SKOOKUMCHUK – Jessica and Harold Tichenor have renovated several properties over the years, developing their building and gardening skills to where they could tackle extremely challenging projects. At a point in their lives when most farmers are thinking about retirement, they bought an off-grid property in the East Kootenays that turned out to be one of their most ambitious – and rewarding – adventures.
For several years, the couple divided their time between their permanent residence on Bowen Island and a property they developed in Rexford, Montana, one of the oldest Amish settlements in the state. They were strongly influenced by their Amish neighbours’ approach to farming, which avoids using motorized mechanical equipment and incorporates traditional methods to plan, raise and harvest products.
“We had a good-size garden and I was encouraged to consider growing for farmers markets, but I couldn’t do that in Montana because I was not a US citizen,” Jessica says.
In 2005, the Tichenors, then in their late 50s, set their sights on the Kootenays as the location for their next project. They purchased a 230-acre parcel in the town of Skookumchuk, a small rural community north of Cranbrook in the Rocky Mountain Trench, abundant with rivers and lakes. The land had been cleared in 1910 and sat undeveloped for years.
“Our philosophy is If you want to be a successful grower, grow where no one else is growing,” says Jessica. Skookumchuk met that criteria with less than 100 residents and not much more than a convenience store, RV park and campground.
Jessica describes the land when they purchased it as “total wilderness,” forest and bottom land with approximately 4,200 feet of frontage on Tamarack Lake. “It was so beautiful and private, accessible from a driveway almost a mile long. We thought living here would be a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Like the prospectors that came to the area to pan for gold in the 1800s, they jumped in to see what they could accomplish with the gem they had found.
They lived in a log cabin with a small solar energy system for several summers, eventually building a house and shop and expanding the array of solar panels. When the house was complete, they turned their focus to creating a sizeable market garden and named the property Sunpower Farm.
An eighth of an acre was initially devoted to the garden, which required significant soil amendments. Seventy acres of the property consisted of receded lakebed with seven feet of sandy loam topsoil.
“At first, we couldn’t even grow lettuce there,” Jessica recalls. “When we started spreading certified organic alfalfa hay in the fall, the soil quality improved every year. Today we have deep black soil that drains well and protects the seeds through the winter. We’ve expanded the garden so many times it’s unbelievable.”
Sunpower is best known for its garlic. It produced 5,000 bulbs last year. It also grows potatoes, onions, corn, peas, beans, lettuces, beets, carrots, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, raspberries and strawberries. When the garden was expanded to its current size of 0.75 acres, they planted apple, pear and sour cherry trees. In addition to the Cranbrook Farmers Market, the farm sells to Grace Café & Preserving in Kimberley, and Mortella’s restaurant in Cranbrook. A grocery store and private customers on Bowen Island take much of what is left over at the end of the season.
In addition to Sunpower’s success as a market garden, what really distinguishes it from other farms in the Kootenays is its use of solar power and non-mechanized equipment to minimize greenhouse gas emissions.
“I considered the property an experimental farm,” says Harold. “We felt it could be developed into a substantial operation, but it was going to cost over $80,000 to put in electricity. We built the original small-scale solar system at about half that cost.”
The system was installed on the farm shop, which is oriented to maximize the sunlight the system receives. The shop also contains the equipment needed to convert light into power.
“On the upper floor are the control systems and a battery bank which provides about three days of energy to carry us through in cloudy weather. We use a propane generator during long stretches of cloudy days in the fall.”
With his interest in alternative energy, Harold began researching tilling and mowing equipment that did not use gas. He found a series of Elec-Trak all-electric garden tractor equipment made by General Electric in the early 1970s in response to the energy crisis of the time. The equipment is still available and in use today by a following of tractor and electric vehicle enthusiasts. Harold and Jessica bought two Elec-Traks so that when one was charging, the other could be used to keep the work going.
They have a small electric truck for bringing in crops from the garden and use a propane-powered gas range to prepare the bread and cookies Jessica makes and sells along with produce at the Cranbrook market.
“Other than the cost of the Elec-Traks themselves, we use little electricity,” says Harold. “That keeps our hydro-carbon output low and reduces infrastructure expenses.”
“The electric mowers only have a few moving parts so keeping them operating is easy,” he adds. “I might replace brushes and some bearings every two to three years and replace the batteries every five years. The battery technology ensures they will run for three hours. That’s about as much time as I want to spend on certain tasks anyway.”
Sunpower’s irrigation system is also adapted to the site.
“Summers in the Skookumchuk area are blazing hot and 42-degree days are common,” Jessica points out. “We placed the garden next to Tamarack Creek which flows into Tamarack Lake. We have a water diversion tank above the house and garden so that all our water comes from the creek with more than adequate pressure. To minimize water use, we use mostly drip lines, eliminating the need for pumps.”
The Tichenors, now in their 70s, have long followed the principles of author Jean-Martin Fortier, renowned for his low-tech, high-yield production methods, and English horticulturalist Charles Dowding’s
no-dig and organic soil management techniques.
They are adamant that market gardening benefits the health of older people.
“Even now in our 70s, we are very fit, largely because the garden work stretches and strengthens all the muscles in the body,” says Jessica, who has a nursing degree. “The social aspect of participating at the farmers market and providing good food for others also contributes to our healthy lifestyle.”
Despite the challenges of developing the farm from scratch, they have no regrets.
“We feel we’ve defied the odds as to what can be accomplished on this property and it has given back to us in so many ways,” Jessica says.