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Photography - HIRO 
Text - MINA

Photography - HIRO 
Text - MINA

The Local Harvest

Dan Oostenbrink,
farmer and owner


Photography - HIRO 
Interview - MINA

"The Local Harvest was a grass root business. We built it up from the ground with my wife and the kids. We provide the community with good food. We reconnect people with the food-producing landscapes and make people realize that we can eat very well locally. There have been many personal attachments and challenges, but I believe what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. We are still around, and we are stronger for it."

When you drive into Chilliwack on Highway 1, there is a happy place that makes you jealous of the Chilliwack locals. The Local Harvest is an on-farm market of their 37-acre farm providing a wide selection of organically grown, in-season foods, fresh baked goods using Anita's Organic Mills, and many other products from other local producers, processors, and artisans. Since its establishment in 2013, its mission has been to solely provide local food and give access to local food in the community year-round. It is incredible how much they have accomplished in mere ten years, and Dan's family literally lives off the farm.

When VOICE visited Dan in mid-April, he generously took us on a farm tour, walking us through where the food comes from and how it is grown. It seemed nothing impossible to grow on the farm. There is an endless list of vegetables from salad greens, radishes, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and brussels sprouts, as well as a fancy variety of eggplants, heirloom tomatoes, lemongrass, ginger, and turmeric that you hardly find in the supermarket. The biggest surprise on the tour was when we saw local lemons and limes growing in the solar-powered greenhouse. "You won't find anything more fragrant than lemon flowers," Dan said, and the scent of jasmine-like lemon blossoms filled the space. It was phenomenal, almost dreamy. 

Plants are not only the happy resident here. There are birds, chicks, cows, pigs, and many small species under the ground - all with their purpose and share of labor on the farm. A day before VOICE's visit, Dan let out his 30 pigs to feed on rye, a winter cover crop, to make a space to plant another crop. The rye was gone in a day, and the happy pigs left the soil fertilized with their excrement. Every living thing creates a symbolic relationship, and that is the whole essence of what The Local Harvest is about.

Within 2 hours of spending time with Dan, we fell head over heels for his vision of natural farming and his tireless commitment to changing the local food system. The Local Harvest deepens your understanding and love of locally grown food. The farm is open to the public during market hours, so why not book an informative farm tour with Dan? Or better yet, learn through his online gardening course.

Here is the VOICE of the man working to make a food-secure community a reality, and trust, you will start eating more local food once you know the taste of the best quality food that the Fraser Valley can offer. 

VOICE (V): How did it all start with The Local Harvest?


Dan(D): I was a high school teacher in math and science. My father owned a successful irrigation business, purchased this property, and the land was left unused. When he was about to sell it, he asked me if I wanted to do some farming, and I said yes. He knew I was interested in gardening and farming. I have no formal study in agriculture, but I did a lot of reading on what other market gardeners are doing, following some other great market gardeners like Curtis Stone, Jean-Martin Fortier, Eliot Coleman, and Joel F. Salatin - they are idols in my mind. Reading their works, making tons of observations on the farm, and just trying it out. I wanted to put the farm back on the farm market in a realistic way because you see a lot of farm markets, but not a farm. So when people come to the farm, they see where the food is from. We give them the grim reality and the beauty of it. That is what we have been doing since 2013. 

V: What is the most significant principle in your farming?


D: We are no-till growers. The whole idea is a regenerative agriculture system without disturbing the soil. You can see on the ground what nature has - leaves, twigs, sticks, and down below your feet is an entire ecosystem with a lot of moisture and nutrition value. Poor nutritious soil makes the plants struggle, their immunity gets low, and they can't fight off the pest and diseases. When the farmer sprays, that kills more organisms in the soil, and the situation worsens. That is why we never self-disturb the soil. As a result, we have very few pests or diseases on the farm, almost none. It is amazing.

The second principle is biodiversity. Many different types of plants grow on the farm; annual vegetables, small fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, and lots of flowers. We bring in birds, bees, butterflies, and many other small living species. Sparrows will be coming soon to nest in the trees. We need sparrows to keep the pests under control. That is a kind of biodiversity we want to encourage.

V: What is the difference between permaculture, sustainable and regenerative farming?


D: People like to throw difficult terms these days, but they all mean the same thing. In a way, permaculture encompasses them all. I think the best term would be natural farming. I like it the best because it simplifies things. By natural farming, what we mean is that we want to mimic nature, and follow nature's pattern on the farm. In nature, you always find living plants growing wherever you are, so on the farm, we always keep the ground covered in mulch (decomposing plant materials) and green plants all the time. Then you will see a lot of different organisms on the surface of the soil that are helping with the decomposition. Maybe one in 5,000 insects is a pest on the farm. The majority are the good ones and they all create balance. You want to see polyculture on the farm, not monoculture, and mimic the diversity of the natural ecosystem.

V: Anything you can't grow on the farm?


D: We grow whatever we can grow in this region. There are around 200 different types of plants growing on the farm. Being true to sustainability or food-secure, we need to provide all foods across the nutritious spectrum, not just the annual vegetables, because people need to eat all different types of food. We have higher protein fruits like nuts and seeds with higher vegan populations today. We have three rows of hazelnut trees in the second year, and walnut trees in their seventh year. Building a food-secure community takes a long time, easily ten to twenty years. 


