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EATEN PATH: Soil is in this Chilliwack family's soul

Silvio Dossi and Niklaus Forstbauer harvest carrots at the Forstbauer Natural Food Farm on Prairie Central Road. - Paul J. Henderson/TIMES
Silvio Dossi and Niklaus Forstbauer harvest carrots at the Forstbauer Natural Food Farm on Prairie Central Road.
— image credit: Paul J. Henderson/TIMES

If you’ve ever met a member of Chilliwack’s large Forstbauer family you may have noticed something that you kept to yourself.

Most of the 12 adult children who are involved with the farm, along with patriarch Hans and matriarch Mary, have the faintly, brown-tinged skin of a coal miner, a mechanic or a vegetable farmer.

That’s not dirt. That’s soil.

And it’s not enough to say that soil permeates the skin of this, the first family of Chilliwack organic vegetable growing. No, for them, soil is in their very souls.

“We take care of the soil,” Niklaus Forstbauer says in his understated way.

There is a spiritual aspect to the Forstbauers’ devotion to the soil, and how the positive microbes within the growing medium win out over the harmful ones.

“In the end, good always beats the bad,” Niklaus says.

There are something like seven million species of micro-organisms in one teaspoon of soil. And sure, the bad ones (e.g. e. coli) have names, but the good ones are too numerous to name. And that’s good news for growing.

Above ground there are also pests that some farmers fend off with chemicals. But even non-chemical, certified organic sprays are avoided by the Forstbauers.

“If we put a spray on to wipe out a certain living organism we also wipe out all the beneficial ones,” Niklaus explains. “We build our soil with compost and compost teas.

“There is no silver bullet [to dealing with pests]. The silver bullet is a healthy farm.”

Forstbauer Family Natural Food Farm consists of 20 acres on Prairie Central Road and 70 acres on Gibson Road. It was established by Hans and Mary at their current location in 1988, but they had been farming this way since 1976. The Forstbauers were organic before there was an organic movement.

Touring the Prairie Central Road farm with brothers Niklaus and Travis, looking into hoop frames at strawberries and zucchinis, we see Hans come towards us. Hans has a white shock of hair balanced by an equally large white beard and a jovial smile for visitors. He doesn’t slow down as he walks by, says hello, commenting only on this reporter’s “sun kisses” (freckles) before carrying on his busy way.

Hans’ father was an agriculture professor in Germany and was always a follower of biodynamic agriculture, that slightly eccentric and holistic farming technique developed by Rudolf Steiner.

Biodynamic agriculture practitioners treat the entire farm as one, breathing, living organism that should be mostly self-sustaining.

No one part is separate from any other and, just as its best to avoid the ingestion of toxic substances into the human body, so too do the Forstbauers not only eschew pesticides and herbicides, they don’t even use organic top dressings or other inputs of any kind.

This is certified organic agriculture taken to the next level.

This is about taking care of the soil.

There are aspects of biodynamic agriculture that go beyond even certified organic farming, such as using an astrological sowing and planting calendar, and burying ground quartz stuffed into the horn of a cow to help the “cosmic forces” in the soil.

Surrounded as they are on four sides by Dutch dairy farmers in East Chilliwack, the Forstbauers are an island of pure, hands-on vegetable growing amid a sea of industrial agri-business.

Walking the property with Niklaus and Travis, I point to corn in the distance and ask to confirm if that’s the back of their 20-acre property.

“Yes, that’s that dairy farmer’s Monsanto corn,” Niklaus says.

“Well, it’s not exactly his,” jokes Travis, alluding to the fact that farmers who purchase the patented seed from Monsanto are subject to lawsuits if they try to save seed.

The Forstbauers certainly have their way of doing things, but they aren’t judgmental, at least not openly.

“They are doing what they are told is the best thing to do,” Niklaus says of their neighbours.

For all the vegetables they produce, Forstbauer vegetables are mostly only available at farmers markets around the Lower Mainland. They attend, among others, the Oak Street Farmers Market in Vancouver, the Royal City Farmers Market in New Westminster, the Burnaby Artisan Farmers Market and, yes, the Downtown Chilliwack Farmers Market Saturdays at 9 a.m.

Check out the Forstbauer Family Natural Food Farm on Facebook where they post farmers markets they are attending and things like opportunities for u-pick blueberries.

 

• And visit www.forstbauer.com for more info on the farm.

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