By mid-June, vibrant green Simpson and Red Sails lettuce are ready to pick at Cranbrook’s 3 Crows Farm, with Salanova and Romaine coming along soon. These are some of the Columbia Basin-grown greens, grains, meats and more that fill farmers’ markets, supply restaurants, feed residents, attract visitors and provide a living to about 1,160 farmers.

Spread between 884 farms, the Basin boasted 104,710 hectares of agricultural land in 2016—about 4.7 per cent of such land in the province. Much of this is dedicated to alfalfa, while smaller portions produce hay and fodder crops, barley, fruit and berries, oats, corn and mixed grains. In the livestock industry, cattle and chickens dominate.

Although the period from 2001 to 2016 saw a decline of 15 per cent in the number of farms in the Basin—particularly those that raise cattle and chickens—the number of farmers growing vegetables increased by almost 50 per cent. This lead to a 27 per cent jump in vegetable production, while the area used to cultivate fruit and berries doubled in size.

Read below about some of the farms that make our area proud.

Living the dream

Farming skipped her mom’s generation, but Angela Weir happily rejoined the fold when she and Gord Spankie started Crooked Horn Farm eight years ago.

“We can’t really pinpoint it, but we both kind of always wanted to be farmers, in our hearts or in the back of our minds, as young people,” she says.

“We needed to do something really positive with our life and our work.”

She worked in restaurants and he was a painter in Vancouver, where they were backyard and community gardeners. They eventually relocated to the Slocan Valley after a “fairly randomly chosen trip” with friends.

“We wanted to move to a community that valued organic food, rather than having to educate people about organics.”

Now they harvest 0.6 hectares of vegetables and salad mix, selling at the Nelson farmers’ market and to restaurants, stores and producers. They have summer help, but the couple does most of the farming and marketing, leaving little time to research challenges.

“Because we’re right off the river, there have been some interesting deposits of soil over the years. We go from very light and sandy on one side to heavy clay muck on the other, and everything in between.”

There’s no doubt in Weir’s mind, though, that they were meant to farm.

“Farming felt like a really immediate and natural thing for us to move toward.”

Ancient grains reintroduced

Ben and Claudia Yarschenko wanted to grow sustainable organic food and chose grain. They now cultivate ancient varieties on 80-year-old unsprayed hayfields in Canyon, east of Creston.

“The only way to be sure you’ve got something pure is to start from the beginning,” says Ben, whose great uncle grew potatoes, peaches and strawberries near Creston starting in the 1930s.

The Alberta ranch Ben grew up on raised cattle, hay and grain, so grain was a logical choice when he and Claudia, originally from Argentina, left overseas oilfield careers and moved to Canyon in 2008.

Many heirloom varieties disappeared by the 1950s, so finding ancient grains took capital and research. Now Treasure Life Flour Mills has 240 varieties, with 23 grown to sell commercially, including wheats, flax, rye, farro and einkorn. Some started as a handful; up to seven years of propagation later, the couple harvests 280 hectares.

They sell their milled certified organic grain in Kootenay stores and to some bakers in Vancouver and Banff. More local bakers and food producers could use it, though, and Ben would like to see more promotion of local grain to Kootenay restaurants.

“When you realize you can supply someone with something they can eat, that’s an interesting feeling. It really makes you feel satisfied.”

Keeping in concert with nature

Growing up on a ranch near Winnipeg, Tyler McNaughton knew he would stick with it.

“I never considered anything else,” he says. “I love the business, I love the lifestyle. It’s part of me.”

He and his wife Sacha, also from a farming family, operate Fort Steele’s Cutter Ranch, raising hogs, lamb and beef on 65 hectares of pasture that includes hayland, wetland and bush. They started in 2012, after running a smaller operation near Clinton, BC.

They handle direct sales, attending the Cranbrook, Kimberley, Fernie and Invermere farmers’ markets weekly during peak season. There is still room for expansion, and the couple wants to do so efficiently and carefully, without overworking and outstripping the land.

“We’re not reinventing the farming wheel, but rather reintroducing this model of farming back into the area. That information is there, it always has been there—we just need somebody to carry that information from farmer to farmer.”

That will make it easier to maintain their environmental ethic.

“Our biggest challenge is making sure that we make progress with our family business in concert with nature and raise our family in the most balanced way possible.”

Multiple plots for multiple benefits

Teamwork is key for 3 Crows Farm owners Christian Kimber and Michael Stevens, who combine urban and rural farming, sharing resources, skills and land to obtain the best from all scenarios.

Kimber, for example, gets two additional weeks in spring and fall on his urban plots in Cranbrook that Stevens doesn’t get on his parcel about 10 minutes outside of the city. Urban gardens, on Kimber’s property and yards borrowed from neighbours, also provide vital microclimates.

“If I’ve got a pest issue in one, I can grow arugula in another one and the pest simply won’t be there,” Kimber says. “I get less wind, less frost, less hail—I get more deer than Michael, though, in a funny twist of fate.”

After living on all three coasts, Kimber moved to Cranbrook 10 years ago, thinking small-plot intensive farming could work well. Stevens was already growing his own food when the duo joined forces. They regularly sell out at the Fernie and Cranbrook farmers’ markets, and supply 10 restaurants, with Kimber delivering by bicycle.

They grow lettuce mixes, squash, garlic and microgreens. Modest indoor operations extend the growing season, but capital to expand operations is limited. The farm could also benefit from access to irrigation consultation, soil and water testing, and rentable equipment for small beds.

Even so, their unconventional farming method has proven its worth. “We’re getting five times the amount of produce in a square foot than conventional farming,” says Kimber.

“Our alliance as farmers allows us to have diversity.”