Corn should be knee high by the fourth of July.
That’s the edict Charles Steiner learned from his mother back in Pennsylvania on measuring the early success of the stalk.
Standing last week in a 10-acre field of crops at Bear Flat along the Peace River on July 6, the corn was much higher than Steiner’s knees.
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“It’s almost up to my eyes,” Steiner remarked.
It’s the last bit of corn Steiner expects to sell in Fort St. John this year, after four years of growing a trove of fruits and veggies in a section of valley farmland expected to be under the Site C dam reservoir a decade from now.
Steiner, whose family also runs Northern Larder Greenhouse in Montney, plans to move away from the Peace Region later this fall.
“It has nothing to do with (the dam),” Steiner said, father to five boys and three girls.
“We’re ready for a change. We’ll probably do the same thing wherever we go.”
The last harvest is promising to deliver a bounty — the Steiners have already begun to sell peas, cucumbers, carrots and potatoes at the roadside along Highway 29, and will once again be found Saturday’s at the farmers’ market in Fort St. John.
Later this summer, the Steiners will be selling watermelon, cantaloupe, corn, tomatoes, lettuce, swiss chard, broccoli, cabbage, and zucchini.
Steiner says he began farming in the valley after a cold and wet summer of 2011.
He recalls running into Arlene Boon — whose family has lived and worked the land at Bear Flat since the 1940s — at a food security event in town that fall where she talked about the agricultural advantages of the valley.
“I’d driven through (the valley) different times and heard these people talk, and wondered, if its so great, why do they just grow hay and oats and canola?” Steiner said.
“So, afterward, I went to her and asked, why do you? She said, well you know it’s a lot of work.
“I was whatever about it, but we decided to come down and check it out.
“I never expected to eat watermelon and cantaloupe ripe out of the garden in Fort St. John. That’s what brought us down here,” he said.
Steiner has farmed at the Bear Flat every summer since, taking advantage of the valley’s warm climate and south facing slopes that soak up sunlight till the late hours of the night.
He estimates working his small 10-acre patch of land will net him about $50,000 this summer.
“No one will take it over. I wish someone would,” he said.
Ken Boon says he intends to have the land in production next year.
“We’re not planning on losing this battle (against Site C) yet and we’re fully expecting to see some form of a market garden there next year,” said Boon.
“That’s our intention. We don’t know how that will look like yet.”
Boon says there has been market gardens in some form or another in the valley for decades.
While fields on the upper bench plateaus of the foothills often suffer from drought, fields along the river can connect directly to underground aquifers along the river for irrigation, Boon said.
“It don’t matter how dry of a year we have, we have all the water we need,” he said.
Steiner began ranching before he moved to the Peace Region from McBride in 2000.
“I started farming and my dad wondered what was wrong with me,” Steiner laughs.
“I wanted to be home more with family.”
When Steiner moved to the Peace, he continued ranching with a handful of cows, and drove a logging truck in the winters to help make ends meet.
But a mad cow disease outbreak put the brakes on ranching in 2008, forcing the family to switch over to market gardening, along with raising chickens and selling eggs.
“In that time, I read more about direct marketing and just wanted to try it,” Steiner said.
Boon pointed to worsening droughts in California, the source of much of British Columbia’s food imports. Local food production demand will only rise as a result, Boon says.
“People have a desire to buy locally grown, see where its coming from, and meet the people growing it,” he said.
The Steiners will be selling from their produce stand at Bear Flat Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from noon to 7 p.m.
They can be found Saturday’s at the farmers’ market, and will also be making delivers to Homesteader Health in Fort St. John.