This fall I went on a farm tour of BC with a group of international farm writers and fellow agrologists. A variety of farms were visited, including some operated by young farmers. One couple, Annemarie and Kevin Klippenstein, were recent winners of the BC Young Farmers award and they spoke with our group about how they got into farming, and how their operation has evolved in their ten years of farming. Just this month they received the Canadian Outstanding Young Farmers’ Award along with a dairy farming couple from Eastern Canada. Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers’ program is to recognize farmers 18 to 39 that exemplify excellence in their profession and promote the tremendous contribution of agriculture.
The Klippensteins were raised on the coast and both worked in the hospitality industry, but after they married they started their plans to become organic farmers. Fraser Valley land was too expensive, so the Klippensteins looked for an area with affordable land. They bought a five acre farm in the Okanagan community of Cawston in 2001 and started Klipper's Organic Acres, direct marketing certified organic produce. One of their goals was to farm full time, so it was important to find a market for their organic produce that paid well. They found this market in six Vancouver-area farmers markets, and several Vancouver restaurants. By listening to their customers they evolved their farm operation to include what customers want, and they soon expanded from orchard fruits to include heirloom vegetables. By growing hothouse crops they expanded and extended their season, and by growing storage crops like garlic, squash, onions, carrots and beets they have increased off-season sales through Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) boxes. Preserves and dried fruits and vegetables have helped with the farm’s cash flow.
The Klippensteins have not worked off the farm since 2002, believing in good honest work and the value in producing good organic food. Diversity is important in their business model, and has allowed them to expand into the winter season with the help of a cold storage facility that they installed. They are still harvesting carrots in February, even in Cawston.
Ever evolving and improving, they have added an additional goal of getting more people into farming.
To do this, the Klippensteins are involved in the Organic Farming Institute where Kevin is the Chair. It helps that Cawston has the reputation and title of “The Organic Capital of Canada”. The Klippensteins take five to ten students from March to October and teach them everything they know. They provide a five bedroom apprenticeship suite and a four bedroom mobile home to house their students, stating that it is important that they live on the farm. Finding good farm labour is an issue for most farms, and it is an advantage to have trained labour, especially for organic farms that are more labour intensive.
Klipper’s Organic Acres has now grown to 40 acres of organic production. Along with organic methods such as cover crops to prevent soil erosion and build soil structure, and predator bugs to provide pest management, solar panels are used for heating water and for the drying facility. The only downside to their success has been that some local farmers markets won’t allow them in because they are viewed as “too big”. As a result, they focus on taking their products to the Vancouver market twice a week. That amounts to a lot of miles driven each year, and a lot of hours away from the farm and family. Annemarie insists on being there to talk to customers, instead of sending employees. This dedication and direct involvement in every aspect of their operation has been a key part of their success. Another key part has been their years in the restaurant industry, which has given them contacts and insights into their customers’ needs and wants. It would be ideal if they could market closer to home, and as the population grows in the Okanagan that may be more feasible – as long as the farmer’s markets let them in.
The Klipperstein's future goals are to continue to improve organic practices, to continue to educate consumers and to continue to train the next generation of organic farmers.
On the farm tour, the younger farmers that we met wanted to infuse something new and experiential to farming. Although they knew it was a business, they wanted more than a business. They wanted a good lifestyle and a healthy place to raise their families. Half of the younger farmers had no prior farm experience, yet they were able to succeed by finding mentors, learning through formal education and self-study, and through trial, error and working hard.