Photo Credit: Norma Kerby
Rainbow Carrots: New farmers bring promise to north coast agriculture
Hein is an energetic and dynamic young farmer who is successfully operating a part-time, multi-faceted agricultural venture tapping into consumer demand for natural food and 100-mile diets.
She thinks for a moment, then answers: “I farm because I enjoy it and my family gets to eat healthy food. Making money isn’t the highest priority. I like people and like to sell good food to them.”
Hein has combined her egg sales, greenhouse vegetables and market garden to make the farming venture a success. One of the regular vendors at the Skeena Valley Farmers Market, she likes to try new growing adventures, such as ochra and multi-coloured “rainbow” carrots.
Asked how she learned about farming, she says she didn’t have a mentor or a family background in farming. With a natural love for growing things, much of her knowledge has come from watching YouTube videos, talking to people and reading about planting techniques, saving seeds and becoming a successful farmer. Fertile soils and the mild climate of the lower Skeena Valley, combined with regional demands for quality natural food, fuel her goal to become a full-time grower.
Farming takes root
Farming in the Skeena’s lower watershed is not a new idea. Agriculture has a long and successful history here. In 1914, the newly constructed Grand Trunk Pacific Railway linked north-central British Columbia with markets in eastern North America. The railroad company and the province were looking for settlers to take up farms in the fertile valleys along the route.
In the lower Skeena Valley, where Terrace and surrounding rural communities are now, the land and climate were identified as being suited to agriculture. New people flocked into the area to take up large acreages. Within a decade of the railway’s completion, large fruit orchards had been planted, dairies were established and market gardens started the flow of produce along the railway—west to the new port in Prince Rupert and eastward as far as the prairies.
Agriculture in the inland north coast area was very productive in the days before World War II. With a mild climate and large natural terraces of arable soil, local farmers were able to successfully grow tree fruits, berries, root crops, potatoes and other fresh produce. Some of the wealthier farmers had glass greenhouses for tomatoes, fresh greens and grapes. The Terrace area was referred to as the breadbasket of the North.
This all started to change when Columbia Cellulose Ltd. was granted a tree farm licence in 1948. Higher wages offered in the forest industry and Terrace’s rapid growth meant once-productive farmland was converted to housing as the town expanded. At the same time, the trend toward supermarkets made it difficult for local farmers to compete with year-round supplies of imported food.The agricultural boom faded.
Some farming districts around Terrace managed to maintain their agricultural emphasis through these changes. Gunther Rauschenberger’s parents and relatives moved to the Old Remo area in 1954. Attracted to the rich alluvial floodplain soils, several German immigrant families established large farms at Old Remo. They were able to make a good living growing potatoes and other crops for markets in Terrace and Kitimat.
By the 1990s, though, most families were gone and much of the land was no longer used for commercial agriculture. Rauschenberger’s uncle, Dieter Bahr, is one of the last farmers to grow large acreages of vegetables for sales regionally and at the weekly farmers market.
Rauschenberger and his wife, Carol, now operate their own part-time farm north of Terrace. As next generation farmers, Willow Creek Heritage Farm specializes in greenhouse and market-garden heritage tomato and squash varieties, as well as market crops like lettuce and kale. The Rauschenbergers, with a lifetime of exposure to farming knowledge, spill over with information about techniques in the lower Skeena Valley.
They say that farming for now is part-time work. The cost of equipment, fuel, seed and transportation, plus a four- to five-month growing season and competition with supermarket prices, would make it difficult to achieve a full-time living from field-based agriculture. The best return for effort is to use greenhouses or intensive raised beds for specialty products, such as their heritage squashes and pumpkins, and to sell to specialized markets.
They see this as being a time of change for agriculture in this region, as many buying large farm acreages do not intend to farm commercially. Despite the demand for local food, the monetary return from farming, compared to the cost of living, makes it difficult to be a farmer. The future, they say, is small, part-time farmers catering to farm-gate or farmers’ market-type sales.
Another new part-time farmer, Charles Claus of River Mist Farm, is optimistic about his investments. Wanting to grow berry and fruit crops to supply the specialty bakery operated by his wife, Anne, he carefully chose his location to grow fruit trees and a market garden.
Braun’s Island, in the flood plain of the Skeena River, is at 50 m elevation. With silty alluvial soils and no shade from forests or mountains, it has one of the region’s warmest microclimates. Claus likes to experiment: an avid collector of the area’s historic agricultural information, he prefers to read and research each step as he expands his farm.
“Everything I put into the ground, I have thought about the variety and the outcomes I want,” he explains.
Claus specializes in spring greens and early beets and potatoes, as well as late-season brassicas, such as cabbages and cauliflowers. He is passionate about historic apple varieties and has been growing rootstock and grafting trees that will do well here. In particular, he is searching for trees that are resistant to diseases introduced into the lower Skeena Valley over the last three decades. He is optimistic about the niche he is developing for his products and enthusiastic about trying methods for growing new and heritage varieties.
All these new farmers are full of interesting ideas and willing to take risks to carve themselves a place in the agricultural market.
“Rainbow carrots,” I quiz Hein. “How did you come up with the idea of selling rainbow carrots?” She laughs. At $3 for a dozen multi-hued taproots, her carrots are always best sellers at the farmers’ market.
“People like the novelty and the different tastes,” she says.
In a time where supermarket carrots sell for $4 a bag, often having spent long months in storage, the bright colours and snappy flavours of the rainbow carrots are giving new farmers like Hein the opportunity to revitalize northern agriculture.