The COVID-19 crisis has turned our world upside-down in historical ways, bringing a storm of adversity to small businesses in Calgary. Many of these businesses are now in a critical fight for survival and the future is uncertain. Although tentative “re-entry” measures have been announced by the Alberta government, Family Fun Calgary would like to take the opportunity to introduce and interview some of the local businesses in our city. Let’s get to know each other! You never know what YYC Small Business Profile might become your new favourite.
Today we’re talking to Rick Gelowitz from Solstice Berry Farm. We paid a visit to the farm last summer for some delicious saskatoons and we’re planning on heading back this year. If you don’t want to head to the farm, you can find Solstice at farmers markets throughout the Calgary area. They will even bake your pies for you!
Tell us about your business:
Solstice Berry Farm is a family-owned and family-run farm that has been around since 1994. Started by Rick and Marsha Gelowitz, two computer geeks from Calgary with no prior experience in farming, we started out growing hay for the export market where our hay went to feed Japanese dairy cows and racing camels in Abu Dhabi. We also had 100 head of sheep and were raising lamb at that time.
When the hay market declined in the early 2000’s we decided to exit the hay market and we refocused our energies into growing our favourite fruit in the world, saskatoon berries! We planted our first bushes in 2003 and have expanded the orchard to 40 acres since then. Ten acres of the orchard is dedicated to u-pick and the rest is our commercial harvest area. Saskatoon berries are all we grow. Our primary product is frozen saskatoon berries, as the fresh season only lasts three to four weeks, but we do sell fresh while they are in season. Besides growing the berries themselves, we also make a line of value-added products like jam, jelly, syrup, juice, vinaigrette, BBQ sauce, and dessert topping. The u-pick opens to the public around the end of the 3rd week in July (depending on the weather), so you can call the Saskatoon hotline (403-946-4759) for current crop conditions, or check our website www.solsticeberryfarm.com. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram for up to date information about the u-pick or any of the markets and other events we will be visiting.
We are located 8 km (as the crow flies) SE of Cremona, which is just a short 35-minute drive from Crowfoot in NW Calgary. We’re easy to find and you can find a map with directions on our website. For most of the year, it is just my wife and I (aka Mom & Pop) working on the farm. We do hire a few local staff during our 3-4 week harvest season, but for the most part, the two of us do it all.
What do you excel at?
We think we grow some pretty awesome saskatoon berries! People ask us if we grow any other fruits and/or vegetables on the farm and we proudly say no! We decided right from the get-go that we would specialize in growing only these berries. We are passionate about saskatoon berries and want to share this nutritious healthy superfruit with everyone. We’re also big believers in doing things right, so our focus on this one fruit allows us to dedicate our energy, knowledge, and resources into growing the sweetest, most delicious saskatoon berries.
What was the inspiration for starting this venture? Where did you get your first idea?
When we were considering getting out of growing hay, we tried to think of another crop to grow. I have to credit my wife Marsha for the original thought of growing saskatoons. We had three bushes in our garden and the bushes really seemed to like it here at the farm, so she suggested that we plant a bunch of saskatoon bushes instead. She was originally thinking maybe an acre or two. It was me who said, “No, let’s plant the whole place in saskatoons.” You know, a typical guy’s “go big or go home” mentality . . . 😉
Anyways, after some serious negotiation, we settled on 40 acres, and that was how we got into growing saskatoons. Marsha then went to Olds College to get her certificate in horticulture. She figured since we were going to be growing these things we better understand the science behind them.
What has been your biggest regret? Your greatest pride or success?
Our biggest regret was not starting this venture when we were a lot younger! The amount of effort that goes into growing the crop, harvesting it, cleaning and sorting the fruit, and then on top of all that, making a whole line of value-added products like jams, pies, syrup, juice, etc is a LOT of hard work! Most people have no idea how much work goes into producing that small bag of berries or that jar of jam they buy from us. Every year it gets a little tougher on the body to physically do everything that needs to be done. Nevertheless, we still enjoy it.
We take great satisfaction and pride in growing nutritious, healthy food for people to enjoy. Saskatoon berries are incredibly high in antioxidants, fibre, and minerals like manganese, iron, and calcium. Most people do not realize that saskatoon berries are higher in antioxidants than blueberries. We also get a lot of positive feedback from our customers about how much they enjoy our jams, pies and all of our other products. The compliments make it all worthwhile.
What would a typical day look like for you normally? What about now?
That depends on the time of year you ask. Wintertime is typically quiet, but we do planning for the coming year and we make some of our value-added products during this time. Spring (which is what we’re doing now) is busy with pruning, fertilizing, mowing grass, fixing equipment, changing the oil on the tractors, and other stuff like that. In the summer we get busy with all of our farmers markets and preparing for harvest. Harvest time is really crazy as we only have 3-4 weeks to get the entire crop off, cleaned and sorted, and either sold fresh, or frozen so we can sell them later on in the year. After harvest is done we take a short breather but continue on with our farmers markets until the beginning of October. Then we prepare for winter and Christmas sales. That keeps us busy right up to Christmas and then we repeat the whole thing over for the next year. Whew!
How have you adapted to the COVID-19 crisis and how can the community support you at this time?
Covid-19 has obviously affected all of us to varying degrees. Thankfully, no one in our family has gotten ill and we remain healthy. Since most of our revenue comes from farmers markets and the sales of our products at several locations in and around Calgary, we have had to wait and see what AHS decided with respect to the operations of farmers markets, stores, etc. There was a great deal of uncertainty over the past few months.
But as we progressed into June, decisions were made and the way became clearer. Thank goodness farmers markets will be going ahead, although we have needed to make changes to the way we operate while at these markets. Each market has slightly different rules to keep everyone safe, so we have had to adjust how we set up our tent and products to meet the new rules and regulations. That also means a lot of hand sanitizer, wipes, and face masks. Unfortunately, it also means that we will not be able to provide samples of any of our products for the time being. On the bright side though, we started our first market on June 4th in Crossfield!
All farmers, ourselves included, would greatly appreciate the support of the local community. Thinking about your food purchasing and buying local, even though it may not be the cheapest option, is helpful because it supports local farm families. In turn, we farmers support our local communities by buying the goods and services we need to run our farms from other local businesses. During this time of crisis, it is important for all of us to be supportive of each other.
By the way, our long-awaited new website is just about ready to go and we are super excited about that! The new website will feature a whole host of new information about us and our farm will also have a new online store which will allow customers to order and pay for all of our products and we will provide free curbside pickup at markets or delivery in and around Calgary. Stay tuned! We should be launching the new site within a couple of weeks.
Thanks, Rick, for telling us a little bit more about your business and we wish you the best of luck this summer. You can find Solstice Berry Farm HERE. You can also follow them on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Introducing YYC Small Business Profiles is a Family Fun Calgary series that will contain a random selection of businesses chosen at the discretion of the editor for interest and curiosity.
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