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Could Kelowna's next festival be a farm affair?

Could a basil and pesto festival be in Central Okanagan's future?

Twenty-five years ago, Kelowna city councillor Maxine DeHart says she had to go all the way to Vancouver for the flavourful Italian staple as there was none to be had in the region.

But now that Juhlie Curatolo is one step closer to living in her own home on the family basil farm, it's possible the farm gate retail operation she's helping to develop will include the kind of event lavender farms throughout the province have made popular.

"We have a focaccia bread topping for bakeries as well we are starting to do fresh (basil)," said Juhlie as she launched into the family's pitch to build a secondary home on their Benvoulin Road property at Monday's Kelowna city council meeting.

Located in the centre of the city, the farm is a perfect agritourism site as it is accessible to those shopping at the mall nearby, packed with potential for value-added products to be made on site and boasts a century-old farm history as well.

Vince Curatolo began his basil farming operation 20 years ago with seedlings on his kitchen table and the business soon blossomed to include growing, cleaning and packaging sites throughout the Okanagan. In 2010, the Curatolos were able to purchase a long-abandoned farm in the Benvoulin agricultural corridor that had been farmed from 1929-1953, but not been productive in decades.

A sizeable section of the property was earmarked as too wet to farm but, upon assuming control of the property, the family found a creative solution to work within its limitations.

Removing a thick layer of salt in the soil where crops would not grow, they reconstructed the land with better dirt and a bold plan that saw Vince and his wife, Lesah, build a new 2000-square foot home to work from.

Juhlie wants to join them to get more hands on deck as operation continues to expand, but under the Agricultural Land Commission's rules she can only live in the couple's basement, in a secondary suite, or in a mobile home which could presumably be removed from the property should farming requirements demand.

But the secondary suite is not a viable option, she says, and the mobile home is actually a far more costly affair than the simple home the family would like to build. And having the family all living on site is extremely important they contend.

"We don't just grow a product and then ship it off to the co-op," said Juhlie. "…If you're not there, and something goes wrong, you lose your product."

In a city already besieged by so-called estate farms where ever-bigger farm houses are starting to crowd out valuable agricultural land in close proximity to the city, the Curatolos argument is risky. It was too much for City of Kelowna planning staff to swallow, given the precedent it could set for other farmers. But the council made an exception.

With the Curatolos already selling to big food companies like Sysco Canada, Gordon Food Services and Saputo Foods, they are adamant they have farming needs, not a boost in land value, in mind and the councillors were willing to listen.

The farm is shortly to include greenhouses to extend the growing season so it can offer that fresh product to those big companies and add more jobs to the local economy. And they're hoping farm gate operations will begin within the next year.

The Curatolos will still have to convince the Agricultural Land Commission their vision is the most appropriate course of action, however, before Juhlie can build her home on site and help shape the pesto farm vision.

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