Across the Creek: A Leap Worth Making
WHEN BRUCE MILLER and his wife Brenda decided to grow organic potatoes about 12 years ago in the Pemberton Valley, B.C., their location not only grew great produce, but also provided an identity for them, their farm and that produce: they called the venture Across the Creek Organics.
The land on which they chose to grow their potatoes—a small, wild plot located, literally, across the creek—had never been farmed. The couple were anxious to see if that previously untouched area could grow potatoes as well as it grew brush and trees. They were not disappointed. “Those first potatoes were just amazing,” says Miller.
The name is also fitting for the “leap of faith” Miller says he and his wife took in moving away from large-scale, conventional seed potato production and into a market they believed in but didn’t fully understand. “We didn’t have a guaranteed market, we didn’t really know what the market was,” says Miller. “We certainly didn’t know if it was something we could bet the farm on.”
After spending five years at farmers’ markets—where they offered other organic produce as well as potatoes—and making home deliveries to 150 customers, they slowly learned about the market and how to serve it. “We learned a lot from our customers and about our customers,” says Miller, “I think that was really key.”
That personal interaction with their customers became invaluable, helping them develop their business into what it is today. The Millers now grow 70 acres of certified organic table and seed potatoes, which are direct-marketed to restaurants and stores as well as distributed via wholesalers.
There were lots of things to learn along the way, as the Millers went from shipping 40 tonnes of bulk, unwashed seed potatoes at a time, to the installation of a washing line and fully automated bagging system. Also, their potato production now follows consumer demand rather than taking the risk of growing a certain volume of potatoes and looking for customers to buy them. “We have been lucky to expand with an expanding market. As the demand for ‘green,’ local and organic products has grown, so have we,” says Miller. “We didn’t have to force people to eat organic products. We just had to provide them on a scale that matched the demand.”
The switch to organics, however challenging at times, has resulted in more flexibility and a greater sense of control over their own destiny, says Miller. “As conventional potato growers, we were growing a commodity, so we didn’t have much control over the market,” says Miller. “Now we are a couple of steps closer to the consumer. Although we use wholesalers, we also do direct sales to stores, so we try to go for a combination that makes sense for us. It’s given us a bit more control over what we are doing.”
The Millers are proud of the healthy, nutritious food they produce as well as the knowledge that their customers are happy. “We have some specialty varieties, like German butter potatoes, and when we get emails from people saying, ‘What’s going on with this potato, why is it so darn good?’ That sort of floats our boat,” admits Miller.
Proud of the way they farm, the Millers hope they will inspire others to the realization that farming sustainably can also be sustainable economically. “We are proud that people can enjoy the benefits of organics,” says Miller. “If we are successful as an organic farm, [farming organically] can become normal, with more widespread practice.”