Chilliwack organic farmer Michael Allen still laughs about growing heirloom tomatoes the first time.
He bought and planted the seeds in good faith. But when the finicky tomato crop was finally ready, he thought he must have done something wrong. They were dark-purple and rather funny-looking.
Still he packed them gingerly in crates and headed into Vancouver with his strange wares. He got to Granville Island Market, and a vendor in the next stall giddily informed him of what he’d grown.
“Those are heirloom tomatoes!” the guy told him. And those purple beauties would go for $2.99 a pound.
The former CFL-football-star-turned-farmer was flummoxed.
Michael might not have known what he had precisely, but clearly the customers did. He sold out everything he had that day. And the next.
Today Michael Allen, his wife, Ana-Liza, and their daughter, Santiana, are proud owner/operators of GBE Organic Allen Family Farm operations in Chilliwack.
They specialize in heirloom produce with a whopping 21 types of tomatoes, as well as a range of bell peppers, beans, and eggplants, and watermelon.
Some are two-toned, or striped and they come in a rainbow of colours and shapes.
They have more than 20 acres of outdoor fields, and a three-acre greenhouse at Luckakuck Way and Evans Road.
“What makes us unique from other greenhouses is that we’re soil-based. We grow the plants right in the soil,” says Ana-Liza.
Most greenhouses use hydroponics, growing plants in bags with water and coconut fibre.
It also took three years, and a lot of paperwork to get the operation certified organic, and switched from conventional farming.
Today the GBE Organic Allen Family Farm label can be spotted in several of the big supermarkets, including the like Save-On or Thrifty Foods.
They have become the largest suppliers of heirloom varieties in B.C. and the “firsts” are starting to add up.
This summer they’ve been testing out a farm gate operation for the first time, under a roadside tent outside their greenhouse in Chilliwack.
It helps that more and more people are seeking out organic.
They grow a hearty and nutritious green called Callaloo from Jamaica, and the first organic Chilliwack sweet corn in the province.
“Organic corn is a rare commodity,” she says.
They built the sprawling greenhouse last year, with steel and glass covering the soil-based farm land to create organic produce in the best conditions.
“Everything grows better in soil,” Michael explains.
The GBE philosophy is to treat the soil exceptionally well, building it up in the belief that micronutrients can be absorbed more naturally that way by the plants. They use natural methods for pest control and fertilization, and the company name is short for Garden Back to Eden, which is a nod to the Allens’ faith.
They pipe in classical music, expel mist for the plants and the chirping sound of birds to create a relaxing ambiance in the greenhouse.
What they’ve noticed is that a perfect looking tomato is sometimes lacking in flavour.
“We’re going for the most natural growing conditions possible inside the greenhouse, and choosing heirloom seeds because we think taste is everything,” he says.
When it comes right down to it, flavour counts for a lot.
Open any food magazine these days and you’ll see heirloom tomatoes in the spotlight, in all their luscious glory.
“We grow the most unique flavoured tomatoes you will ever taste,” Ana-Liza says. “They are plain delicious and our customers say the taste is phenomenal.”
What do they mean by “heirloom” in this context anyway? Heirloom seeds predate the hybrids, meaning they usually go back more than 50 years, or even a century. Heirloom seeds were passed down through the generations, genetically unchanged from the oldest tomato, maybe the giant Beefsteak, that someone’s grandmother grew.
That’s part of their appeal — a whiff of nostalgia and an old-fashioned basket full of taste.
Heirloom varieties earn top dollar at farmers’ markets like the one the GBE farmers go to in Kitsilano every Sunday, and for good reason.
They haven’t been crossbred for uniformity of colour and size.
They sell out on a regular basis because of the superior taste and a savvy clientele.
“We know we’re serving a growing market,” Michael says.
The challenges that remain are around being able to supply the burgeoning demand. They have to be able to harvest what they have in a timely fashion with a steady supply of farm workers to fill the orders, says the farmer.
“Finding enough workers is always a bit of a nightmare,” he says.
But with six children, hard-working staff, and business partners, all working together on the same goals, GBE is striving to supply an organic market with the products it’s looking for.
The family has been growing fruits and veggies for a hungry public since 2007, but they’ve got more on the go now than ever. At one point they were leasing greenhouses in different parts of the Lower Mainland. But now they’re consolidated in Chilliwack, and looking to the future.
There’s only one other organic greenhouse operation in B.C. and they too, recently switched to soil-based operations.
So clearly GBE is onto something.
See more at www.gbeorganic.com
Check out the farm gate Monday to Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. or Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.