When I call Bruce Miller, he’s busy cleaning up the farm in anticipation of Sunday’s Slow Food Cycle. Hosting thousands of strangers on a farm requires some serious landscaping.
Across the Creek Organics, Miller’s fourth-generation family farm, is set to be the heart of the event this year, hosting vendors Thirsty Whale Elixirs, the Pemberton Distillery, Good Mood Food, Salt Spring Coffee, Solfeggio, Lynx Café, Just Soul Food, the Pemberton Arts Council and a bluegrass band at the ride’s midway mark.
Bruce and Brenda have been part of the event since its first year – 11 years now – concocting different offerings every year, from a farm cinema, to last year’s “from our field to your face” French fries, made from potatoes literally harvested the day before.
It was while brainstorming something they could offer Slow Food Cycle riders, beyond straight-up produce, that they came up with the idea for their next farm venture – a farm-to-tap brewery.
That’s why I’ve really called Bruce - because I’ve just found out that Across the Creek Organics is The Beerfarmers, my newest favourite Instagram account to follow, and I was curious to find out why one of Pemberton’s most established organic potato farms would be branching out into beer. Is it a succession plan - the only way to get the kids interested in farming? A retirement plan? A spin-off of their success selling potatoes to Schramm Distillery?
Actually, it boils down to a Slow Food Cycle brainstorm session, passion, an emptying nest and Brenda. “Really, you should talk to Brenda about it,” says Bruce, leaving mansplaining to Olympics commentators, and shifting out of the spotlight to let his wife step up to shine.
I’ve even more intrigued. A field-to-glass brewery is being grown right here, with 100 per cent local ingredients, and a woman is the driving force?
“I love Slow Food Cycle,” says Brenda. “I love people coming to the valley. It’s so nice to have people come through because we’re on this road to nowhere. So we were talking about what we could offer riders. How about beer? 'Well, we’d have to grow it all ourselves,' I said. It seemed preposterous.”
But Brenda, it seems, has a habit of suggesting preposterous things, like switching their conventional farm to organic – ideas from a self-admitted idealist, that eventually take root, as Bruce works over the numbers, the logistics, the angles, in his mind. “He goes over the numbers until I fall asleep,” she says.
“I only ever wanted to do it for the Slow Food Cycle,” says Brenda, who had been brewing batches of beer in the kitchen for fun – just one of the alchemical things she concocted at the helm of a family of five sons. “But to actually produce beer for sale, you have to pull the full licencing. You can’t do a one-off. When we discovered that, I thought, gosh, do I really want to do this?”
Their five boys were grown, heading to and back from university, emptying the nest. They could have started slowing down, instead of ramping up an entirely new enterprise.
“When we started growing potatoes organically, we didn’t know all the possibilities,” says Brenda.
It’s been 15 years since they transitioned the farm to 50 acres of organic potatoes. They had to re-do everything, go through all the certification hoops, find new markets, learn new ways of thinking and farming.
Now, their produce is in demand – and you can find it in unlikely places, not just the grocery store – in Schramm vodka and gin, Blackbird Bakery bread, even, some years, as the fries at Whistler Blackcomb. “I love all the spin-offs,” says Brenda.
So, this year, the Millers added barley to the mix, as part of their potato-growing rotation. They’re switching up the grain that is typically used to replenish the soil after potatoes are harvested, and cooking up a plan to pour terroir into a glass, right by the field where it grew from.
“I like to know where my food comes from,” says Brenda. “The dream might evolve, but at the age I’m at, I’m not interested in a business controlling me.”
It’s been a slow process – permits and engineering and licences take time.
“We started the idea a year and a half ago, and hopefully will be ready to go in spring 2017.”
But the hurdles haven’t held them back. In fact, they’re as excited about Slow Food Cycle as ever, and the chance to launch their brand, officially, to the world.
The Slow Food Cycle takes place on Sunday (Aug. 21). For more information click here.