'At the mercy of Mother Nature': South Okanagan vegetable farmers preparing best they can

Farmers adjust to challenges

"We're at the mercy of Mother Nature and that's part of what keeps us on our toes."

With a tough winter weather season already hitting the fruit tree and wine industry hard, South Okanagan vegetable farmers are hoping Mother Nature will be kind to them this spring.

Naramata's Puzzlegrass Farm co-owner Madison Whale said they are eyeing the soil and the lack of precipitation this winter, which may delay when they end up planting their crops.

"For us, our irrigation doesn't come on until April. So we're kind of depending on what the spring is like, if it's super dry out, we can't put any crops in the ground before that, because we just don't have access to water. So in the past when we've had a super snowy winter and still snow with a frozen ground, it's helped us in the early spring because it melts and then we can put stuff in the ground," she said.

"But with it thawing already and not so much snow and the ground being drier, I'm kind of [thinking] we'll just have to keep an eye."

What this means for the small farm is that they could be later to the farmers market, and may not have the diversity of vegetables planted that they usually do.

"We kind of rely on the weather of March and April to kind of secure money in May and June."

Penticton's LocalMotive store owner and farmer Thomas Tumbach said his crops out in Garnet Valley were hit hard last season by a major loss due to grasshoppers, and he hopes this year will have a better result.

"Most of the crops we grow are what are called annuals, so just things that we seed in the spring, and then they come up in the summer and grow through that season. So there wasn't really a lot in our fields that could have been killed [by the cold]. The only thing we did have in the field is garlic," he said.

Tumbach said he is not too worried about soil moisture, but only time will tell what the farm will face.

Both farms are hoping to attract more locals to purchasing local crops this year, reporting different levels of interest.

"Unfortunately, there's not a huge sustained interest. It seems like it's very affected by the recession that's happening and interest rates. Seems like people are really, really specific about how they're spending their money. And it's possible that organics sort of take a backseat in this kind of environment," Tumbach said.

He estimates that sales have dropped around 25 per cent in the last six months.

Puzzlegrass will be changing up their business model for this year's Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement, which connects the farmer and consumers with a subscription to their harvest and in return exchanges either a weekly or bi-weekly box of produce or other farm goods.

"In the past we've had basically 20 weeks and for a lot of farmers here you have such a short amount of time to make an entire year's worth of revenue. So for us, it's 20 weeks of growing for the most part to make 52 weeks of an income and that's really stressful," Whale said.

"So we're hoping that this year will be a longer growing season for us, basically doubling our growing season will allow us to have the opportunity to make more money for longer."

The 37-week long program will begin in June and will go all the way until the end of February of next year.

"In the past CSAs have ended in October and a lot of people want a longer season and are interested in having the ability to choose local through the winter," Whale said.

"I think the more kind of normal it becomes to get your vegetables from farms, the more the demand will grow. At least that's what I hope. I just think it's so easy and convenient to just go to the grocery store, all of us have been raised that way."

Their CSA boxes this year will have weekly pick ups throughout the spring and summer, with participants able to come in and select what veggies they want and how much.

"It's an honour system that you can just grab whatever you need," Whale added.

Then through the fall and winter months, which is October to February, they will have monthly pickups.

"We'll have everything kind of portioned out and help explain how much you would need or what a suggested monthly share looks like."

Tumbach said their home deliveries CSA program kicked off two weeks ago and they're hoping to see another 50 clients join on this year.

'We have some really consistent supporters," he added.

He has long being a vocal champion for supporting the local farm economy, and the importance of having supply.

Whale echoed that sentiment, stating that farms should be a focal point for communities.

"It's so important to support local, I mean that's such an overused statement almost. But when you buy vegetables or join a CSA program from a farm, you're single handedly supporting the people that do the work. You are putting money in the pockets of people that are really trying to make a difference for our system," Whale added.

"Without farms, you don't have local food. And some folks, maybe don't find that to be something of value to them and that's okay. But if you value options for nutritious vegetables and believe in having small businesses and people that can make a difference, consider joining CSA programs."

Puzzlegrass is located in Naramata and has opened up its CSA registration. More information can be found online here. They will also be hosting a meet-the-farmer event on Saturday March 9 from 2 p.m.to 4 p.m. at Abandoned Rail Brewery.

LocalMotive has built a network of local organic farmers that collaborate weekly for their CSA farm boxes, which can be customized and delivered weekly. For more information, head to their website here.

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