How one Abbotsford farmer sells what he sows

EARLY SPRING | Abbotsford farmer Loren Taves says that selling produce offers as many challenges as growing it

Loren Taves makes the most of the small window he has to sell fruits and vegetables

A white wooden fence outlines a curved driveway down a hill to a red barn on one of the Abbotsford properties of the Taves Family Farm. Behind the barn are several greenhouses, growing Brandywine tomatoes, mini cucumbers and snacking peppers, while the surrounding slopes are covered with apple orchards. It would be hard to imagine a more idyllic setting. But to Loren Taves, a third-generation Fraser Valley farmer, something is wrong. He points to the pink blossoms on the Jonagold apple trees. The bloom is three weeks earlier than it used to be.

“With the amount of dark cloudy cold weather we had, I thought, it’s gonna be a normal year,” says Taves, 47. “But we didn’t get that deep winter chill, five inches of frost, and I didn’t factor that into my thoughts. That has a huge effect on plants. Things just kept growing.”

Such are the vagaries of nature that affect every farmer. Even the controllable environment of the greenhouses offers challenges. Every morning, Taves spends a couple of hours entering climate and irrigation data into spreadsheets, trying to predict exactly when his produce will be ready to harvest. “It’s all about the market window,” he says, explaining that he has to tell his distributor, Windset Farms, how many peppers or tomatoes or cucumbers he will give them six weeks in advance. As soon as a little pepper appears from its bloom, it is tagged with a date.

At times—like the end of July, when “everybody and his dog and his grandma and her dog,” as he puts it, are selling tomatoes—there’s simply nowhere to sell it. “You could mark it down to 10 cents a pound and it wouldn’t move, but you don’t want to be the price predator because no one wins in the end.” Taves is always looking for other ways of marketing or using his produce; he goes to farmer’s markets, manufactures cider at his other property across Gladwin Road and is applying for approval for a food-processing kitchen to make preserves. But this morning he’s meeting up with Kayla Feenstra, who runs a program called Farm to Food Bank, and giving her a dozen boxes of mini peppers that he couldn’t sell. There was a glitch in the irrigation system two months ago, and the peppers turned out a few centimetres too short.

All farmers have the same struggle to harvest and sell their produce during peak months, especially in years when crops ripen early. Feenstra, who runs a landscaping company, figured out a solution. In 2013, the Abbotsford Food Bank asked her to grow vegetables for the 3,000 people they support every month. Instead, she asked a few local farmers if they could donate whatever they couldn’t sell. They agreed. She organized volunteers to go to the farms every week and glean fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be left to rot.

About 20 farmers in Abbotsford, Mission and Chilliwack are now involved, and last year they donated more than 27,000 kilograms of food. It was more than the Food Bank could use, so Feenstra’s volunteers lined up a commercial kitchen and now produce a line of canned products—corn salsa, tomato compote, pickled peppers and more—called Helping Harvest for donation and sale. “The farmers say that otherwise it goes to the pigs, the cows or the compost,” she says. “So some of the uses are good. But if people are hungry, I would rather it goes to them.”