DUNCAN, B.C. — Ramona Froehle-Schacht and her husband, Stephen Schacht, started growing their own food when they first settled on British Columbia’s Denman Island 35 years ago.
In 1984, they moved to Victoria where they ran the Out of Hand Gallery, which in turn spawned the Island’s biggest Christmas craft show, Out of Hand.
After raising their son, Jeremy, and daughter, Jessica, the couple bought a five-acre Cowichan Valley property in September 2007 and named it SOL Farm.
Stephen, who was raised in California, was drawn by the longest growing season in Canada and the nearby Cowichan River and fertile soil.
SOL means soil in French and sun in Spanish and is also an acronym for small, organic and local.
Berries, flowers and meat chickens are produced in addition to vegetables that include heirloom tomatoes, fingerling potatoes, squash, herbs, sweet onions and tayberries.
This year was the best tomato season ever, something Stephen attributes to perfecting the growing techniques used in their large greenhouse.
“The soil has the optimal amount of everything,” he said.
The organic farm produces about 22,000 kilograms of compost each year, much of it from coffee grounds picked up at high-end coffee shops in nearby Duncan.
Their organic meat birds, which are raised outside in pens that are moved to fresh pickings twice a day, sell for $4.95 per lb.
Rising feed costs are among the family’s biggest challenges. The price of organic feed has jumped to $20 per 22 kg.. bag this year from about $13 in 2011, with a 60 percent jump forecast by Christmas, Stephen said.
Another expense was fencing to keep out deer that “decimated whole crops,” Ramona said.
SOL Farm sells its products at markets in the region and to a restaurant.
Stephen and his son, Jeremy, look forward to releasing their first distillery products next year, which would include a vodka flavoured with tayberries.
Jeremy graduated from the University of British Columbia with a chemical engineering degree.
“Those are skills you can apply either to the oil industry in Alberta or (to) build a still,” Ramona said.
“We talk about how we can add value to what we’re producing. Jeremy’s passion is to make pure spirits and flavour those with botanicals and berries and stuff we grow on the farm.”
The toughest part about getting the distillery in place has been meeting provincial liquor licensing regulations, Stephen said.
This past growing season, the farm received help from nine volunteers from World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
“The WOOFers have a hard time keeping up with us because it’s hard work,” said Ramona.
But the rewards of farm life are worth the toil, the couple says.
“We live five minutes from the Cowichan River. If it’s been a dusty, hot day weeding out in the fields, we head to the river and swim. It’s the most fabulous place to be,” said Ramona.
“You get up in the morning and kind of go all day until you go to bed at night. It’s a lifestyle.”
This month, she will focus her efforts on custom jewelry, designer fashions, delicate pottery and homemade chocolates at Out of Hand.
The annual juried artisan craft show is slated for Nov. 23-25 at Victoria’s Crystal Garden.
Spots are limited to about 100 so Ramona picks a variety of the best submissions.
“Having done this so long, I know what I’m looking for. I also need to ensure there’s a good range of work.”
The event has become a gathering place for skilled artisans, including many drawn from rural areas.
“In this day and age, if you say the word craft, for some people it connotes toilet roll covers or something that their granny did, which is all well and good but it doesn’t describe what we’re doing, which is more professional, more artistic,” she said.
“Craftspeople don’t tend to live in cities. They live in rural areas, where it’s less expensive and they can set up their kilns. They need to congregate in a larger metropolis to go to their customers rather than the other way around.”