The first time I called Garry and Wendy Lowe at the appointed interview hour, there was no answer. That’s because cell phone service was down – the only phone service they have. In fact, there are no wires anywhere near their home, they are way off the grid in the fertile Robson Valley, between Prince George and Jasper. I was curious to learn how much growing they could be doing on land this far north. Turns out, quite a lot.
Twin Meadows Organics is a 350-acre farm, seventy percent of which is surrounded by the Fraser River. On the 80 acres they have in cultivation, the couple grows heirloom vegetables, garlic, grain and seeds. They are certified with PACS.
“It’s better than anywhere in BC for root crops. The rich river bottom soil gives excellent flavour,” says Garry.
“It’s the only interior temperate rainforest in BC,” says Wendy, “so we get a lot of moisture.”
I was surprised that they were growing grain there, but the climate in the valley is ideal for growing heirloom wheat, spelt, kamut, hulless barley and oats. All the moisture can be a problem for the grain though. They sometimes have to use grain dryers before selling the whole grains. They plan to invest in a small commercial stone mill for customers who wish to purchase modest quantities of milled grain. They hope to propagate enough heritage grain seed this year to sell to Salt Spring Seeds. They also grow out the heritage seed varieties for seed banks like Seeds of Diversity and the Seed and Plant Sanctuary on Salt Spring Island. Their goal is to be self-sufficient in their own seed supply within a couple of years.
As their web site says, living and farming in such a remote area allows them to grow organic food and seed, with little chance of contamination from other sources. Much of what they grow, they sell to Discovery Organics, a wholesale distributor based in Vancouver.
Ideally, they would like to reduce their carbon footprint by supplying markets closer to home. To that end, they have begun to cultivate business relationships in the area. One valued partnership is with The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. Seems the resort hotel can’t get enough of their eight different varieties of coloured baby carrots, which they serve to guests in their restaurants. Garry and Wendy deliver carrots and other produce to them weekly. The Executive Chef, Director of Food and Beverage and some of the chefs will be visiting the farm soon to see the gardens that supply their kitchens. When we spoke, they had just proposed a pilot program to the hotel, a kind of CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) arrangement that would see boxes of beautiful organic veggies delivered to the hotel once a week for their 800 employees.
An employee nutrition and health initiative may seem progressive for a hotel, but the Fairmont group has always been at the leading edge of sustainability. In 1990, the company launched their Green Partnership program. I recall a mid-scale worm composting system on the loading bay at The Fairmont Chateau Whistler and a roof top herb garden at The Fairmont Waterfront in Vancouver long before green was fashionable.
In order to supply The Jasper Park Lodge with more produce, the Lowe’s are looking at ways to extend their four-month growing season. They already grow tomatoes, squash and pumpkins in hoop houses. They have a moveable greenhouse system on the drawing board too, developed by Eliot Coleman at Four Season Farm in Vermont. The greenhouse will enable them to extend the season to seven months.
Garry and Wendy manage the farm themselves, with some part time help from their children. “As the kids go off to university and work we’re trying to find the balance of how much we can do on our own,” says Garry.
From the beginning, their desire was to live as sustainable a life as possible. “We view it as more of a journey than a goal,” says Garry. Most of his professional life was spent in the computer industry. As he approached the half-century mark, he began to re-evaluate his life. In his quest to find more balance, he retired early. About that time, he met Wendy, a former nurse and teacher who shared his values. Both of them avid gardeners, they began to create Twin Meadows Organics.
How they farm in this remote setting is a whole story of sustainability in itself. More and more, they use their Belgian horses to work the land, biodiesel when an engine is needed. Mostly they rely on alternative energy sources, such as wind and micro hydro. Garry is building an undershot waterwheel to capture energy from the top few inches of the small salmon creek that runs through their property. This passive energy system will be used to turn a low speed alternator (also custom built by Garry) that will charge the batteries that provide their electricity.
I have never been inspired to visit the Prince George area. But now, with formal invitation in hand, I can’t wait to go off grid to eat my fill of those baby carrots.
This article first appeared in BC Organic Grower, Fall 2011, Volume 14, Issue 5.