Bold changes and careful planning a winning combination

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Sara and Troy Harker are the fifth generation on their family farm and they’re carrying on a family tradition by reinventing the operation for modern times.

7-5-2013 10-12-07 AM

Three generations of the Harker family stand in front of an Ontario Snow apple planted by Bruce’s grandfather in 1916. From left, Bruce, Kathy, Sara, Troy,
and Troy’s sister Tyla.

Sara and Troy Harker are big-time fans of change who just don’t believe in standing still.

The B.C. couple are also cautious folk, who move step by careful step and see their efforts as just the latest variation of an enterprise founded by Troy’s great-great grandfather 125 years ago. They’re also passionate local-food advocates who are proud to supply big grocery chains. And they’re big-picture strategic thinkers who endlessly, almost obsessively, analyze the feasibility of every initiative.

But what’s really different about the two is how seamlessly they blend all of these characteristics into one approach.

“This is something that’s been happening on this farm for five generations,” says Sara of the multi-faceted operation near Cawston in B.C.’s Similkameen Valley. “The attitude has always been that the sooner you start talking about the next generation, the better.”

She and Troy were just 23 and newly engaged when they sat down in 2005 with Troy’s parents, Bruce and Kathy Harker, and other family members to talk about joining the farm business. At the time, Troy was an equipment operator in Alberta’s oilfields and Sara was managing a restaurant in Oliver, one valley over in the southern Okanagan.

“It’s something I always knew I would come back to,” says Troy. “It’s an absolutely amazing lifestyle and not comparable to anything else.”

But to make that happen, the 27-acre farm would not only have to generate two additional incomes but also offer the young couple opportunities. They wanted to be engaged and challenged, says Sara.

Bruce and Kathy got that. After all, change is a Harker family tradition.

Bruce’s grandfather added fruit trees and field crops to the original mix of beef and dairy; his dad created a retail market; and he and Kathy moved into organic production and started a packing operation called Harvest Moon.

Change things up again? You bet. And why wait for Christmas?

“Troy and I came in full-steam ahead,” recalls Sara. “We’re very ambitious and very passionate — not only about a business built over five generations, but also about this way of life, about organic, and about being advocates for connecting consumers with producers.

“Bruce and Kathy were excited about that and so we put our four heads together and came up with some cool ideas, such as the fruit winery.”

Having made the bold decision to create Rustic Roots Winery, the family then proceeded with caution.

“The idea got tossed around quite a bit and it took a couple of years to get the specifics nailed down,” says Sara. “It took me a year and a half to write the business plan and I went to school for a year and a half to learn how to make fruit wines. So it was probably two years before any money was put into capital expenditures.”

It was a similar story with another new initiative, Farm to Fork Delivery, which today provides local produce to restaurants in the region. Sara knew the potential, having seen the enthusiastic response to an entirely local food event she organized while still at the restaurant in Oliver. The family launched their restaurant supply program in 2007 but, once again, tempered their enthusiasm by starting small.

“We started with just two restaurants,” she says. “That way, it didn’t require a lot of capital other than our time and effort. It just blossomed and grew, but for quite a while we were still able to just pack the produce in coolers, put them into the back of the truck, and head out. It wasn’t until 2011 that we had to put some money into it when we bought a 14-foot reefer (refrigerated) trailer.”

harker tomatoes (2)

The Harkers grow 65 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

That division of Harker’s Organics now services more than 30 restaurants from Osoyoos to Kelowna. It also helps to inform the market-garden side of the business. Chefs love the unusual, and the farm grows a few items – such as tomatillos; its cousin, cape gooseberries; and Peruvian purple potatoes – exclusively for them.

But what’s sauce for the gourmand is sauce for his customers, so the family has been shuffling the line-up of produce in the on-farm market. They now grow, for example, 80 varieties of hot peppers and 65 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. With only eight acres of field crops, something had to give, so they scaled back on field and roma tomatoes.

Again, change was tempered with caution. To get meaningful numbers, the Harkers divide their limited acreage into ‘panels,’ each roughly a quarter acre in size, and carefully measure the net return of each one.

“We analyse everything,” says Sara. “If one panel of basil returns more than six panels of field tomatoes, then what’s the smart decision?”

All of their vegetables are started from seed in a 1,200-square-foot greenhouse, but to better leverage that asset and generate some early-season cash flow, the family started growing micro greens.

Rigorous attention to the bottom line is especially important in the orchard. High-density planting quintuples the number of trees per acre and new varieties, such as honeycrisp and ambrosia, generate four to five times the returns of older ones. But at roughly $15,000 an acre, you need to be able to accurately amortize replanting costs and weigh the impact on cash flow before ripping out old trees.

Troy began replanting soon after his return to the farm and as he did, he began thinking more and more about the packing and wholesaling operation.

“I could see the potential for expansion by taking on newer growers, and finding new and larger customers,” says Troy, who took over sales and marketing for the Harvest Moon division in 2010.

One of those larger customers was Whole Foods Markets, the biggest seller of organic foods. He also became a supplier to Canada Safeway and Overwaitea, a major B.C. grocery chain.

“You could see the window opening,” he says. “Organic was growing and the big chains were carrying more organic food. So I just wanted to jump in while the opportunity was there.”

The farm now represents 25 growers with 850 acres of organic fruit and produce production, and packing and brokering now account for two-thirds of the farm’s revenues. But big chains weren’t the sole focus. The family fused their think-big and promote-local approaches by becoming part of the B.C. School Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program, which provides ready-to-eat snacks to 750 schools weekly. The farm supplies about 600,000 pieces of apple and peaches (200,000-plus pounds) to the program annually.

In addition to six family members, the farm also employs about 50 full-time and seasonal workers. Earlier this year, Sara and Troy’s contributions to the family business were recognized when they were named B.C.’s Outstanding Young Farmers. And while it may look as if there’s been a non-stop whirlwind of change since they returned to the farm, the couple sees it differently.

“We don’t jump into things,” says Troy. “We take our time and work through the humps and bumps until we’re 100% positive and confident in what we’re doing.”harker1 (2)

“You have to walk before you can run,” adds Sara. “We always take small steps first. It either has to generate more revenue or make us more efficient. We want everything to work together to create a sustainable model.”

That’s what ties together all the different aspects of the family’s multi-pronged approach. It’s also why the latest changes on the Harker farm won’t be the last.

“Once you stop learning, you’ve pretty much stopped farming,” says Troy.


Originally published in the 2013 June/July Canadian Farm Manager by Farm Management Canada, a proud partner of Ag More Than Ever.

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