Category Archives: Meet the Farmer

Each month we will profile a different farm operation in the BC Highway 16 region. Browse the profiles below to get to know your local farm operations.

November: Simpson’s Farm

Loretta Simpson used to be a truck driver, hauling loads back and forth between Prince George and Alberta. Eventually, after years of passing through the gorgeous Robson Valley on a regular basis, Loretta decided to purchase property and settle down in the area. Her late husband had experience in beef farming, so they began working with a small herd of cattle.

When Loretta’s husband passed away, she was faced with some tough decisions. In the end, she decided to keep the farm and try to manage it on her own. Her decision proved to be the right one, and Loretta continues to manage a beef operation with her current partner Herb Bulman, who moved from the Peace River area with extensive farming experience.

About 7 years ago, a neighbor gave Loretta a few garlic bulbs, which she planted in her flower garden. The resulting crop was amazing. Loretta was so wowed by the flavour, that she was planted more and more each year. She eventually grew more garlic than she could consume on her own, so she started selling it to friends and family. In 2009, when beef prices hit a record .93 cents/lb low and her garlic was selling for $8/lb, she recognized an opportunity.

This fall Loretta put 5000 heads of garlic in the ground, up from the 3000 she planted last year. She’s not even sure what the exact variety of garlic she is planting, as it’s still a direct descendent of the bulb her neighbor gave her years ago, but she suspects it’s a Russian variety that likely came from fellow Robson Valley grower, Irene Froese.

Loretta credits the Robson Valley Growers’ Group, a newly established network of farmers, ranchers, and gardeners in the Robson Valley, with helping to get her garlic to market, including the Jasper Farmers’ Market.

As a fertile growing area with a very small population, the Robson Valley is an excellent place to grow food, but a difficult place to find markets for farm products.

The Robson Valley Growers’ Group has helped to remedy this by cooperatively transporting and selling Robson Valley produce to the Jasper Farmers’ Market. The group also offers a place for growers in the region to connect, share experiences, and build a community of practice.

September: Northern Farm Products Ltd.

David and Karen Kellett are no strangers to Prince George food enthusiasts. The husband and wife team is well known both for their tasty carrots and for their generous contributions to the community. David and Karen own and operate Northern Farm Products Ltd. and Sweder Berries U-Pick on a large acreage 40 km south of town. Neither David nor Karen were raised on a farm, but after they met each other at Fairview College in Alberta, both registered in the Livestock Production Program, they decided to settle down and commit to growing a family and a farm business.

Beginning in 1976 with vegetable production and a cow/calf operation, Northern Farm Products Ltd is one of the largest produce operations in the north. Their beef is sold as part of Save-On Foods Western Family Brand and their carrots, beets, rutabagas and cabbage can be found in Prince George’s Shoppers Wholesale Foods, Save On Foods and most recently, the Vanderhoof Co-op.

In 2001, Karen added another project to the farm operations. As part of a Ministry of Agriculture initiative, she became involved in commercial raspberry trials. For four years Karen meticulously collected data on the health and yield of 28 berry varieties. When the trial ended, Karen had more berries on her hands than she could use and opened a U-Pick berry operation to offer people the opportunity to come out and get a ‘hands on experience’ at the farm. Karen admits that the berry operation is a small part of their vegetable and beef operation, but she does it for the joy she gets in bringing people out to the farm and connecting them more closely to their food supply. David and Karen are no strangers to philanthropy and community spirit. David has served as President of the now-defunct Northern Interior Vegetable Growers Association, a group that once provided grassroots networking and support to produce growers in the north. He has also served

over the years as a Board member for the Prince George Cattlemen’s Association, and the farm donates hundreds of pounds of produce annually to various charities in Hixon and Prince George.

Many in the Prince George community know Karen for her twenty-six years of volunteer service with Cystic Fibrosis Canada, a role she began when her children were diagnosed with the disease. In addition to serving on the Cystic Fibrosis Canada National Executive, she also organizes the annual Razzle Dazzle Do, a gourmet dinner and fundraiser hosted in the berry patch. Chef Wayne Kitchen of Cimo Mediterranean Grill prepares the food, and Karen provides the ambiance and fun. This August marked the 3rd annual event and proved to be the best yet, selling out of tickets and receiving great sponsorship and an overwhelming number of donations for live and silent auctions, almost $35,000 for Cystic Fibrosis Research.


