Blueberries: Q+A with Hare’s Family Farm
I doubt that there’s anything more exciting than the first harvest of berries, come summer. Except, maybe, the discovery that a young family have decided to throw everything into starting a farm to grow organic berries as a full-time commercial operation just around the corner from you. For some reason, those kind of revelations make me inordinately happy. Maybe it’s because purchasing produce from China and Mexico makes me sad and suspicious. Maybe it’s because the family farm has been in decline over the past several decades, so thirty-somethings voting with their lives to counter that trend, feels like a massive shift in a good direction.
After interviewing JD Hare for a Coast Mountain Culture magazine article (look for it this summer and discover how many Pemberton-based pro skiers have a secret green thumb), and discovering the roots of the farm (in spring 2009, waking up from surgery with a 6 inch post screwed into his repaired femur, Hare announced to his wife and 2 year old son, “We’re going to become blueberry farmers”) – I checked back in for a Choose Pemberton-style Q+A on Pemberton’s Organic Blueberry operation, Hare Family Farm.
Hare’s Family Farm picked its first harvest in 2012. Family farms have been vanishing across North America over the last few decades – was it important for you to specifically call out the fact that this is a family farm?
We feel so connected to the whole corridor community, and we want all our customers to feel a personal connection to us. Plus, I want the whole family to feel ownership in the place, so they know why they’re working so hard!
Introduce us to the family behind this enterprise. How does the division of labour work? Who’s in charge of what?
Well, we planned everything out together, then, building the farm was mostly my job. Sharon’s generally pretty busy with our boys, but she also handles all our restaurant sales and social media. And we all spend a lot of time out in the field together.
This is Pemberton’s first blueberry farm. You tested your soil and found it was pretty well suited to blueberries, and discovered that BC (and the Lower Mainland) grows an incredible percentage of the world’s blueberries. Any idea why no one had moved into commercial blueberries before this?
I suppose that back-in-the-day Pemberton was more of an outpost, and had to transport all it’s produce to Vancouver for sale. That’s okay for potatoes, but it would be tricky with a fresh crop like berries.
Now there’s a critical mass of population in the corridor who are really hungry for fresh local food.
Was it more of an opportunity or a risk factor to not have any other local blueberry farmers to seek advice from/compete with?
There are other blueberries growing around the valley. You can pick-your-own at North Arm Farm. And lots of local farmers have been very helpful to us. It’s an opportune time to launch a farming venture here. We just tried to offer something to the community that there would be a healthy demand for.
Your business is a direct-to-consumer, organic operation, and all your berries were sold last year through Farmers Markets in the Sea to Sky corridor. Why are people willing to pay a premium for organic blueberries direct from the grower? How much value do you think can be attributed to the chance people have to meet you and your family when they make their purchase?
The ability to bring produce directly to the consumer is a major factor revitalizing small-scale agriculture – Farmers Markets have really changed the economics for the farming family. That said, I’m not sure how much more people are willing to pay for the experience of shopping at the farmers market, or the pleasure of meeting our family. Probably not much! And they don’t actually pay more at a Farmers Market than they would for the same produce in a grocery store. I do think a lot of people are willing to pay a little more for locally-grown, organic food, because they understand that it is a healthier choice for the sustainability of their bodies, our community, and our environment. People seek out unique, locally owned businesses anytime they can.
Do people take you more seriously or less seriously as a grower, because of your background as a pro skier?
First of all, I wouldn’t get too carried away with that word “pro”! I’m a passionate ski-bum, and I had nice run with a lot of support that I very much appreciate. But I’m more of a “pro” carpenter really, who is trying to be a “pro” farmer! You gotta be a hustler to make it here. I think anyone who knows me knows that I’m a hard-worker, who cares deeply about the state of nature.
You spent your 20s shredding remote corners of the globe. If all the airports suddenly closed, and we could only travel/recreate within the Sea to Sky corridor, could you be happy? Would there be enough to inspire and stoke you?
I can’t think of any better place to be stuck, that’s for sure! At this point in our lives we’re deeply satisfied by life on the farm, and still totally in love with Whistler.
You didn’t go into farming with any kind of family background. What gave you the confidence that you could pull this off? Especially as the hard investment costs grew?
I had been on the land for nearly 10 years already, and I was pretty sure I would love the work. But fundamentally, what we are doing is making a big bet on the future of farming. Everything that I saw happening around me led me to believe that we could create real value from our little piece of land. The costs of conventional industrial farming are rising inexorably.
At what point were you all-in, point-of-no-return?
Basically right away! Our land had been farmed in the past, but had gone fallow in the 70’s, so in the fall of 2008 it was a dense, mature cottonwood forest. The first thing we had to do was log our whole field and move a lot of dirt around. That meant a very big machinery bill, leaving us with a big mess. In order to recover that expense, we knew we’d have to see it all the way through.
If you were to write a job description for a farmer, what would it read? How did you know you had what it took, not having grown up on farms?
One thing that makes our operation a little different from other new farms in the area, is that blueberries are a perennial. Our farm is more like an orchard or a vineyard. So, for me it has been more of a farm-building project. I knew I could tackle that, and the idea of spending our lives becoming better farmers really appealed to both of us.
To be a good small-plot organic farmer, you have to truly love the land, and every single cell of life.
Did your style of skiing, which was largely self-propelled and about venturing into pretty unknown zones to make first descents, help you break trail in this new venture? Do you think that prepares you psychologically to try new risky ventures?
