Organic produce growth spurs hunt for land in the Okanagan
Picking blackberries isn’t painful at Old Meadows Organic Farm.
You just arrive, skip the brambles, the hidden hornets’ nests and a chance tumble into a crag of ugly branches, and pick up a cache of juicy goodness at the market out front.
For Coastal expatriates, it’s a slice of heaven when the season arrives—and these berries are juicier than the wild.
“People want a lot of strawberries and blackberries and even raspberries because they know they get sprayed quite heavily,” said Jeff Ricketts, a.k.a. Farmer Jeff. “A lot of the stuff that comes up from Vancouver has been heavily sprayed and people want fresh produce.
“You get a strawberry that’s perfectly red, that deep colour where if it sits on the plant for two more hours it might start to turn all jammy, and you know it’s been picked at the right time. When you buy farm fresh, you get a better product.”
Unfortunately, the young farmer, 28 years old and in his second year owning the business, has already schooled more customers than he can serve.
Over the winter he was busy scoping out land to expand. With five full-time employees, three acres and an ability to forge partnerships to draw other local producers in to sell out of his shop, Ricketts has Old Meadows really hopping.
“It seemed like endless work last year, but after one year, it’s already more manageable,” he said.
Buying Old Meadows took serious risk. For several years, Ricketts battled through a career in finance, weathering the stress of a job he loved in day trading, until the 2008 crash, and then subsequent ventures into banking and financial advising. It left him constantly questioning the ethics of his decisions, losing sleep over other peoples’ money.
“When you’re young, you always think of a career and you think you should be doing that and you’re not really doing it because you want to,” he said.
As his zeal for the vocation waned, his interest in eating organic flourished. Watching family members develop illnesses, he converted to organic produce, discovering along the way that buying directly from the farm was more economical and enjoyable.
When he finally hit the tipping point on his financial advising career, he turned to the newspaper and found Old Meadows Farm was looking for help. Owner Jim Wood quickly let him loose to weed the strawberry field, bringing new meaning to the Beatles words, 'strawberry fields forever.'
“I had this huge strawberry patch with all these weeds out there and it was horrifying. I got going, started pulling them and pretty soon I was so relaxed because I didn’t have to worry ‘Is someone losing their money?’ or, ‘Can they afford this sale?’”
Worry free, Ricketts slept all night and within a few days he was turning over the rest of his summer, free of charge, volunteering in the business to convince Wood he was the right person to assume the reins when he sold.
Organic produce is a growth industry, in his view. Certified Organic BC’s research indicates 58 per cent of Canadians are purchasing organic food weekly and two-thirds of British Columbians buy organic groceries weekly.
Capitalizing on that market has not proven difficult. Producing everything from mustard greens to cauliflower, chard and stevia, Ricketts doesn’t need more products—he needs more volume.
By successfully leveraging his Facebook page with reams of Instagram photos, he has unearthed a very loyal customer base. Tourism Kelowna and the Central Okanagan Development Commission have helped him analyze his growth potential, develop the business plan and connect with the chefs and blog writers to really help him hone in on keen consumers.
Now open at his Gordon Drive location, just past Old Meadows Road, he has produce in store and is accepting orders online.
As for where year two will take the farm, it would appear there is acres of growth potential—provided he can find the land to grow.