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B.C. growers relish hot and spicy life

WINDERMERE, B.C. — Saunders Family Farm’s cranberry jalapeno and raspberry pepper jellies might never have been made if the processors swam with sharks in Thailand in 2004.

Faith and Gordon Saunders, market gardeners from Windermere, B.C., were enjoying a Christmas vacation there with family when a tsunami struck and killed 280,000 people.

“We were so very lucky. There were so many people with broken arms, legs and lost families,” said Faith.

She said they left Phi Phi island because they had missed their shark excursion and took a ferry to the mainland.

A tsunami struck while they were at sea and a large wave was forming by the time the boat docked. As a result, they quickly grabbed a taxi to get to higher ground.

The family saw Thai houses swept down a muddy river and later witnessed many body bags coming ashore in boats.

“It stays with you,” said Faith.

“It still resonates quite a bit.”

The tragedy gave the couple and their two sons, Tanner and Ryan, a renewed appreciation for their life.

Faith and Gordon grow a variety of fruits and vegetables at their five acre farm in the Kootenays, and create preserves for retail sales, local markets and trade shows.

Tanner currently lives in Edmonton, while Ryan, a mechanical engineer, lives in Oregon with his young family.

It was Tanner, who handles the company’s social media and helps in the fields when home, who encouraged his parents to increase production for sales beyond British Columbia’s borders.

Today, they make 130,000 250-millilitre jars of preserves a year.

“People were the motivators, asking, ‘where can we get this,’ ” Gordon said about the expansion, which included installing a federally inspected commercial kitchen in the basement of their home.

Gordon said the glacial silt soil of the valley translates into excellent crops of potatoes and berries.

“I’m the back end guy and grower,” said Gordon, who handles much of the field and irrigation work, prepares the greenhouses, keeps the driveway clear and builds the wooden pallets for shipping.

The farm also buys fruit from the lower mainland.

“We could never grow the amount of raspberries we need,” said Faith.

They employ seven people in the kitchen, although the crew swells to 10 during the growing and U-pick season.

Marketing involves much personal contact with consumers through their visits to farmers markets, four large trade shows and food demonstrations.

Direct marketing offers better returns than to retail sales to big grocery store chains, said Faith.

It also gives her a chance to tell consumers that her preserves contain no gluten, sulfates, preservatives, artificial colour or flavour or genetically modified ingredients.

“We just do it like my mom used to do it,” said Faith.

She said specially designed displays distinguish their products, which can be found in specialty stores and in the deli, cheeses and gourmet cracker sections at grocers.

“Spicy jellies are becoming more of a staple for entertaining,” said Faith.

“As the years go by, I’m trying to make it more fruit and less sugar.”

The family’s farm story began with Henry Taylor, Faith’s great-great-grandfather, farming in Ontario in 1858. His son, Jacob, farmed in North Dakota and Alberta, and his son, James, grew grain and produce at Edgewater and Windermere, B.C.

Faith recalled stories of her father and James’ son, Joe Taylor, trucking berries though the winding mountain pass to Banff. Joe and his wife, Sanda,later established their own market gardens nearby.

Faith and Gordon ran Win-Valley Gardens from 1986 to 2001, took a hiatus from farming and then returned to establish Saunders Family Farms in 2009.

“I swore I would never farm after high school. I moved away and when I came back, I liked it the more I did it,” said Faith.

Added Gordon: “It’s nice to see things grow.”

The family’s operations once used gravity-fed irrigation from a creek that meanders through the home yard but today employ a pump.

They place their orders with suppliers in the fall, planting bare rooted plants into pots in the greenhouse. They normally plant 4,000 new strawberry plants a year on their 2.5 acres of market gardens.

“We’re doubling to 8,000 this year because of demand,” said Faith.

Added Gordon: “We plow under every three years because the berries get small.”

He said it also helps them control weeds among strawberries.

In addition to travel that has taken them around the world, they find time for volunteer work and donate food to local charities.

Faith was a torchbearer at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010, where she also served as a driver.

In the next few years, the couple hopes Tanner will increase his role in the business as they retreat from it.

They plan to hire a manager and step back, but Gordon is certain he’ll remain active. He currently operates businesses checking on vacant houses and blowing out sprinkler lines.

“I’ll work till I can’t anymore,” he said.

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