Daily News

Organic farm has many fingers in many pies

Extended family diversifies | Farm provides restaurants with fruit and vegetables and operates a retail store and winery

CAWSTON, B.C. — A 100-year-old apple tree in Troy and Sara Harker’s yard exemplifies the deep roots the family has in this farming community in British Columbia’s Similkameen Valley.

Named B.C.’s outstanding young farmers, this young couple is part of a large family unit where parents and siblings work together on a diversified organic operation.

They work with Troy’s parents, Bruce and Kathy, and siblings, Jason, Tyla, and Alysha on a 30-acre farm that has transitioned from an orchard to an organic vegetable and fruit operation, a retail store, a wholesale distribution division and winery.

The family settled in the Similkameen Valley in 1888 when Troy’s great-great-grandfather, William Manery, came from Ontario chasing a gold rush.

He ended up at Cawston and started farming. His son, Samuel, continued farming and Samuel’s daughter, Marjorie, and her husband, Ken Harker, took over from him.

Each generation has added to the farm, but the big changes came when Bruce and Kathy took over in 1973.

The farm was an orchard and sold its fruit to a co-operative. The Harkers left the co-op when they added their small market.

“We fixed on whatever we could sell ourselves,” Kathy said.

Fruit prices are volatile so they decided to diversify with a fresh market, restaurant service, wholesale distribution and wine making. They also sell fruit and vegetables for 25 other certified organic growers.

Troy and Sara started a restaurant service business that has grown to 25 local eateries receiving their produce.

Diversification saved the farm in an area where land is expensive and coveted by urban developers.

“That is why we diversified, so we can keep it going. Just being a farmer, I don’t think we could do it,” said Troy, who is the farm’s wholesale manager.

The Rustic Roots winery started in 2008 using local certified organic fruit. Sara is the winemaker, producing sparkling, dinner and dessert wines that have won 45 awards.

“One of our goals when we decided to do this was to change people’s minds about fruit wine. They are not all sweet and syrupy and made in Grandma’s basement,” said Sara.

The farm grows a variety of fruits and vegetables, updating the orchard with high density plantings of new varieties such as the Honey Crisp apple.

Other growers supply Fuji, Braeburn and Ambrosia. It also grows peaches, nectarines, cherries, plums and pears. About 90 percent is sold into the fresh market.

Their greenhouses produce microgreens for restaurants and salad greens in outdoor gardens that are sold at their roadside market as well as into the restaurant program.

They also grow tomatoes, 14 varieties of basil, six types of sweet peppers and 60 varieties of hot peppers. Potatoes, beets, corn, chard, kale, eggplant, 12 varieties of squash, four varieties of pumpkin, cantaloupe and red and yellow watermelons are also available.

Large grocery chains such as Safeway, Whole Foods and Overwaitea and the B.C. Agriculture in Classroom program are the main markets.

In the past three years, the Harkers have supplied three million pieces of fruit to the program, which is de-signed to teach schoolchildren about where their food comes from.

The farm has been organic for 20 years. Eighty percent of the farms in the region are organic.

“One thing about this valley and being organic is we don’t have to worry about our neighbours because this is the organic capital of Canada,” said Sara.

“We don’t have a buffer zone around our farm because everyone is in the same mindset.”

The farm is irrigated from wells because this is a dry, windy region where summertime highs reach 38 C. Water is precious, and the family has become conscious of watershed management. Last year it became one of the first farms in the area to be certified as salmon safe.

They are environmentally conscious, but the farm has to turn a profit because so many families depend on it.

“We are all entrepreneurs and we always think about the untapped markets out there,” said Sara.

Expansion of acres is not likely, but there are other ways to grow.

“I don’t think I would expand on land because really we’ve already done that through our wholesale business,” Troy said.

“We have 30 acres here but we also have 25 apple growers, so we are looking at 850 acres that we are managing through our wholesale.”

He is in regular contact with these growers so they know what products are most marketable.

“This industry is consumer driven and so we have to have what the consumer wants or we are not going to have a farm,” he said.

Quality has also improved.

“The market in organics used to be, it would have a little scratch on it that we would call a commercial or fancy grade. Nowadays it has gone to the conventional side of esthetically looking, perfect fruit when it never used to be like that,” he said.

“Organics used to be about 50 percent payout better than conventional and now it is more like 30 to 25 percent and moving down.”

Part of that decline in returns is attributed to major competition from Washington state, which added 20,000 acres of organic fruit production several years ago.

Succession planning is the next step for this multigenerational business. Bruce and Kathy asked their children who wanted to take over and they all said they wanted to be part of the farm.

One daughter, Alysha, handles the wines on the Lower Mainland and son Jason works in the fruit industry after he decided he did not want to be directly involved.

Tyla, Troy and Sara are the current generation working together.

Working so closely together means communication and respect for each other’s talents.

“Everyone knows what everyone is doing and where they are going to be,” Troy said.

The plan is to incorporate the farm within a year and Bruce and Kathy can look forward to retirement. They won’t go far.

“We will retire right here. This is where we want to be,” said Kathy.

Married 40 years, they lived in the Lower Mainland for a short time before returning to farm.

“When we came back here, I remember walking through the orchard and smelling the air and thinking about how clean it was and not being shoved on the streets,” she said.

“This is where home is.”

There are also eight grandchildren younger than seven to enjoy, who will also have an opportunity to join the business when they grow up.

“Over the generations, we have created this diverse business that can appeal to a lot of different goals,” Sara said.

“It is harder for farmers to pass down their farm from generation to generation because they are just farming. There is so much going on here, there might be an aspect that appeals to the different kids.”

The family has received numerous accolades.

In 2011, they were named the Farming Family of the Year by the B.C. Institute of Agrologists. Harkers Organics has also been named one of B.C.’s top five agritourism destinations as well as Eat Magazine’s Best Okanagan Farm.

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