August: Northern Bioponics Ltd

One of the biggest challenges to agriculture in the north is the long and cold winter season that puts a ‘freeze’ on all growing activities. Farm operators can store and sell hardy crops such as carrots and cabbage, but perishable products like fresh herbs and greens are traditionally only available in the spring and summer months. That is, of course, until now, when a new state of the art aquaponic system in Prince George is being put to the test.

Northern Bioponics Ltd. is the brainchild of German engineer Matthias Zapletal, who moved to Canada in 1999. Matthias has constructed an aquaponic facility, began its operations in May of this year, and is now yielding its first produce crops. Aquaponic systems, like hydroponics, cultivate plants in water, without soil. However, unlike hydroponics, aquaponic systems do not require synthetic fertilizers. Instead, living fish, which are also raised for food, provide all the nutrient needs for the plants. Biofilters convert the ammonia from fish effluent into nitrates that are readily absorbed by the plants. The plants then filter the water for re-use by the fish. The Northern Bioponics system is a closed system that requires as little a 200L of water input a week to maintain water levels. It is heated by 800 sq. ft. of solar panels and a wood-fired boiler in a well-designed greenhouse. Aquaponic systems such as this are one of the world’s most sustainable methods of producing food.

The Northern Bioponics system is certainly the first of its kind in the north. It currently holds 1000 head of tilapia, a tasty and hardy freshwater fish that is resistant to temperature fluctuations. At its peak, the system will hold 2500 fish and produce approximately 700 heads of lettuce a week in the 1100 sq ft. growing space. While it takes time to build the system to its full capacity, as a balance of fish, nitrates and plants must always be in place, Matthias is already harvesting and selling some produce, and the fish will be ready to sell in January 2012 once they reach full size.

Operating on the leading edge of innovation, Northern Bioponics has had several challenges. Matthias would have organic certification, but the Certified Organic Associations of BC do not yet have a classification for soilless systems of agriculture, and it may

take them several years to create one. Furthermore, commercial fish food is traditionally geared towards the aquaculture industry, and thus has a different nutrient profile than what is best for an aquaponic system. Matthias has been experimenting with adding ingredients such as kelp to the fish food to provide more enzymes.

As a business operator, Matthias chose to locate in Prince George because of the availability of space and market for local production. He felt that as a start-up operation, he would not be able to compete with the large existing greenhouses in the Okanagan and Fraser Valley. He admits that farming will never make him rich, but he hopes to at least make a living.

The possibility of having sustainably grown fresh salad greens, herbs and fish available locally through the winter is certainly an exciting one. Matthias hopes to make connections with many local restaurants and larger buyers in the region to make use of his 700 heads of lettuce per week capacity. You can also find him at the Prince George Farmers Market this October selling produce and sharing the excitement of his new venture.

July: Happy Pig Organic Farm

When Marlene Thimer and her family started Happy Pig Organic Farm in 2008 some people in the farming community were a little skeptical of the potential of an organic livestock operation in this area. Now, the only certified livestock producer along the highway 16 corridor and one of only three certified pork producers in the province of BC, Happy Pig Organic Farm raises 60 pigs, 1000 roasting chickens, and 100 turkeys annually.

When asked about the challenges in starting an organic farm, her first answer is the high cost of “everything”.  Marlene recounts a conversation with a customer which has always stuck in her mind. “As an organic farmer, you should be cheaper then everyone else,” the customer boldly complained. “You don’t use any medication, fertilizer, herbicides or pesticides.  Your costs should be less.”

This is almost all true, Marlene says, but it is very difficult to find certified feed that has not been fertilized or sprayed with pesticides and herbicides.  Marlene has to purchase organic grain from Darwell, AB and then have it trucked into the valley. She then mixes her own feed in small batches so it is always fresh for the critters.  The minerals and vitamins for the feed also have to be trucked in – the minimum order is one ton.  Pens and fence posts all require using untreated wood and no oil based paints.  Marlene notes that even though she has never had a sick animal (knocks on wood), once you give an animal pharmaceuticals, you can no longer sell it as organic, even though you have already invested into raising it as an organic animal.

One of the biggest cost increases with an organic system is labour required for animal movement across the pasture.  Marlene’s new chicken and turkey pens are moved once per week, instead of the twice per day I with my old system, and the pigs have a new 10 acre paddock every two months which means moving plenty of temporary electric fencing.

Despite the hardships of starting a new organic farm, the hard work is starting to pay off.  Happy Pig Organics have been marketing using print, Internet and word of mouth to attract more customers and regularly attend Farmers Markets in Smithers, Terrace & Prince George.  Next year Marlene and Paul will increase pig, chicken, and turkey production hoping to double their current numbers.

