LEARNING GROUNDS: The Farm as a Classroom
By Cate Pedersen
Both Hans and Karin Baer grew up in agriculture and it’s in their blood, but farming for a living is still a learning process. After purchasing 1.5 acres in Chilliwack in 2005, their plan was to renovate the old house and make ninety percent of their landscape edible to feed family, friends and eventually stock a farm stand.
A woodworker by trade, and owner of a hardwood flooring business which he sold in 2014, Hans fashioned a beautiful home with future visitors in mind. He bought six goats from a local farmer, with visions of adding goat cheese to their wares.
Plans changed a little after they met a fellow German at the German Christmas Market in Vancouver several years ago. The Baers took over his Flammkuchen business (a traditional pizza, or “flame cake” from a specific area in the Black Forest region of Germany).
They changed the company name to German Pizza, refined the recipes and changed the dough too.
“All of our ingredients are BC produced,” Karin describes. “Our cheese is provided by Smits & Co in Chilliwack and the German prosciutto (Schinkenspeck) is from Summit Creek Sausage, located in Bridge Lake. Our pizza is now made with organic spelt sourdough.”
Even the herbs they grow on their farm are used in the German pizza that they sell from their food truck. They have shared their culinary creations at local markets and festivals around the Lower Mainland, and hope to one day entice visitors to their small farm as a permanent foodie destination, but it’s a gradual process.
“Markets can be hard,” says Karin, “as you need to pay to be there and the travel can be expensive, and then the weather dictates attendance by the public.” Though Karin admits markets are an excellent way to make important connections.
“We participated in the Rail District Community Market in Abbotsford last year from July to October, but more people need to know about that and come down to support the vendors.”
From April to the beginning of October they also collaborate with wineries and breweries such as Fraser Valley Cider Company, Singletree Winery, Old Yale Brewing Co., and Festina Lente Winery and Meadery, and many of these partnerships were formed at farmers markets. Both Baers descend from farming and wine producing families, so this was a natural fit for them.
“In the Rhine Valley, every festival has beer, wine and German pizza. We knew we had to connect to local breweries, wineries and cideries,” Karin notes.
After owning their own business for so many years, they’d learned how crucial marketing and communicating is to a healthy business plan.
Karin dabbles in many things and enjoys attending events and workshops to grow her knowledge.
“A whole new world opens to you when you study food,” she says. “I realized how much knowledge was lost—even from my grandmother to me—and for me that was pretty scary. Yes, we have Google now, but there are some things that are better to learn hands-on.”
The first cheese making workshop sold out in 20 minutes. They knew they’d hit on something valuable, and it surprises both Karin and Cathy how many young people sign up for the workshops.
“The younger generation seems more interested in learning about the traditional ways of producing and cooking,” explains Karin.
“The products we create vary a little, and it’s not an exact science, and that is the beauty of it. It can be tricky for small farmers to be sustainable and find ways to market their product. Our product is unique, and people seem to want that now.”
Karin’s long-term goal is to host more workshops from the farm and sell her wares from a more permanent location to be able to create a more sustainable living off the land.
“My sister, who is a herbalist and lives in Germany, inspires me. When she visits, she also hosts workshops about uses for wild plants and weeds.”
Cathy and Ian Finley’s spacious hemp house at Laurica Farm is well-suited as a workshop venue, and they often welcome visitors eager to learn more about sustainable farming and food production to their farm which helps promote their CSA boxes containing their ethically raised meat.
Cathy believes in inviting customers to the farm to help normalize activities that may get some bad press and she wants to aid in understanding.
“There’s flak for farmers around farming techniques and animal agriculture,” she acknowledges. “And it’s our business to challenge that and have our businesses perceived in a different way and control the narrative. It’s the same with any business—you have to engage the customer. It’s the age of social media and the Instagram society wants experiences. It’s important to me to meet those demands.”
Cathy understands not all farmers have the space or ability to invite customers to the farm. “It’s always been our plan to have people come on this journey with us. We are close enough to the city to engage with our customer base, but it depends on geography and demographics. I get that there’s no use organizing events that people won’t travel to, but this is part of our model. If it’s not part of your business model, you must have a different way of selling to your audience.”
“For us, it was always about transparency and getting people here. We began with farm tours and the events evolved from that. It was very much about listening to the questions and needs of our visitors.”
The Finleys began hosting long table dinners and networking with other producers and chefs to create courses, presentations and workshops. These open events help reassure customers about farming practices while Finley and others share their knowledge and build trust in their products.
The workshops are spurring diversification at Laurica Farm. With the introduction of classes about herbal remedies taught by a herbalist comes the plan for a herb garden from which customers can buy fresh and dried botanicals. Another idea is to plant willows in anticipation of basket weaving classes. Each class unearths new ideas, and each idea a possible business opportunity.
Cathy also references the surge in interest in ancient skills and traditional cooking, which she is encouraged by. “There are a lot of millennials who want to learn these ‘survival skills’ – if you like. Some of the skills used to be viewed as a bit ‘hippyish’ but we’ve been bombarded with requests for more workshops. We even hosted a pig roast for the summer solstice last year.”
This coming year, Laurica Farm will be hosting more events around ancient skill building, as currently there isn’t anywhere in the Lower Mainland meeting the demand for these type of experiences.
Cheese making, herbal remedies, bread making, and sheep skin and buck hide tanning are just some of the planned lesson topics. Cathy witnesses people finding comfort in connecting with nature, and learning about how to confidently prepare locally grown food.
“There’s something innate in all of us that feels this need to connect,” she says. “People are responding to their very busy lifestyles by getting back in contact with the land and the traditional ways.”
When Cathy first moved to the farm, she thought she had to change the way she did things all at once, but it’s necessarily been a gradual process, changing one thing at a time. “That’s why these courses are a great way of instigating change. If one more person starts making their own cheese or learns to tan a hide, it creates a spark.”
“It’s important for us to focus on cooking courses as we talk about sustainability and using the whole animal. It’s no good just talking about it—people need the skills to be able to do that,” Cathy states.
People are looking to have an ‘experience’, and Laurica Farm and others are serving that up in spades. Perhaps this hunger for knowledge is more about the search for trust and reliance and discovering how to take better care of ourselves.
Cathy and Karin encourage consumers to learn more about what is out there, acquire new skills and support farmers and “just get to know us.”