CHILLIWACK – Local Harvest Farm and Market is a true family farm where Dan and Helen Oostenbrink have embraced innovative weed control practices to transform 37 acres of former pasture into a thriving market garden supplying local residents, restaurants and wholesalers.
Tucked into a prime location just off Hwy 1 at the corner of Lickman and Yale roads near Chilliwack Heritage Park, the operation yields just about every vegetable it’s possible to grow in the region as well as herbs, fruits and flowers. Greenhouses help extend their growing season.
“We’re intensively vegetable farming about 25 acres,” says Dan, who says the farm cycles through two or three crops on each block every year.
The Oostenbrinks arranged to take over the property from Dan’s father in 2013. They set about planting vegetables and constructing greenhouses on the former pasture, but their early vision of agritourism soon gave way to market gardening.
Even though they started farming conventionally, the weeds were out of control. When they hired a farmhand in 2014 with experience in market gardening, he convinced them to get rid of their big farm equipment, chemical fertilizers and sprays and turned one acre into a market garden.
Oostenbrink expanded the market garden the following year and thus began his own somewhat accidental experiments in weed control. He laid down compost in one bed, but didn’t do anything to the next bed because he ran out of time. He seeded spinach in both beds. The bed that was mulched had no weeds and really good germination. The adjacent bed, the one that had been tilled, was underperforming. Weeds were everywhere. He started to research no-till.
“Not a lot of people were doing no-till at that time,” says Oostenbrink. “Now it’s all the rage in market gardening; everybody’s talking about it.”
Since switching to no-till farming practices, Oostenbrink estimates weeding has dropped by 75% to 90% and soil health has greatly improved.
Tillage reduces soil’s structural stability and results in severe soil loss through erosion. Since making the switch to no-till farming about six years ago, Oostenbrink has noticed that soil microbes are flourishing, moisture conservation is higher and yields are better. As an added bonus, he finds it easier to flip beds between crops.
Oostenbrink credits his no-till practices with the minimal damage his farm suffered during the extreme heat at the end of June, when temperatures at Oostenbrink’s farm hit 43°C. During the hottest days he watered in short bursts through the heat of the day – 20 waterings, five minutes at a time.
“Nothing was damaged,” says Oostenbrink. “[It was] hard to tell we had a heat wave.”
With the weeds under control, the Oostenbrinks began ending up with more produce than they could sell out of a simple roadside stand.
They ran into hurdles when a barn they had renovated without the necessary building permits ran afoul of Chilliwack bylaws and the Agricultural Land Commission. A purpose-built market completed in 2018 meant they needed to keep the crops growing year-round to keep the shelves stocked. Oostenbrink says the ALC was hesitant to allow a purpose-built facility on the farm to market al.l the product it was growing, and municipal building and safety requirements, which don’t distinguish between large grocery stores and small on-farm markets, were difficult to meet for a small business like his.
“The costs become prohibitive and the wrangling with governments becomes really, really challenging,” says Oostenbrink. “It takes a lot of time.”
Approval hinged on a split-zoning that saw the property designated 91% agricultural lowland and 9% agricultural commercial, but Oostenbrink says the market is still really small to handle the production from a 25-acre market garden.
The ALC requires that 50% of the product they sell be grown on farm, but they have to bring in complementary products from off the farm to attract people year-round and keep the market financially viable.
“If we were to do it with just the product that we grow on the farm at this point in time we would not be sustainable,” says Oostenbrink, although he adds that they are getting there. “We’re able to satisfy the requirement of the ALC, certainly better than a lot of other markets have.”
Their eldest son Dustin, now 21, runs a wood-fired bakery on site where he makes sourdough breads during the week and pizzas on Saturdays. Daughter Courtenay, who’s 20, helps out in the market. Their next two sons are currently working off the farm, but their youngest daughter, 13, is also involved. They also employ a couple of full-time staff year round and hire high school students throughout the summer.
The Oostenbrinks also have a couple of cows and a small herd of alpacas grazing on about six acres. Harking back to their original agritourism dream, the animals are there mostly for the enjoyment of visitors who come to the farm market, although the alpacas are shorn annually and the fibre is sent off-farm for finishing. It makes its way back to the market in the form of socks.
Not all of their produce goes to the market. Some is wholesaled and some sells at farm markets in Abbotsford and Invermere. Some makes its way to nearly 20 different restaurants, mostly in Vancouver, to which they personally deliver three times a week. COVID-19 hurt this part of their business, but it beats selling to large wholesalers and the big grocers.
“They hold you to these contracts and you’re obligated, but they’re not,” he says. “We’re much happier selling to independently-owned markets and restaurants. It is about knowing the chef and getting them out [to the farm].”
Before making the switch to farming, Oostenbrink, 39, was a math and physics teacher. He’s put that background to good use in sharing his passion about soil health and the soil food web.
Oostenbrink offers a course on no-till gardening and recently partnered with Farm Folk/City Folk to conduct a virtual field day on no-till farming.
Oostenbrink says farming is a lot more demanding than being a teacher, with longer days and brutally hard work. He thinks five to seven acres is the right size for a family farm, but isn’t sure that would be financially viable.
“My farm’s too big,” he says.
In the virtual field day, Oostenbrink advised those thinking of making the switch to no-till farming to start small and build from there.
“Don’t take on too much. Do less and do it well,” he says.