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Farm family grieves amid busy season

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WITH growing season in full swing, there has been little time to grieve for a prominent Manitoba vegetable-growing family.

But the Connerys and Portage la Prairie area are in great sorrow over the recent death of Jeffrey Connery, head of Connery's Riverdale Farms, one of Manitoba's largest vegetable-producing companies. Jeff died suddenly on June 22.

His passing proves tragedy stalks even the best of families. Jeff, 53, had just recently become head of the company after his brother Doug, 56, died of a heart attack last December.

"I've lost two sons in six months," said father Ed Connery, 79, a former Conservative MLA for Portage.

People described Jeff as a private, behind-the-scenes person, and more farmer and fieldman than number-cruncher. He was previously head of field operations. He took over the fourth-generation vegetable company when Doug died. Doug was driving home from Delta Beach when he had a heart attack and drove into the ditch.

Stress in the company was elevated by losses in last year's flood. About a quarter of the Connery farm was washed out and vegetable farms don't normally carry crop insurance.

"Our whole life has been turned upside down," Doug told the Free Press last year. "We were fighting Mother Nature, then fighting government because of the Hoop and Holler cut. Now we're fighting bureaucracy that doesn't want to listen."

He added prophetically: "You're going to see some farmers have a nervous breakdown."

Speculation is already rife this could be the end of the Connery farming legacy. The family is just trying to get through the vegetable season. But some people wonder if the leadership vacuum could see the company go up for sale after this.

That's not in the family's immediate plans.

"We're just trying to get through this year. If things can work out, we want to keep the farm going," said Ed, who has been forced to become more involved in company operations to help keep the firm going.

He is optimistic a fifth generation -- Jeff's children Christopher and Samantha -- can lead in the future.

"Maybe we can keep it going," he said. "Right now, staff like the warehouse and field foremen are doing a tremendous job running things.

"It's just a horrible time. The strawberries came early. The asparagus is almost over. It's crazy. It's a very hectic time," he said.

Ed's parents were market gardeners, as were his grandparents on both sides. His parents farmed in St. Vital before moving to the Portage area in 1960 to take advantage of better soil. Also, Campbell Soup had just opened in Portage in 1959.

Connery's Riverdale is comprised of about 1,000 acres but just 600 acres are devoted to vegetables. The rest is used to grow grain in rotation to maintain healthy soil. Its crops include strawberries, asparagus, broccoli, green onions, cooking onions and carrots.

"Everybody today is more specialized and growing a lot of a few things, instead of a bit of a lot of things like 40 years ago," Ed said.

About 80 people are hired from Mexico each year to perform 'stoop labour' harvesting vegetables. About 40 local people are employed, many of them year-round.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2012 A9

History

Updated on Thursday, July 19, 2012 at 2:08 PM CDT: Amends that Doug Connery had not been at a meeting of the Delta Beach Association on day of his death

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