V: Was food security an important idea from the beginning of The Local Harvest?


D: We didn't think about the idea deeply when we first started. In the beginning, we were thinking of farming more commercially! Our initial idea was that the technology would save us, so we were planning to use sprays, herbicides, pesticides, big on the equipment, and listening to soil scientists. With that mentality, in our first year, we were growing cauliflower, which is known to be a plant to grow with sprays. We lost track of time and forgot to spray, but still, we had beautiful cauliflower. It was an eye-opener for me. If I can do one, I can do a thousand. So we said no more chemicals and went a completely natural organic way. As a result, we are getting higher yields, less pest pressure, more pleasure in gardening, more beauty in gardening, among other things. It has been quite an adventure. 

With the idea of supporting the local community with food, you realize that if you are being truly sustainable, it has to be only local foods. I don't want to rely on outside sources for fertility, seed, and labor. Instead, I want everything to be within the community. So with the market, we only provide food from this area. It forced us to think of ways to produce food not only in the summer but even in the winter months because people need to eat year-round. Aa a matter of course, we incorporated biodiversity and a diversified ecosystem on the farm in order to be consistently growing many different types of food.

There is a lot of agricultural land in the Fraser Valley, but most of the land is a monoculture, growing food(grass) for the cows to produce milk. We have very few diversified farms and very few farmers. The younger population doesn't want to farm. That has left the average age of farmers in Canada at 56 years old( as of 2021). The Fraser Valley is one of the most fertile lands on earth, top 10 for sure, but most of the food we eat is imported and heavily processed. The way to reverse that is through biodiverse farms, organic farms, regenerative agriculture, and repopulating the food-producing landscape to grow food for the local community all year round.


V: Given The Local Harvest has been around for only a decade, we say you are a big success!


D: I think so, but it is not only me. It is other people on the farm. I have a big family with five children. My oldest son is a baker in the market. My oldest daughter works with all the flowers on the farm. My third son does all the meats (pork, chicken, goose, and duck), and we all help with the production on the farm. We are an example of a "stacking" enterprise, adding more layers and benefits to an existing business.


V: How can we all participate in increasing food security in the community?


D: Buying local food is the best way if you are not actively farming or don't want to farm. You still are an important player in food security. Like how Wendell Berry said,  "Eating is an agricultural act". When you decide what you eat, you vote for farms, good quality food, and support of the local economy.

Also, you can get to know your neighboring farmer, talk and learn about the farm, their family, and their history. That gives people a heart-to-heart attachment. When you know them, it is a different level of a trusting relationship, and the farmer will make sure that the best quality food is available for the neighborhood. For city people who don't have a space to grow food, you will be surprised how much you can do in your kitchen with the micro-greens and grow lights. There is a creative way to grow food.


V: Any community initiatives you are working on currently?


D: We are working on what was once called "Plant a Row, Grow a Row" by the Salvation Army. It was initiated in 1999, and the idea was as a gardener, if you grow five rows of vegetables for your family, you plant the sixth row to feed the less privileged people in the community. Over time it faded out, and now they resurrected the program. In 2023, they call it "Plant a Row For Us" to source fresh nutrient food for their Pantry Program. I encourage people in the community and 200 students in my gardening course to grow extra food for this program. The Community Pantry program in the Salvation Army is also for people in the community whose income is not enough to cover the basic necessity of life. They can help themselves with an assortment of deli, bakery, dairy, produce, and frozen food items. 


V: What is your favorite vegetable to grow and its favorite recipe?


D: I like growing sweet potatoes and tomatoes. I am not much of a cooking end of things, but nothing like a fresh tomato off the vine!

V: When is your favorite time of the year?


D: Probably the fall. As we get into September-October, we are still harvesting sun-loving summer crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, at the same time, we also start to harvest fall crops, squash, watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe, turnips, and winter radishes. It is the harvest season with the most food available. 


V: When you are not farming, where do we likely find you?


D: Every 3 to 4 years, we have been doing overseas vacations to learn about agriculture in different areas, see what locals eat, and understand the culture. We have been to Cuba, Bali, and, last year, Thailand. Other than travel, I will be inside most of the time, reading books on farming, economy, and psychology.


V: Do you have a CSA program?


D: Yes, we work through the company called Valley to Shore, which is our distribution hub for Vancouverites. You can order online, and it is a very generous and seasonal fresh box enough to last for two weeks. Because we grow so many different foods, every week is special. We focus on staple crops and what people are used to cooking with; potatoes, celery, beets, carrots, and something new and unique. Anybody can join anytime!


V: Do you expect all your children to become farmers?


D: I hope so! I have a son, who is a welder now, moving to Alberta. All the other kids are helping me on the farm here. In the end, I know they all will be farmers, and hopefully, they will have their small farms to grow food. 


V: If you were not a farmer, what would you be?


D: There is no other life to me other than farming. I am a farmer for life. If I need to think, maybe something in health care with good food and nutrition for healing. I guess it is still farming because it relies on food.

Local Harvest

Dan Oostenbrink, Farmer and owner

No-till, no-spray, carbon-sequestering, soil-regenerative farmers in the Fraser Valley. WORM 🪱 FARM AND COMPOST. Monday- Saturday 9 am to 5 pm.

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