Gene Covert says when his father passed away in 2004, the vegetable farm lost the mentorship and management that had carried it up to that point. He and Shelly were just getting their young family established and the place was too big for them to handle by themselves.
“We were farming conventionally there, but the writing was on the wall that this business model wasn’t working,” says Covert. “We knew we had to turn the ship around. So the decisions fell in our laps. The main steps we took were to downsize in a big way, we leased out a lot of our land, and we took the first steps toward organic certification.
“There wasn’t any opposition to our ideas from the rest of the family,” he says. “We have had great working relationships within our family, and good transition plans over the years, so it helped to have that clarity.”
They went forward with a calculated plan, and it had to be slow because the price of transition to a certified organic fruit and vegetable operation was both costly and initially inconvenient.
Their choices had traction, however. The long-term goals of these changes came surprisingly quickly as they managed the farm under biodynamic principles.
Biodynamics isn’t a new concept. By definition it is described as viewing the farm as an “organically self-contained entity with its own individuality, within which organisms are interdependent. Emphasis is placed on the integration of crops and livestock, recycling of nutrients, maintenance of soil and the health and well-being of crops and animals; the farmer too is part of the whole.”
“Biodynamics is a very exciting aspect of agriculture,” Covert says. “It involves sound production practices emphasizing soil health and developing sustain-ability through biodiversity, and treating the farm as a living organism.”
The plan worked. In six years they had 142 acres producing up to 60 different fruit and vegetable crops a year, accomplished the criteria for organic certification and centred it all around a farm gate retail outlet initially called Pancho’s Country Market, now rebranded with the whole farm as Covert Farms Organics.
“The market is the public interface,” says Covert. “Shelly runs that end of the business and I am in charge of making sure she has things to sell. We are seeing a lot of successes from our efforts. Right now our biggest problem is meeting the demand for the products we produce, and that’s a nice position to be in.”
The Coverts grow a wide range of crops including mostly vegetables, berries, melons and grapes. They supply several retail locations across Western Canada with part of their production, while the majority is sold through Pancho’s market.
The on-farm market and organic U-pick operation deals only with Covert goods. There are some value-added items processed by others off the farm like jams, jellies, honey, and gelato but all are made with Covert farm ingredients.
“Word of mouth is our best asset,” says Shelly.
ADDING A WINERY
The Outstanding Young Farmer honour isn’t the only sparkle of success the Coverts have experienced thanks to their aggressive entrepreneurship. One other major change made to the farm in the past few years was adding a vineyard, now totalling 30 acres of grapes.
Dunham &Froese Estate Winery, their line of organically grown and estate-bottled wines (the processing plant is a converted storage shed and cooler) is already causing corks to pop in celebration. Their first vintage was 2005, and they were the inaugural winners of a new award bestowed by the Okanagan