Marlene is very grateful for her customers that take the time to become educated about the benefits of organic food.  It’s a growing customer base with increased awareness of the impacts of conventional farming practices on the environment and animals.  You can witness some of Marlene’s success yourself each Saturday at the Bulkley Valley Farmers Market – there is always a steady line up at her stand purchasing Happy Biscuit breakfast sandwiches and placing orders for pork, chickens & turkeys.

June: Sweet Nechako Honey

John AebicherWhen Jon Aebischer moved to Hawaii to attend University, little did he know that the big island would introduce him to his two great passions in life: his wife Susan, and the art of beekeeping.

Jon’s landlord in Hawaii was a foreman at the Kona Queen Company, and with Jon’s childhood roots in his father’s Fort Fraser beekeeping operations, he was eager to apprentice under this well-established operation.

In 1996, Jon was back in the Nechako Valley, starting his own beekeeping operations with Susan. Almost a decade later, Sweet Nechako Honey is producing an average of 20,000lbs of honey a season and supplying both individual customers through direct sales and large wholesalers, such as Elias Honey Ltd. Jon notes that their major customers change from year to year, and he hopes to generate more direct and small-scale opportunities in the future, especially after making a large investment into new equipment this past business year.

Jon feels that the Nechako Valley has a real opportunity to establish itself as leading honey producing region, similar to the Peace River Valley

before its honey industry was decimated by changes to honey bee import laws.

Honey from the Nechako Valley generally has a low moisture content, which allows honey to store for long periods of time without fermenting and developing acidic flavours. The Nechako Valley also offers a narrow range of floral sources for a more refined taste: dandelion, clover, alfalfa, goldenrod and fireweed.

Despite Jon’s successes to date, and the potential of the Nechako Valley Region, even the most established beekeepers still struggle. Honey yields are heavily determined by weather and timing. Beekeepers can work hard all year just for a handful of magic days when the conditions are right. Hot and dry weather is needed to release nectar from flowers and coax honey bees out of the hives. A strong hive can pack in 20lbs of nectar and pollen in a day.

There is symbiotic relationship with many of the cattle operations in the region, though the relationship operates on a tenuous timeline. Forage crops provided vast fields of flowers for pollinators, but ranchers tend to cut their crops when flowers are at only 10% of their

bloom – an optimal time for hay, but less than optimal for the bees. Some farmers do let their fields bloom, but don’t wait long enough for the flowers to extrude their nectar. Combined with changing weather conditions, a period of only a few days can make all the difference in the world.

Outside of the business, Jon plays an active role in the Nechako Valley community with his involvement in the Nechako Stuart Bee Club. The opportunity to interact, to share challenges and successes with others, and to access a pool of collective knowledge makes the club an enjoyable and valuable activity. He hopes that more community members will come to learn the benefits of buying food products locally and recognize the positive impacts their dollars can have when spent within the region.

Moreover, Jon hopes to turn more people onto the health benefits of honey. Many rely on sugar simply because it is cheap and convenient, but honey has so much more to offer. Look for Jon’s Sweet Nechako Honey at the Vanderhoof Farmers market and at Ventin’s Vitamin House in Vanderhoof.

May Profile: Ryser Farms

There are two important tools required to pass agricultural heritage and diversity from one generation to the next: seeds and knowledge. Long-time Prince George farmer John Ryser possesses both in vast quantities and is eager to share.

John began farming in the 1930’s, and from a young age, he excelled at his trade. For thirteen years in a row, John won the potato section of the BC Provincial Seed Fair, and though the competition no longer exists, his potatoes are still infamous among his farming colleagues.

John has seen over seven decades of agriculture in the north, and it’s clear that the state of farms and food today is in need of big changes. As a seed grower, John continues to supply Art Knapps and other garden merchants with quality seed potato, but grocery stores no longer purchase from him in favour of larger centralized warehouses in Alberta and the Lower Mainland. John currently cultivates only a fraction of the land and varieties he once did. Many good northern varieties of potato have been lost because there are simply no more farmers growing them.

But these challenges have not put a damper on John’s passion for growing. He continues to cultivate more than eleven varieties of potatoes and sell them at the Prince George Farmers Market. He says he’ll rust if he ever stops. John is optimistic that the Beyond the Market program will spark consumer change in north; he hopes to up his production in 2011, just in case.