WYCLIFFE – When imported produce is in short supply at the grocery store and fresh produce becomes a winter luxury, it’s heartening to know dedicated farmers are producing good food locally through the season.
Apple Quill Farm in Wycliffe, a small community between Cranbrook and Kimberley, is one of the most prolific small-scale winter producers in the East Kootenays.
Veterinarian Marie-Eve Fradette and photographer Michael Albert decided to move to the Kootenays from Vancouver Island in 2011 with their two young daughters.
“We had no intention of farming when we bought this property,” says Fradette. “We started growing for the love of food and the health of our family and it snowballed from there.”
Fradette grew up in St. Antoine de Tilly, a small community just up the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City known for its dairies, fruit and home gardening. Albert was raised in Wisconsin and inspired by his grandfather, a dairy farmer with a passion for experimenting with sustainable growing methods.
“The property was in the Agricultural Land Reserve and had never been farmed when we purchased it,” Albert says. “The soil needed amendment in some areas but overall, we were amazed how fertile it was. We felt we had come across a buried treasure and that the land should be farmed. I found myself obsessing more about growing food than taking pictures. I realized I had to commit to farming full time and put my photography career aside to do this.”
After only four growing seasons, Apple Quill Farm has developed a reputation for producing a wide range of produce throughout the year, including kale, spinach and lesser-known items such as mizuna, also known as Japanese mustard greens. They also produce herbs, berries, and heirloom tomatoes while raising ducks and chickens. Just four acres of the 15-acre property are farmed.
“We’ve really adapted to the regional climate,” says Fradette. “We get a lot of sun here but the growing season is short and there are some deep frosts from September through June. So, for us, winter growing is all about the greenhouse.”
Greenhouse growing requires a significant capital investment but can deliver considerable benefits. The growing season can be extended by growing plants from starts in late winter or early spring, then transplanting them to an outdoor garden once the weather and temperatures are ideal. The heat of the sun is trapped in the walls, frame and soil which heats up the plants. They are well protected from cold and frost so that even at the height of winter, the plants can get an excellent start.
In preparation for the 2021 season, the couple invested $60,000 in a 90-foot greenhouse as well as propane heating. A few LED grow lights are used to start the plants in winter.
“We really worked the numbers and used spreadsheets to determine our cost of production – what it costs to heat the greenhouse, maintain efficient space for storing plants and moving around while we work, and what we needed to produce to make the investment worthwhile,” says Albert. “I am blown away by what a valuable farm management tool a greenhouse can be.”
After just one season using the greenhouse, Apple Quill has increased the amount of food it grows by 150% and it hopes to double that number within two years.
“We are extending the growing season by reducing the time the plants are dormant. They get a head start in the greenhouse and begin producing sooner than usual. Our raspberries, for example, are ready for harvesting in June, which is much earlier than the typical August harvest,” adds Albert, noting that the couple enjoyed a last bowl of fruit from the greenhouse in November the day they turned off the heat.
As the weather cools, the greenhouse temperature is allowed to drop; by November, it can be almost as cool in the greenhouse as it is outside. Heating and labour costs go down and the farm takes a break. The couple uses this quieter time of year to review what went well during the season and plan what they want to do differently in the year ahead.
One of the keys to winter growing is planting early enough that crops have a chance to get close to maturity before the short days of winter arrive. The period when daylight falls below 10 hours per day – known as the Persephone period (a nod to Persephone, daughter of Demeter, the harvest goddess in Greek mythology) – provides a guide for when to sow for fall/winter harvest and when crops need protection for overwintering. Related to latitude, it begins in late October and runs to mid-February in the East Kootenays.
It is also important to plant enough to carry the farm through the cold season. Regrowth is very slow during the winter and there may be only one harvest of greens during the coldest months. Many crops do well in a tunnel, protected by a row cover on hoops, or in a greenhouse. The plastic coverings add protection from cold, frost and predators.
Apple Quill uses tunnels both outside and inside the greenhouse. When used inside, hoop houses can help provide extra insulation and enhanced protection for the plant starts.
“We have learned so much through our experimentations that educating people about how food is grown is another reason the farm exists,” says Fradette.
Apple Quill hosts workshops through the summer in cooperation with Kootenay and Boundary Farm Advisors and Wildsight Society. Winter growing, extending the season and tomato production are recurring topics.
With the addition of winter farmers markets in 2022, Apple Quill and other local farmers have more opportunity to bring products they grow through the winter to consumers. The Cranbrook market held three indoor market days in November and December attracting up to 150 people in one day.
“It was great to see Apple Quill’s fresh greens and herbs when there was two feet of snow outside,” says Cranbrook Farmers Market manager Jessica Kazimi.
Consumers won’t give up their desire for year-round greens any time soon, creating ongoing opportunities for small-scale producers to connect with customers, add to the food supply and involve consumers in the growing process.
“This farm has allowed us to spend more time with our kids and put some serious roots down as stewards of our own land,” says Albert. “We work really hard because we believe the best food comes from small producers like ourselves committed to growing quality over quantity.”