A bit of back story about today’s post: Two years ago, my sister proposed a day trip to Desert Hills, a ranch in Ashcroft, a small town, located an hour and a half from Kamloops. Driving such a distance, just to buy veggies and fruit, is so like Barb. Her never-ending quest for the freshest, healthiest ingredients knows no bounds, and I agreed to go whenever she wanted.
Then, the next day, while walking down one of Kamloops’ main streets, I saw a crowd of men, standing outside the “Services Canada” building. From the sound of their somewhat nervous laughter I knew they were Latinos, and as I got closer, I knew for sure they were from Mexico. My brain switched over to Spanish – ¡Hola! ¿Que hacen por aquí? – Hello! What are you doing here?, I asked. They were as surprised to hear me speaking their language, as I was to see them in this British Columbia small city. Up until then, in Kamloops, I had not met anyone from Mexico.
I soon learned there were actually 150 of them; all recently-arrived participants in Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Program (SAWP). The Mexican workers have temporary residency visas, issued by the Canadian government that allow them to work legally during the planting, growing and harvest seasons. They receive return transportation by air, housing, medical coverage a legal per hour wage.
Actually, there were 150 men, and all would be working at the Desert Hills Ranch. They didn’t quite believe me when I told them I had plans to go there soon. In fact, I wrote a post about my chance meeting with 150 men; here’s the link if you want to read it: https://changesinourlives.wordpress.com/2017/07/
Barb and I went to Desert Hills soon afterwards, and we had a wonderful day; she bought enough produce to feed a vegan village, and I felt heartened to see that Canada has programs that help ease the devastating unemployment in Mexico. At the same time, SAWP helps Canadian farmers hire the help they need to make their business grow. It is a win-win situation.
Now, fast-forward two years, to yesterday. Jim and Marianne, great friends from Merida are visiting me in Kamloops, and to tell the truth, the weather has been less than welcoming. When I suggested we visit Desert Hills, I added, “There will be lots of places where we can keep ourselves out of the rain.” That settled our plans, and off we drove. Actually, as soon as we got underway, the weather improved. The scenery through the suede-textured hills is dramatic, and I love the way light plays on them. The Thompson River runs alongside the highway, as does the railway, and we counted hundreds of cars, pulled by as many as four engines. From the moment our journey began, my friends could not stop smiling, and as soon as they stepped out of the car, they were greeted in Spanish. They responded with – ¡Hola! – then asked me, “Why am I hearing mariachi music at a Canadian ranch?”
Summer flowers bloomed and beautiful produce overflowed from the bins. The farm’s store shelves were stocked with many food items we regularly see in Merida. And as luck would have it, one of the owners, David Porter, was on hand. “I have wanted to meet you,” I told him as I took his hand, “What an amazing place this is! I am so happy to see all these people from Mexico!”
David told us that his parents bought the ranch about 20 years ago. They built it into a solid business, and now, he and his brother Chris run the operation. He said his family believes that good business practices, fair conditions for their employees, and lots of creativity make up the three-part formula of their success.
The Porter brothers are incredibly innovative. Since British Columbia has a short growing season, they start some of their produce, such as sweet red and white onions, in Arizona. When the weather is warm enough in Ashcroft, they pull up the growing bulbs, ship them back home, and hand-plant each one in the fertile beds that have been prepared for their arrival. On the ranch, each of the plants is drip-fed to save water. In the hot houses I saw long lines of Habanero chillies and other unusual crops. In fact, last year I bought Poblano chillies at Desert Hills, and made Chiles en Nogada for my Kamloops friends.
Another ingenious innovation at Desert Hills keeps the birds away from devouring the ripening cherries. In the orchard, they set up a recorder that plays the sound of dying birds; their piercing cries scare real birds away. “It is a little unnerving,” said one of the men harvesting the sweet cherries, “but it sure keeps the birds from the fruit.”
Bees are an integral part of the farm; there seem to be hundreds of hives spread over the 1,300 acres. Other livestock, including cattle, goats and horses are seen in the fields.
David took Marianne, Jim and I on a full tour of the ranch. I would like to thank him for his generous hospitality and for such an interesting day of learning. But more importantly, I want to express my gratitude to him and the rest of the Porter family for restoring a bit of my faith in the future. The news we hear and read these days is frightening. Our “leaders” seem hell-bent on political and monetary gains – they don’t seem to take the “Good Rule” into consideration – not even a little bit.
The Porters show us that it is possible to make money, but not at the expense of the workers. The store at the ranch is managed by Victoria, a lively, lovely woman from the Philippines. A trip to see her family each year is part of her benefit package; and in fact all the employees receive “home leave” as needed. Desert Hills is an example to follow.
And I must not forget to mention the dinner recommendation David gave us. Sam’s Diner, in downtown Ashcroft. For $10.95 CAD, we ate the most delicious meal of sweet&sour chicken with chow mien. Again, not what we expected to find, but all the more delicious because of the surprise. Dessert anyone? We’d parked our car right outside the Ashcroft Bakery and Coffee Shop, and we couldn’t resist buying a dozen home-made cookies. We didn’t have time to tour the town’s stained glass murals, but I will be back to see them another day.
If you are ever in BC, and are looking for an inspiring excursion, visit Desert Hills, or follow them on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Desert-Hills-Ranch-140871702651700/