Ashcroft isn’t known for bountiful harvests – but as Bob Price discovers, maybe it should be.
In a province known for turning big ideas into a reality, the map of British Columbia is dotted with scores of little-known success stories. This is one of them.
Have you ever been to Ashcroft? Boasting itself as a picturesque oasis along the Thompson River, west of Kamloops, the sleepy and friendly village of only 1,600 has one of Canada’s driest climates, where summers are hot and winters are generally mild.
Surrounded by hillsides of sage and sand, outdoor activities are plentiful, there are countless hiking trails and you will rarely pass a stranger who won’t offer a warm smile and a hearty hello.
However, despite a near bone-dry climate, Ashcroft is quickly becoming known as a food basket with surprisingly rich growing conditions – and much of Canada is the beneficiary.
“From tiny acorns, mighty oak trees grow” says Ashcroft mayor, Barbara Roden, sharing her enthusiasm for Ashcroft’s Desert Hills Ranch Farm Market.
This is no ordinary farm on a scenic hillside overlooking the Thompson River.
Owned and operated by Randy Porter and his family since the early 1990s, Desert Hills has quietly become a staple for Canadian consumers from Victoria to the Ontario border.
While reaping the benefits of a unique microclimate, the Porter family’s modest farm has put the Ashcroft area on Canada’s food production map, securing a lucrative long-term agreement with the Loblaws group to supply approximately 1,500 Real Canadian Superstores with produce such as cantaloupes, sweet onions, and green peppers.
While Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland are known to have the best growing conditions in Canada, visitors to Desert Hills are often shocked by the farm’s production in a region best known for sagebrush.
“There’s nobody in Western Canada that grows cantaloupe and other melons in the volume that we do,” says David Porter, who oversees the family farm wholesale division.
Porter notes that while the initial agreement with Loblaws was modest, it has since expanded into a seven day a week operation in order to meet substantial supply commitments.
“It’s been known for over 140 or so years that while it looks dry and barren here, if you can get water to the soil, you can grow just about anything,” says Roden, “the soil is that good.”
Located on the northern edge of Ashcroft, Desert Hills is generally regarded as the community’s most powerful economic driver with approximately 150 employees, many of whom are temporary foreign workers from Mexico and Guatemala. Porter explains that while hiring local is always his family’s main priority, Ashcroft is simply too small to supply the number of workers the farm requires.
But the road to success has also been filled with potholes, as over the past two years Desert Hills Farm has been challenged by record wildfires, thick smoke and flooding.
“Farming is never easy,” sighs Porter, “You have to keep up or fall behind…and complaining isn’t worth it either. There is a lot worse in the world than fires and floods.”
Porter is also quick to give credit to Loblaws for supporting Desert Hills Farm when mother nature was unleashing her wrath. Describing the choking wildfire smoke of the last two summers, Porter says there was no sun for three months.
“Plants need sun to grow and our peppers were small,” he recalls, noting that instead of turning to a different producer, Loblaws simply changed specifications in order to keep their agreement alive.
While Desert Hills is hardly known outside the region, awareness of this unique B.C. success story is growing, with about 25,000 people visiting the Porter farm this past Mother’s Day weekend.
Just one more example of a small B.C. business harvesting the fruits of its labour.
Bob Price is a veteran B.C. broadcaster who anchored the morning news on CHNL radio in Kamloops for the past 30 years. Bob is also a past Webster Award winner whose previous stops included Vancouver and Calgary.