CAWSTON, B.C. — Farming was not the first career choice for Kevin and Annamarie Klippenstein but after 16 years at their organic operation in the Similkameen Valley, it is the only path they want to follow.
A massive vegetable plot of lettuce, garlic, zucchini, broccoli and cauliflower spreads out in front of their home in southern British Columbia.
By the end of May, crops were being harvested for the Vancouver farmers markets and restaurants they supply weekly.
Both were originally from Chilliwack where Annamarie’s family had an organic vegetable farm and Kevin was a hotel and restaurant manager.
“I opened up a restaurant in Red Deer for one year and left because it was so cold and moved back to Chilliwack,” he said.
Annamarie also managed restaurants and was working on her parents’ farm helping sell direct at farmers markets.
Kevin started to help her and he posed the idea of getting an orchard in the Okanagan Valley.
They bought their first parcel of bare land in 2001 at Cawston with crops like onions, tomatoes and carrots.
The farm has expanded to 26 acres of deeded land as well as some rented plots. They grow and irrigate a diverse range of tree fruits and every kind of vegetable, including heirloom varieties.
In 2005, their bank manager nominated them for Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers program.
It was unusual for an organic farm to go against the large grain farms or supply managed contestants often nominated in the program. They had 11 acres at the time and the judges said their farm was probably not sustainable.
They were nominated three times and selected in 2011 and went on to become the national winners.
“In that time, organic became more mainstream. There are more people doing it,” Kevin said.
Becoming members of the organization opened doors for them and they are now part of the B.C.’s OYF board. They meet farmers from across the country with similar interests and challenges like labour shortages, high costs, land use issues or growing different crops.
“You put us in a room together and at the end of the day we are all still farmers,” Annamarie said.
“You are learning from the best in the field and you are able to pick everyone’s brain,” she said.
The couple has four children and encourages them to pursue their own interests. Brayden, 18, Azalya, 16, Kiarah, 13, and Landen, 11, all help on the farm but make time for other activities as well.
They continue to expand and make continuous improvements but labour is a constant challenge.
In past, they had 10 paid interns from across Canada on the farm to teach them about agriculture but found many were not reliable or prepared for the hard work. They offered day long seminars on growing, business planning and work in the fields.
“We would teach them everything they need to know to set up their own farm,” Annamarie said.
“Some just wanted a summer job and thought farming would be a good thing to do when they grew up,” Kevin said.
For the first time this year, they hired seasonal workers from Jamaica and the experience has been so positive the crew has asked to return next year. Another worker is a Vancouver chef who wants to learn about food production.
This farm works year round taking advantage of cold frames, a greenhouse and fall planting.
“I am big on experimentation with different crops. I am not really afraid to lose something,” Anna-marie said.
They market primarily to farmers markets and every Friday night they make the four hour trip to sell their goods and make restaurant deliveries.
People are hired to sell at the market and they have worked with their staff to describe how the vegetables were grown and handled.
Retailers have approached them to stock their shelves but they prefer the direct approach.
“Right now, doing the farmers markets is great because I can bring it to market and explain it and tell them what to do with it,” she said.
They can sell 800 pounds of a specialty apple at the market but had less success at retail because people may not have recognized the fruit. They also offer 28 varieties of melon but find people shy away if they lack information.
“There is nobody there who is really knowledgeable in a retail store. The produce manager knows stuff but the people on the floor have no idea,” Kevin said.
Because they are at farmers markets every week, they are quick to spot new trends such as kale or padron peppers.
“We are at the forefront of it. We are in the market and we are talking to the consumer, and people are asking us about what they want to try,” he said.
More recently, celeriac, a European product with a large round root that smells like celery, and garlic scapes are in demand.
“Twenty-five years ago, people didn’t know what garlic scapes were. Now every farmer that grows garlic is harvesting garlic scapes. It is about being at the front of the trend,” she said.
The farm also has a commercial kitchen and they have started selling a branded apple chip and dried apple nuggets. A federally inspected facility makes apple juice for them.
In addition, Annamarie makes pickles and salsa and has run classes on home preserving.
Their most recent venture is four three-bedroom guest suites on a five-acre lot they own in Cawston.
Government help was available to promote the suites and they also received Buy Local funding to reach customers, improve their website and create their label, Klippers Organics.
In the future, they may expand their vacation suites or offer more seminars at the farm.