As I stroll the fields at Laughing Crow Organics with proprietors Andrew Budgell and Kerry McCann, Mt. Currie looms behind. It's a reminder that Andrew originally moved here for skiing, positioning himself between the ski hill in Whistler and the touring opportunities at either end of the Pemberton Valley. That much remains true, but the pair is also positioned at the centre of a 21st century food revolution that includes their type of small-acreage, mixed-crop, organic farming, and the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs that run off it.
The starting point for both is "organic," a word that, for reasons of documented abuse, engenders both trust and suspicion at the retail end. The key is being able to claim "Certified Organic" status, a lofty label pegged to the requirement of periodic inspection by a third-party agency that looks over the land and crops in detail, digging into the extensive field records kept by farmers to ensure compliance with both British Columbia's certifying body and national organic standards. With its leased land having already held this designation for a number of years, Laughing Crow had a leg up in being able to use it immediately without the waiting period required when land is first moved from conventional to organic farming.
Still, everything is an experiment: like a newly planted acreage of squash that has proved disappointing, and will require in-depth analysis of soil chemistry to determine what nutrients are low, high, or absent. That farming is chemistry, whether organic or not, has been known since humans first began growing plants some 10,000 years ago. It's also biology, geology, physics and meteorology.
This season Andrew and Kerry also erected four hoop houses (DIY greenhouses made of plastic hooping and transparent heavy plastic) to grow cucumber and tomato varieties that provide a continuous harvest over several weeks. As we walk through them, the pair instinctively reach for finger-sized cucumber snacks that dangle tantalizingly close, handing me one as well (being an organic farm, there's no urge to rinse anything first). Ditto small tomatoes of various hues. By the time we're done poking around, I'm practically full. No danger of nibbling through the harvest, however: an average of six kilograms of food — and as much as 12 to 16 kilograms — issues from these hoophouses daily.
Even the most productive crops, however, come with a learning curve. On one of their early and impressive To-Do lists was etched the item "build greenhouses," which they'd just completed when a freak windstorm flattened it in a mess of plastic pipe, sheeting and greenery. Friends helped salvage the situation, and the forgiving tomato and cucumber plants rebounded.
Was the odd weather linked to climate change? Hard to say, but the phenomenon has cast other effects that are hard for farmers to keep in front of: high heat means starting work days earlier, and the concomitant increase in degree-days (used to measure the time required by each crop) changes the phenology (timing) of maturation or ripening and thus, a re-thinking of planting schedules. Both the arrival of pests and swarming of bees is earlier, and are out of sync with expectation, both of which impacts crops. Getting ahead of bugs means finding infestations when they're still small enough to react to. A pest like cabbage maggot that eats plant roots is more troublesome; you can't see it until the plant dies and withers. Andrew and Kerry nevertheless have good defenses at their disposal should detection be early enough. And if not? Well, they show me how many flea beetles can swarm a collard plant. Impressive — for the insects, that is.
Beyond the intensity of the fields, other projects make demands. Like a roadside market booth with a glass door refrigerator tucked into the shade at the farm gate they keep stocked with leafy greens and other food. It's a good place to look for salad fixings; Laughing Crow dedicates over 1/4 acre of planting space and considerable effort to a mixed Asian and mustard salad greens that have been well received at the farmers' markets Laughing Crow attends in Whistler and Squamish, where subscribers can also redeem CSA market coupons.
Markets are good business despite their inherent uncertainty. To start, some weekends aren't as good as others due to traffic accidents or large events (a downside regular peeps would never think of). "Even a good weekend is going to be a guess and you always want to have more than enough food, so piles look good on the tables. If there's some left, it goes back on the truck, home to the cooler, and you get on the phone," says Andrew, who might make offers to anyone from friends to grocery retailers to a growing list of markets, restaurant and catering outfits that Laughing Crow wholesales to. The availability of freshly harvested certified organic produce has been a boon to the local food industry; there's even a Weekly Fresh Harvest Link button on the website for chefs to source produce virtually up to the minute it appears and/or is required. Still, the face of Laughing Crow's business remains the CSA home food box program.
"The idea is to get people involved in a process, have them participate in a business for their own good," says Kerry, who decides what goes in each. "Still, I have box anxiety every week — is it good? Is it enough? Are there too many beets, too often?"
Where other Pemberton CSA box programs have a drop-off or hand-off point, Laughing Crow hand-delivers their boxes in Whistler and Pemberton. Though they charge for the service, it also successfully differentiates them and customers are, accordingly, "stoked." Still, with everything else going on it's a mission for the pair to get it done and delivered every Thursday.
"Are Thursdays crazy? Oh, yeah," says Kerry. "But we're getting better at it. We try to harvest on Wednesday and have fifty boxes in the cooler ready to go next day. We're usually ready to roll by 1 p.m. and it takes about three hours. We enjoy it: it's our day off the farm, we can drive around and strategize...
"... and eat sushi," says Andrew "It's an important break. As a farmer, every other moment from April on you are living in the future. Everything you're doing is to make your life easier 60 days from now."
"The hardest thing we struggle with — and the biggest victory to pull off — is time management and finding time for our lives," says Kerry. "It's great to be able to put things aside, even for a few hours, knowing that everything on the farm will keep growing regardless."
For Part 1 of this column go to www.piquenewsmagazine.com for the week of Aug.27.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.