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Family farms in paradise

PEMBERTON, B.C. – Cotton batten clouds enshroud the mountains rising from Michelle and John Beks’s farm home in the Pemberton Valley.

Shaw Creek Farms sits along a picturesque rural roadway that is dotted with field crops, livestock, greenhouses and acreage businesses.

“Everywhere you look it’s gorgeous,” said Michelle, whose oversized dining room windows frame the seed potato fields, cattle pastures and thickly wooded hillsides.

“Pretty much everywhere is a hike,” she said of year round recreational activities from snowmobiling to hiking to skiing in the area.

The couple operates an 80-acre irrigated farm and leases another 200 acres for their four-year potato rotations.

“The soil is so rich you can pretty much grow anything,” said Michelle.

They run a 20-head commercial cow-calf operation, grow hay and recently added pumpkins for local markets, which are becoming increasingly important to the Beks.

High real estate prices in nearby Whistler,

B.C., have driven resort workers to seek housing in Pemberton, which has rapidly grown in recent years.

The Beks direct market their cattle locally and use a slaughterhouse at Horsefly, B.C. The pumpkins are sold in Pemberton, Whistler and Vancouver.

The Beks are toying with agri-tourism ventures such as a bed and breakfast or farm tours.

“A lot want to connect back with where food is produced; that’s really been lost,” said John.

Other income could one day come from woodworking, with John’s shop housed within the weathered building where he lived as a boy.

Such diversification began with John’s father, who made cedar shakes, raised cattle and grew potatoes here after emigrating from Holland in the 1950s. John and Michelle raised their three children in the elders’ refurbished farm house.

Growing hay for local horse markets is another business opportunity for the Beks, but producing clean, virus-free seed potatoes for customers in the Fraser Valley, Washington state and California is their mainstay.

The Pemberton valley achieved a virus-free designation in the 1960s, which gave local growers worldwide attention and numerous awards and opened international markets for farmers. The area was chosen because of its geographic isolation.

New potato varieties start from tissue cultures grown and propagated at a local lab co-operative run by area growers.

The Beks take few breaks from the farm, but a hired man living in a converted garage takes over when they travel to visit relatives or attend industry conferences and trade shows.

They work with others farmers and share labour during their busy season, hiring up to six workers, and getting help from their three grown children: Stefan, Laura and Tina.

The Beks, now in the 40s, encouraged their children to try life off the farm before making their final career choices. None have plans to farm.

Off the farm, John has served on potato boards and the local chamber of commerce, while Michelle helped with local community and sports groups as the children grew.

On the farm, shipping potatoes launches their busy season each March, with a steady workflow until heavy rain comes in October.

Mountain runoff and significant fall rain often flood the river valley bottom, John said. By contrast, the growing season can be so hot and dry that irrigation is a must.

The Beks add equipment as needed but rarely buy new to keep costs lower. He recently added a liquid chemical dispenser to his potato planter with help from Ducks Unlimited and provincial programs due to concerns over granular chemicals lingering in the soil and posing threats to ducks.

Markets have remained stable for seed potatoes, varieties have changed from White Rose to Cascades and Cal White and prices have fluctuated.

John noted that the 1995 price he received for seed potatoes is the same this year.

“That just doesn’t seem right,” he said. “The dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to.”

Recent changes to Canadian Food Inspection Agency rules have increased seed potato growers’ costs and slowed shipping, with every load now inspected instead of every one in five.

The Beks also see mounting pressure to remove more agricultural land from the protection of the Agriculture Land Reserve. For the most part, farms have been preserved in the valley.

There are many absentee land owners, some perhaps speculating land prices could go higher than the current $20,000 an acre, but most rent their land back to farmers.

Michelle doubts they will succumb to such temptations, feeling the children would miss the place. John agreed but is leaving the farm door ajar on all offers.

“They say everything is for sale for the right price,” he said as a smile settled into his well-tanned face.

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