Lesley Morris and her husband Skip Pendleton moved from the Fraser Valley to their 11-acre farm in Cawston in the spring of 2002. They had not planned on being farmers, although Skip came from prairie farm stock.
“It just kind of evolved,” said Lesley, a former nurse.
“What is it with you nurses becoming farmers?” I said. “The last farmer I interviewed was a nurse too.”
“Well, I guess it’s still about nurturing,” she said. “Growing food that is healthy for both people and the land.”
They always had a garden though. And the garden Lesley put in at their new home, just kind of grew into the farm business they run today, called Penmore Farm. Five of the acres are in hay, two are leased out to a neighbour for squash and fall rye and the remainder are home to 30 fruit and nut trees and a range of ground crops: potatoes, garlic, corn, tomatoes, peppers and melons.
“We didn’t know anything when we started” says Lesley. The weeds were different. The soil was different. The insects were different. The weather was different.”
The workload is an on-going struggle. The couple does all the work themselves. Learning how to irrigate with a pump and well system in this semi-desert region was one of the biggest challenges. Skip built a pump house that feeds eight lines. There’s a well close to the house for domestic use and another for the rental house. They inherited the renter (also a gardener!) from the previous owners.
They never used chemicals. “Why would I spray?” asks Lesley. “Ignorance is bliss I guess.” Once they realized that GF-120 would control the very pesky cherry fruit fly, they decided they could go all the way. They certified with SOOPA.
“The one with the old cars in the field and on their sign,” says Lesley.
The car connection is important because Skip collects old cars, including a 1946 Mercury Coup. When they were scouting the area looking for acreage, they stopped at a place in Cawston that sold old cars and parts. It was the owner who told them about the farm for sale across the way.
It wasn’t just about the old cars though. For Lesley it was Ginty’s Pond, the wetland and bird sanctuary that backs onto their property.
“There are carp in there. And the osprey come to fish for them. There are turtles and salamanders too.” She tells me she can stick a canoe in the pond when the water is high and float all the way to the irrigation culvert. The culvert drains into the Similkameen River.
They sell some potatoes at the farmgate and provide a couple of local restaurants with spuds: Norland, Warbas and Sieglinde. Twin Lakes Golf Course takes all three varieties. But the Crowsnest Nest Vineyards serves authentic German food. They prefer the Sieglinde, with its yellow flesh for their potatoe salad. Both spots also stock Lesley’s Stonehouse products: salsa, pasta sauce and an “HP” style hot sauce made from Italian prune plums. She also dehydrates her own garlic, then grinds it into powder. The line grew out of her garden and kitchen experiments and at the urging of deliciously satisfied friends and neighbours.
Why the Stonehouse label? Because there is in fact a very old stonehouse on the farm. One with historical significance. Turns out the farm was owned by Francis Xavier Richter, a pioneer settler, miner and rancher. He is also known as one of the founders of BC’s fruit industry. The Richter name is everywhere in the Similkameen Valley. Cyclists in Iron Man Canada know the Richter Pass well, a dauntingly steep 11 km climb.
They use the stonehouse for storing their produce now. In the 1800’s, it was used as a creamery and doubled as a jail. Richter was a magistrate too. When Skip replaced the old broken window, he added some bars as a nod to the past. And that’s not the only reminder of days gone by.
“Every time you work the soil, horseshoes and other metal objects come to the surface,” says Leslie.
No doubt the next generation of farmers will be digging up car parts.
This article first appeared in BC Organic Grower, Winter 2010.