Certainly we had to put it all on the line, we literally “bet-the-farm”. And again, what I think is special in our case, and definitely relates to my style of skiing, is this: we had a dream, we had to commit to it, and then be very, very patient! We’ve gone all-in up-front to build this thing; that began about 5 years ago, and realistically it will be another 5 years from now before we know whether it’s working! It’s a life-plan.
What motivated that style of largely self-propelled skiing for you? Do you just like things to be tougher and more raw? Or is there an environmental passion at the heart of it?
I’m driven to explore the biggest, wildest peaks out there, and you just can’t generally get to those places without a lot of sweat and dangerous effort. My kind of mountain experience is a pilgrimage – part quest, part communion. But the most essential part of the experience for me is the Wilderness, no question.
You started to study business at University before becoming a full time skier, so you obviously have some commercial inclinations/smarts. How important do you think a good business sense is for a farmer, versus a lot of experience in agriculture?
“Started” is the operative word there. I think I’m fairly entrepreneurial though, and that is essential in the current economy. Farming is the original family-business, and it’s now possible on a smaller scale than it has been in decades, basically thanks to the commitment of educated and caring food consumers. But in order to harness that opportunity, we also have to be: processor, packager, wholesaler, retailer, designer, writer, PR, IT, accountant, etc. That’s the beauty of it for someone with diverse interests.
What mentors have you had in launching your farm?
We spoke to everyone we could. The Helmers were really helpful in the beginning, our friends at Icecap were getting into it around the same time we were, and kept us psyched! The Sturdy’s have been really good to us. And Leigh Fincke has helped us a lot. And in particular, we sought out a small organic blueberry farm near Abbotsford called Matsqui Blues; they had exactly what we were trying to build, and they were very gracious about showing us around.
What’s your favourite time of year?
Spring. I can’t wait to see the land come alive moment by moment – all the various blooms, and the returning birds. We also have a small pond, and a slough that connects to the Birkenhead, so, there are a lot of water-fowl arriving each spring too. When I walk to the field in the morning I might see a new clutch of ducklings, or a heron, or a muskrat. It’s also the time of year that the salmon smolts are rearing in the slough.
My farmer father-in-law told me that the year is divided into 4 seasons: planting, growing, harvesting and skiing. Does that jive for you? What will it take for you to basically be able to take winters off?
Not exactly. Our season is a little shorter. Harvesting, packaging and selling makes the vast majority of the work now, and that all happens between mid-July and mid-September. My “skiing” is somewhat interrupted by pruning and fertilizing in March-April, then there’s beekeeping, and maintaining the field, weeding, etc. But for the foreseeable future, our creditors demand I spend as much of my year as possible employed in carpentry. Someday…
How important a factor was it for you that your kid be able to grow up on a farm, as opposed to grow up in a condo in Whistler, with a dad who was away for work 50 days a year? Was that a factor for you?
We think a condo in Whistler can be a great life! In fact, before we came to the idea of farming here, we were having a tough time justifying this big piece of land. We were close to moving back to that. But ultimately, we loved this place so much, so when we hit on this scheme to build our life around it and invest everything into farming it, we never looked back. And it is a profound joy to share this adventure-in-place as a family. We were incredibly lucky to get into this market when we did, and to be able to hold onto this place for all these years, and build up so much equity. And now our hope is to live our lives here, raising our boys on the land, and passing it on to them.
What’s your favourite way to eat blueberries?
Fresh, handfuls at a time, all day long!
Initially when you bought your land, you thought it was a decent investment with the possibility to subdivide, and felt frustrated by the ALR restrictions. How has your stance on that changed over the past decade?
Initially, my best friend and I got into it together, back in 2001; we lived here with buddies for 5 years. We always had a hunch that we couldn’t go wrong owning land in the area. Back then, Whistler was rapidly filling-up with skiers, and small-scale farming didn’t seem feasible, so we supposed that small ALR lots like ours would likely be let out to subdivide. That never happened. Instead, tons of new condos sprung up in Pemberton and Squamish, and then a flood of new WHA units in Whistler, which was great, because the corridor is the ideal place to live in a small space. At the same time, the ALC was digging in it’s heels, and for good reason – small-scale farming was making a big-time comeback due to organics awareness, farmers markets, and the internet.
In 2005 my friend broke his back, and decided to move to the city. As we were preparing to sell the place, my brave new girlfriend went way out on a limb and agreed to sell her condo to buy him out and move in with me. Then we got married, had a son, and by 2008, the place had basically tripled in value. We loved it, and we had a lot of equity, but we couldn’t exactly afford it, or justify it all. When we started to believe we might be able to hold onto this place by making our living in organic farming, that’s when we decided to shoot the moon.
Ten years ago, I didn’t necessarily expect to be where I am now, but I think the way things have turned out has been for the best in every sense.
What kind of career advice would you give your sons?
Much as I would love to pass this farm on for generations, we can’t always continue to live the lives of our parents. My sons will have to keep their senses tuned to their own times, and find their niche in the changing world they inherit.
Hopefully, growing up here teaches them well how to be in the world.
Finally, why Pemberton?
There IS a fantastic sense of community in Pemberton. It’s a vibrant, youthful town; I think most of us, who’ve settled here since the mid-nineties, would agree that it’s because of the mountains. It’s the ONLY place that we can farm, with this kind of access to truly wild mountains, that’s at the same time 2 hours away from a stunning ocean-coast, and one of the most-promising cities in the world.