CHASE – Who hasn’t tucked into a cob of sweet, juicy corn during a warm summer harvest? It was even better if you could buy it at a roadside stand, freshly picked and direct from the farmer.
Many such memories began in the Village of Chase, on the shores of Little Shuswap Lake in the South Thompson River Valley. Here some of the best agricultural soil in the province has supported several generations of farmers in growing world-renowned corn. As the locals say, “There are two seasons in Chase: corn season and waiting for corn season.”
Inspired by their own childhood growing up in the community, brothers Lewis Burkholder, now 25, and Vincent, 28, have become one of the main corn producers in the area in just three seasons.
One of those farms, Pete Murray’s Corn Farm, was the go-to place for corn in Chase when the brothers were in their teens, selling most of its product through a market stand on the Trans-Canada Highway.
“When I was 11, all I wanted to do when I got out of school was join my older brother working at Pete Murray’s Corn Farm,” recalls Lewis.
By the time Lewis was in high school, he had joined his brother working at Murray’s after school and on weekends. They both went on to university; Vincent earned a degree in mechanical engineering and Lewis studied business, majoring in marketing.
When Murray decided to retire in 2019, the brothers embraced their passion for farming with a vision of starting their own corn farm. They began leasing the 30 acres that Murray farmed, and gradually secured additional land from other nearby farms.
By the time a new generation of Murrays took over the Murray farm late last year, the Burkholders had secured 32 acres – enough land to grow on their own.
“Pete has been an incredible mentor for us on the growing side of things, teaching us which tools he liked to use and what varieties we would grow,” says Lewis.
With their complementary business skills and the ability to work well together (which not all brothers do) the Burkholders created a formal business partnership with the goal of providing “the most delicious corn available to the people of Chase, Kamloops and the Shuswap.” They take pride in the fact their corn is never sprayed, non-GMO, hand-picked daily and sold direct to the public during from August to mid-October.
“During our first season in 2020 there were so many unknowns due to COVID,” says Vincent. “We made enough money to stay motivated for a second season, and just kept on going. We knew that if we were going to be career farmers, we needed to grow the business.”
The community was there to support them.
Tristan Cavers, whose grandfather helped pioneer the area’s corn industry, is the fourth-generation operator of Golden Ears Farm in Chase. He and his wife Michelle provided the brothers with mentoring and old tools and equipment that could be reused, repaired or modified to bring the Burkholders’ cultivation methods up to date.
“These guys have been incredibly inventive,” says Cavers. “They were fortunate to have a viable business model to work from and turned it into something where there is a long-term future. They’ve always stayed ahead of the curve.”
The brothers also worked with Thiessen Tillage, specialists in weed control for small to medium-sized farms.
“Ryan Thiessen introduced us to finger weeders, which have turned out to be one of the most valuable tools we use,” says Lewis. Finger weeders are designed specifically for in-row cultivation and used to uproot small, emerging weeds. The ground engaging the steel drive plate turns the flexible polyurethane “fingers” at a fast speed, flicking out weeds at the hair stage.
“Finger weeders changed the game for us,” Lewis adds. “We went from having patches of weeds that could barely be penetrated to virtually none at all.”
The brothers attend up to eight farmers markets a week including Kamloops, Scotch Creek and Sorrento, but faced with a significant hurdle when construction on the Trans-Canada Hwy closed the exit where Murray’s farm stand had stood for years, removing a major marketing location.
“Up to that point, our business strategy was based on the cash we had in hand and the loan we had for the season,” says Vincent. “Everything was based on the budget. But when we realized our most important sales site was going to disappear, we had to quickly pivot.
They began selling their corn and some other vegetables at a store in downtown Chase and strategized how to sell more corn to the Kamloops marketplace. They purchased a five-ton truck, added a refrigeration system and had “Burkholder Bros. Corn Farm” emblazoned on both sides, creating an eye-catching mobile farmstand they could locate wherever they wanted.
“It worked out well to have one of us at the truck handling sales,” adds Lewis. “It’s part of the experience we provide around our corn. People like to hear how we got into this and how it all came together. We’re still working on a more permanent location in Chase, but the mobile unit was critical to making the sales we needed.”
They were warmly welcomed by the Tk’emlups te Secwepemec in Kamloops during the 2022 season and set up at the truck at the Tk’emlups Petro-Canada station on Hwy 5 during August and September.
“Being there allowed us to bring fresh-picked produce to the people of Kamloops every day of the week, something that isn’t available anywhere else in town,” says Vincent.
Three years in, the brothers have grown their business revenue by 50%, with the most intensive work – and sales – taking place from August to mid-October.
The rest of the year is spent managing the farm and prepping for the upcoming season. The seasonality of corn also allows them to take time off in the winter and do some off-farm work to keep cash flowing.
The greatest challenge facing the farm today is finding good seasonal workers.
“We need people with skills such as the ability to manage themselves and others, work in less-than-ideal weather and conduct high-energy sales when Vincent and I are on the road doing the markets,” Lewis says.
Naturally, part of being a good corn picker is knowing the right time to pick the corn.
“When we’re out in the field training, we sample everything,” Lewis says. “I tell them, ‘When you bite into the corn, it needs to feel like an explosion of sweetness in your mouth.”
That sweetness is due to the high sugar content of corn, so one might wonder if corn is good for our bodies. In fact, sweet corn has a number of nutrients including lutein and zeaxanthin, two phytochemicals that can promote healthy vision, B vitamins, iron, protein and potassium.
“And I am sure it is good for your mental health because it is so tasty!” Lewis adds.