Strawberries – in season, and succession.
When the Pemberton rumour mill had McEwan’s Strawberry Farm closing down, I had a mild panic attack. Last season, I picked 20 pounds of berries and made my own jam, thanks to a recipe Tonette McEwan scribbled out for me on the back of a cereal box. The stockpile had just run out, so strawberry season couldn’t come quickly enough. I connected with Allen McEwan to find out the source of the scuttlebutt, and get the low-down on the best pickings and their strawberry succession plan as they pass the torch for next season to a new generation of strawberry growers.
Thanks Allen and Tonette for being such a source of summer sweetness for the past 20 years, and for making sure we’ll have somewhere to go next year, after you shift gears.
For how many years has McEwan’s been a strawberry farm?
Why strawberries? (Is Pemberton particularly conducive?)
We were encouraged to grow berries by the Naylors, previous growers, who felt that there was a demand for more berry production. Our soil seems well suited to growing good berries, with exceptional flavor.
How many acres do you have in production?
Currently just 2 acres. We had 4 acres at one time.
What’s the pleasure in U-pick for people?
Most people seem to enjoy the opportunity to harvest their own food. Many families bring their children for the “farm” experience.
Have you always been entirely a U-pick operation?
No. We started off doing just ready-picked berries and up until this year, we have always offered some ready-picked berries. That method is more complicated as we have to hire pickers, sort the berries into flats, put them in cold storage and hope the customers remember to come and pick up the berries they ordered.
What is your favourite way to eat/enjoy strawberries?
Even after 20 years of growing them, I like berries any way. Fresh in the field is best (providing you own the field!)
What’s the crop like this year?
Our crop this year is a little below average. We have had some winter survival issues on a piece of land which is not as well drained as it ought to be.
How long can people expect there to be picking available?
The season usually lasts between three and four weeks, depending on the weather. That should take us to mid July.
What hours are you open?
8am to 6pm daily.
And how much cash should a person bring?
$1.75 per pound of berries you pick…
So, clear up the rumours that are swirling around, for us. What will those strawberry fields look like this time next year?
We plan to seed the berry land into grass which will be used for hay production.
What is the succession plan you have lined up?
Carrie and Remi Charron at Camel’s Back Harvest have planted a good sized patch of berries to serve the clientele next year. Like the Naylors, we encouraged them to get into the berry business and have worked with them to get them started. Carrie (Roxy and Mark Kurrne’s daughter) worked for us in her high school days so she has some knowledge of the business. She and her husband have recently moved back to the Kuurne farm and are working with Carrie’s family to develop their own business.
Why go to such lengths to develop a succession plan? Why not just retire and leave strawberry seekers to their own devices? Is it out of some overwhelming sense of obligation to the Women’s Institute, to make sure their enduring Strawberry Tea is properly supplied? Or is it to ensure you can still get your hands on a good tasty strawberry come next July?
We felt some obligation to ensure there were berries available next year – otherwise there would be a lot of disappointed people. We approached the Charrons about the opportunity, as we were aware that they were interested.
After potatoes, strawberries might actually be Pemberton’s most famous crop, at least, insofar as it’s role as a driver for people to journey to Pemberton. Do you have a sense of where your customers hail from?
Customers routinely come from as far as Lillooet in the north and Vancouver in the south. Whistler and Squamish are a big part of the clientele.
Effectively, you’ve been in “agritourism” since well before the term was a trendy buzzword. What are your thoughts on the role agritourism can play in Pemberton’s economy?
People love to come directly to the farm to see the animals, get their hands dirty and chat with the farmer. The challenge is to ensure that the farmer is paid adequately for his/her time. Despite the obvious demand, agritourism remains a challenge, in our opinion. Farmers need to sell their produce in bulk in order to make a reasonable return. This is very difficult to achieve at a farm gate operation like ours. Marketing our products continues to be the biggest challenge we face, as the local population cannot begin to support the agricultural potential of the valley.
You’re a 4th generation Pembertonian. What do you think is one of the most positive changes that’s happened in Pemberton in the last decade? And what you do think are the most beneficial legacies we enjoy thanks to the early pioneers?
We are pleased to see more interest in farming in the last decade – several new organic operations have started up and we hope they do well. We’re also seeing a move towards diversity with cranberries and organic dairy – that is good news. The pioneers leave us two important legacies – the dyking system (absolutely essential) and the seed potato industry which remains the backbone of agriculture in the valley. Seed potatoes are the one commodity which we are able to market – in bulk – through out the Pacific Northwest. We must protect this industry!
Any idea how many pounds of strawberries you’ve grown and sold over your “career” as a strawberry farmer?
Two or three hundred tons.
And what’s next for the McEwans, when the last plant is ploughed into the ground? Round the world cruises and all you can eat buffets?
We’ll focus on the cattle operation for the time being and hope to spend more time in the mountains.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
We’re very grateful for the support we’ve had for 20 years. Many thanks.