. John and his wife Barbara have not always been in the jam business, this is quite a recent enterprise.
John came to Canada in 1952 when he was 17 ½ years old with his brother who was nineteen. In 1954 their mother came to visit. She cooked a big batch of plum jam from Lombard plums. They came from a farmer who had sold all his #1 plums and was ready to dump all the beautiful overripe plums. “After she left my brother and I enjoyed the fantastic jam,” he says. Perhaps the seed was planted for jam making those many years ago?
In 1957 Barbara and John married and began raising pigs and they continued in the hog industry for 47 years until retirement in 2004. “We were never short of bacon, like we were in the war,” laughs John.
John was becoming restless. He had worked hard all his life and he needed something to do. “Here in Niagara we live in a fruit land where you can find an abundance of tree fruits and berries. One night when I could not sleep because I had not worked hard enough I remembered the Lombard plums and my mother’s jam. It was summer and I got up early and took some golden plums that a neighbour had shared and they were my first trial batch of jam. It did not turn out like my mothers and I was disappointed. I was able to find my mothers recipe and with some tweaking I was able to cut back on the sugar and make a jam that is not too sweet. In a renovated farm building I made my first small batch with the right flavour and consistency.”
“This jam cooking was supposed to be a hobby for my retirement years. The jam that the family did not need was given to fundraising events. But soon people learned of my jam and I was getting offers of more and more fruit. I began looking for a market for my jam. Again another sleepless night a fairy tale came into my mind. A poor farmer could no longer make his living on his small farm. He decided to travel into the world to make his fortune at the end of the rainbow. The neighbour who bought the farm worked hard and plowed a little deeper. One day his plow struck something. After digging a little, he found a treasure chest full of gold. That was it; sell your jam at the farm, the gold is on your own farm.”
Neighbours Mike and Sandy Pereault sell their fruit, garlic and John’s jam at the fruit stand at the edge of the Wien’s farm, on the main road to Niagara on the Lake. Tourists and local people stop for the fresh fruit and the amazing jam.
John is very concerned with producing a first class product. The kitchen is inspected regularly by the Niagara Region Health Department, “you need the proper tools and I get enormous pleasure from producing a good product.” “I lay everything out in my head before I start and I know how to do it and how much of each variety of different fruits to combine. I know that blueberries are flat without another fruit added and rhubarb is sour by itself.” What is his favourite flavour? “They are all so nice, cherry and apricot, my latest batch is my favourite,” he jokes.
“If you don’t like work this job is not for you, when the fruit is ready I make some into jam and I can fruit to make into jam in the winter months when the fruitstand is not open. It gives us something to do.” Who helps John? “We work on our own schedules, Barbara helps with labeling the jars and putting them into boxes. Our Grandchildren Sylvana, Andreas and Niko help to gather the fruit, cut it and label the jars. I hope they continue on with the jam business.”
The jam business, a micro farming enterprise helps to maintain their status as a viable farm. “I see it as a new trend this micro farming, that consumers are greeting with enthusiasm; local fruits, fruit stands and farm markets, I hope it is a trend that will continue.”
John and Barbara still have time for partying. “We have lots of friends and relatives and we have a nice social life with them. We are often invited out for supper.” Every Monday, John cooks a real German meal for all the family; at least twelve people, meat or salmon or pea meal bacon and vegetables and dessert or rice pudding and buns and of course jam and coffee and cake. Short holidays and volunteering is also a part of their lives. John is a director on the Niagara North Federation of Agriculture, a director of the Niagara Credit Union and of the Virgil Senior Citizen Home. Just now he is enjoying preaching occasionally in German several times at year at his church.
The jam business might have started all because of a fairy tale but it ends with a happy ending for his customers. “I must share some of my customer’s comments,” he says. “One lady from Florida bought some cherry jam, she told her husband it was not very good and she hid it from him in the cupboard so she did not have to share. When she came back to Niagara on the Lake she bought a whole case. Another couple from Cornwall came to St. Catharines but they did not know how to find the jam. They called back home and made their daughter go into the cupboard to find his phone number (it is on every bottle of jam) they were able to find me and get their jam. And still another customer from Saskatchewan called to tell me she had tasted their jam and she just wanted to tell us it was so good.”
Would his mother be proud of his jam making, “My Mother would be delighted,” he says, the good childhood she gave us and the things she explained to us gave us wonderful values for the rest of our lives.”
You can purchase one of John’s favourite flavours of jam at the roadside stand on the corner of Niagara Stone Road and Concession 7 Rd. The sign says 27 different kinds but there just may be a new kind to try.