Weather wise, October had a dreadful start in Saskatchewan. There was rain and there was snow. And on October 11, forecasters were predicting night time temperatures to plummet to -7 C within days. Dan and Chelsea Erlandson, Saskatchewan’s Outstanding Young Farmers for 2016, confessed they were a little worried about five acres of potato fingerlings still in the field.
“We need four hours of dry harvesting conditions to get those potatoes off and we just can’t seem to get it,” says Dan in a telephone interview from the couple’s southwest Saskatchewan home near Outlook. “If it gets that cold they probably will freeze in the ground.”
With a combined 22 years of experience in the vegetable growing business, the Erlandsons know Saskatchewan can get crappy weather. Accepting and dealing with the whims of Mother Nature are all part of the lifestyle they’ve chosen and wholeheartedly embrace.
Something else they know — Saskatchewan people love their locally grown veggies. There’s a huge demand for their crops and a dearth of producers to fill that demand.
“I think that’s probably been the major driver behind all of our expansions this year,” Dan says. “We were basically approached by Co-op to grow local vegetables for them, because they had such demand in their stores. Rather than us pushing it on them, it was kind of pulled through their demand from their customers. They came looking for us which is kind of a unique situation.”
The Erlanders’ Spring Creek Garden farm, expanded into commercial wholesaling in 2013 when they formed a partnership with Prairie Fresh Food Corporation and the Grocery People at Federated Co-op. Since then they’ve increased their growing area significantly. In 2015, their farm included about 150 acres of mixed vegetables, a few fruits and some greenhouse vegetables.
Their goal is to provide a local product for their customers and market it through as many avenues as possible. Along with their wholesaling commitments they also direct market produce through farmers markets in season — six days a week in Saskatoon and two days a week in Regina. And, for folks who can’t get to those markets, they offer a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. In-season produce can be delivered, 14 to 16 weeks of the year, directly to CSA customers’ homes or work places. CSA boxes include garden staples such as potatoes, carrots, peas and beans and also less common nutrient factories such as kohlrabi, kale and Swiss chard.
Always some challenges
Every new farmer faces challenges and the Erlanders say they were no different. Financing and labour were two of the biggies. They still have to battle to obtain loans for their expansions and capital investments, they say, but the degree of difficulty in acquiring financing has decreased since forming a partnership with FCC.
Because large scale vegetable growing is still a relatively new venture in Saskatchewan there’s no real background with banks in terms of the vegetable industry in Saskatchewan. “There’s no numbers for them on growth, and what’s going to happen as compared to big grain farmers,” says Dan. “So basically, in Saskatchewan, we’re able to provide that data to them. Now that we’ve shown that to them over a number of years, they’re able to understand the business a bit better than they did before.”
“It’s a matter of confidence,” Chelsea says. “It took a while for them to understand — we kinda had to plead our case.”
With a labour-intensive farming operation, they’ve signed on with the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program that allows them to source labour from Mexico. “There is a significant cost to the program, but it supplies us with an excellent work force,” says Dan.”
Along with a busy and expanding farming operation, the family is growing too. The Erlandsons’ two children Calla, five, and Raulan, two, will be welcoming a new sibling in late November. To help manage family and the farm responsibilities, they have a nanny who comes to the house six days a week during the busy growing season, and on a reduced schedule the rest of the year.