There are three main benefits to organic blueberry production," begins JD Hare, pushing up his cap in proper farmer fashion. "First, no detrimental impact to the environment. Second, socio-economic justice: we provide local jobs, while automation in conventional farming not only removes jobs, but requires a ton of buying power for the machinery, which leads to more consolidation and industrial farming. Third is product quality, in both taste and healthfulness — there's really no comparison."
Measured and contemplative, Hare has clearly invested much thought in this. That he confesses to growing up in white-collar Toronto poking fun at farming and barely noticing plants confirms it. Which makes a newfound passion for both — one that finds us strolling a verdant, forest-hemmed plot of chest-high shrubs bent by the weight of fat, green orbs begging sun to rush them onto a sapphire finish — suggestive of the long, strange trip he's been on.
Back in 2001, then pro-skier Hare and pro-snowboarder friend Kevin Smith purchased a ramshackle lot in Pemberton near the old Mt. Currie townsite. A spacious, fixer-upper was their main interest, but the prospect of land offered additional enticement — the property included seven acres of bottomland forest. Skiing, snowboarding and epic parties dominated as adulthood settled around the boys, but when talk eventually turned to cashing in on their land, options proved limited: situated in B.C.'s Agricultural Land Reserve, subdividing wasn't allowed on anything under 10 acres, and it was hard to imagine lease-farming such a small plot could be economically viable. Which is why, during one such discussion, someone joked: "We can't all farm blueberries."
With Lower Mainland growers making a killing at the time, the throwaway remark planted an idea that a series of events would galvanize for Hare, who'd eventually buy out his partner: in 2008, after a baby appointment in North Vancouver, he and wife Sharon stepped into a hole-in-the-wall café run by a Guyanese dude who'd sounded a telltale echo when he heard where they lived: "You need to plant blueberries!"
With a thriving stand in his front yard providing impetus, Hare ventured into the property's nether reaches to take soil samples. While test results showed good organics and acidity, any further thinking was shelved when ski season arrived. In March 2009, Hare, who'd been plagued by injuries, broke his femur in a ski accident. Waking from surgery, he took turbo-stock of his life, picked up the phone, and spent his first $50,000 as an organic blueberry farmer booking an excavator.
With 15 per cent of global production centered on the Fraser Valley, blueberries are one of B.C.'s top crops. Of the province's annual 77,000,000 kilograms however, only .05 per cent is organic, putting Hare up against it. Nevertheless, being sponsored by Patagonia during his ski career convinced him it could work to do the right thing in business and not simply compete at the bottom dollar. Hobbling on crutches, he oversaw land-clearing that spring, grading over the winter, and worked on drainage and planting beds in spring 2010. Amidst this (you can take the man out of the mountains but...) and only a year after his accident, Hare took a self-affirming break to ski two huge first descents in the Tantalus Range. Then it was back to the land.
With literally dozens of blueberry cultivars available, diligent research into flavour, quality and soil-preferences suggested three with a range of ripening times: Draper, Reka, and Liberty. In May, a crew of 40 friends and family put 5,000 bushes in the ground — a genuine blueberry bee. Next, 49 truckloads of bark mulch from a local mill were hand-spread to provide temperature and moisture regulation for root growth while some 10,000 jute coffee sacks were laid down for weed control (having to be organic to keep the farm's certification, these took a while to track down). With dozens of native plant species growing around them, creating habitat for native bees that most efficiently pollinate blueberries, it was time to wait. In 2012, Hare's first crop hit Sea-to-Sky grocery stores and markets.
If you've tasted Hare's organic blueberries, you know the difference. And you don't want to know how disturbingly toxic conventional blueberry farming has become (with invasive spotted-wing Drosophila impacting Lower Mainland crops, berry-growers have expanded both the frequency and arsenal of pesticide use under special government permits). "I actually have more in common with organic farmers than other blueberry farmers," notes Hare, whose success lies in vertical integration that allows business capture at each step. "I'm the grower, labour contractor, sorter, packer, distributor and, if you count farmer's markets, retailer," he notes proudly.
As we leave the field, closing the gate of a bear-and-deer repelling electric fence, we pass the harvest staging area — an open air pad where berries will be sorted and packaged, some to leave immediately, with others stored in adjacent refrigerators and freezers. For now, this end of the operation is a phantom, but in a few weeks it will come alive with the succulent blue orb that rivals maple syrup as a symbol of home-grown Canadiana — with gentleman farmer JD Hare the unlikely overseer.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.