The Sutcliffe asparagus farm was one stop on a recent tour of Creston Valley farms.

The Sutcliffe asparagus farm was one stop on a recent tour of Creston Valley farms.

This is the Life: Creston Valley agriculture tour opens eyes

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In May, I had the chance to spend half a day touring local farms and learning more about the importance of agriculture in the Creston Valley. The tour was organized by the Creston Valley Agriculture Society, which also provided a lovely local lunch. On our bus were Creston Mayor Ron Toyota, Regional District of Central Kootenay directors John Kettle, Larry Binks and Garry Jackman, all elected officials who need to understand, in dollars and cents and philosophically, the importance of this industry to our community.

Media folks were also joined by RDCK and ministries of transportation and agriculture staff, Creston Valley Food Action Coalition members and, most importantly, several farmers.

As we rode the bus between farms, we got to listen and talk to farmers and producers like Randy Meyer, Lew Truscott, Tom Tarzwell, Morris Hanson, Alvin Lang and members of the Harris family.

Our afternoon began with a lunch made primarily from local food and then we heard a presentation from Susan and Gary Snow. The Snows talked about many of the same issues as they do in today’s story — labour challenges, global competition, market demand and the opportunity to juice good cherries that are otherwise wasted.

Our second stop was at EP Farms, where Robin Edge-Partington continues his parents’ tradition in the dairy farm business. While Robin talked to the tour group his father, John, now 80 years of age, was out running the tractor on the fields, cutting feed.

We lived near EP Farms for many years and have known the family for a quarter-century or more but I was surprised to learn that this small dairy producer is consistently among the top 10 dairies in the province when it comes to its cows’ milk productivity. It was the top producer a couple of years ago and, as Wayne Harris later explained, B.C. dairy cows are among Canada’s best for productivity because of the protein content of the food produced here.

Edge-Partington pointed out that the number of dairies in the Creston Valley has dropped by a third in recent years, but he thinks there is opportunity for more, with local ability to produce high quality feed and a continuing demand for the milk. A new dairy is now under construction on the Creston flats and is being built by a farmer who is relocating from the Lower Mainland.

We moved on to West Creston, where Larry and Charlene Rast operate Big Rock Simmentals, the Pickle Patch and the Egg Patch. The pure-breed Simmentals are bred for stock and beef and the farm also grows hay, primarily for sale to horse owners. Charlene manages the Patches. A large market garden provides the produce for a variety of pickles and free range hens produce more than 30 dozen eggs a day and are sold throughout the Kootenays. With three young children and a diverse farm, the Rasts are a prototype for what this valley needs more of — farms that support families and whose diversity contributes to their sustainability.

The day’s last stop was Sutcliffe Farms on Indian Road, which was uncharacteristically quiet. The picking, cleaning, sorting and packing of asparagus had ended for the day, but we got an up-close look at some of the fields where this unique vegetable has been grown for two generations. The 90-acre farm is the province’s largest asparagus producer, yielding up to 12,000 pounds a day under ideal conditions.

Ideal conditions? I suspect Doug Sutcliffe is beginning to wonder whose might be after this third consecutive year of cool, wet May and June periods, precisely at the time when he is doing his six-week harvest. An asparagus plant, we were surprised to learn, can be productive for as long as 30 years. Part of the reason for their longevity is the short picking season Sutcliffe operates. In California and other warming climates, asparagus is picked nearly year-round.

A visit to the farm during harvest is worth it only to see the innovative equipment that Sutcliffe designed which allows pickers to lie face down while being pulled along by a tractor. Even that way of picking is hard on the body, he admits, but it has to be better than everywhere else in the world, where harvesters bend at the waste and cut off spears below the ground.

In my career as a newspaperman, there have been few opportunities that I have enjoyed more than the ones that have taken me out to farms and to write about farmers. I admire their determined independence. And I love the food they produce.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.