Desert Hills Ranch in Ashcroft has come a long way since the days of the “honesty wagon”.
In the first few years after the Porter family started the ranch, anyone wanting to purchase their produce pulled up to the wagon on Elm Street, which contained bins bursting with onions, peppers, tomatoes, melons, and more. Customers took what they wanted, deposited their money in a locked box, and drove away.
Now Desert Hills produce is available across Canada. The odds are good that if you buy a cantaloupe at any Loblaws store from Winnipeg west in summer, it will have come from Desert Hills. The wagon is long gone, replaced by a retail store with adjacent greenhouse, but the bursting bins are still there, overflowing with a rainbow cornucopia of produce. Much of it has only recently been picked by a crew of Mexican and Guatemalan workers who have just arrived after completing 17 days of quarantine in Vancouver.
Getting them here at all was a struggle this year, says David Porter, whose parents started Desert Hills in 1991. The difficulties began in the spring, when the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic struck just as planting season was due to start.
“It was really hard for us to get visas, and it was slow getting approval,” he says. “We brought the last [of the spring workers] in on March 31, and we only got half the crew. We normally get 60 workers, but only got 30. We said ‘Okay, we have to make it,’ and scraped by.”
They were also able to hire several locals, and Porter says that the kids have been incredible. “I’m really proud of them. They’ve ended up being amazing, and they’ve learned a lot of skills.”
He says that the spring gardening season, when Desert Hills sells plants and flowers, was busier than usual this year. “Everyone was staying home and decided they wanted to plant a garden. But our crew was amazing, and we managed to get through.”
A group of 50 Honduran workers was scheduled to come in, and Porter says everything was completed when the embassy closed down and the workers were not able to fly out. “We switched to Guatemala, and tried to get workers to come here when the cannabis farms shut down. Then Guatemala shut down their airports, but we chartered a plane and got 50 workers here in the middle of June, which was really too early.”
The workers spent two weeks quarantined at a hotel in Vancouver. “B.C. and Prince Edward Island have government-mandated quarantines [for farm workers],” Porter explains. All such workers coming into B.C. are tested for COVID-19 and spend two weeks in strict quarantine, at the expense and oversight of the provincial government, before beginning work on farms.
“It’s a huge relief,” says Porter. “It takes the onus off us. We quarantined the ones who came in March, and they were all tested [for COVID-19] prior to departure and when they arrived.”
A picking crew of Mexicans was also scheduled to fly in in late June, and flights had been paid for and scheduled when the federal government imposed new rules around work permits. “They were sitting in an airport in Mexico and we had to send them home, because they needed to get a work permit in Mexico instead of here,” says Porter. “Air Mexico said we would get a credit for the flights, and then they filed for bankruptcy. We had almost 50 people set to fly, and only six appeared with a work permit.”
Undaunted, Porter switched to another worker program, and got almost 50 crew members. After completing their quarantine in Vancouver, they arrived in the area on Aug. 7, and started work on Aug. 9.
“There is so much ready to be picked,” says Porter. “We tried to hire locals, but no one wants to work in the fields.”
Another blow came earlier this year, when flooding washed away a bridge across the Bonaparte River that gave access to fields just north of Cache Creek, and left much of the area under water.
“It was unfortunate,” says Porter. “We lost access to our farm, because the bridge was the only way in and out. But the Village of Cache Creek has been extremely accommodating in letting us go through the park to get there.” The fields have been planted with cantaloupe, eggplant, and tomatoes — “We’ve salvaged what we can” — but the bridge will cost several hundred thousand dollars to replace. The Desert Hills store on Highway 97 in Cache Creek, near the property, will not be opening this year due to lack of staff.
With picking season now in full swing, Porter says that there are 137 workers — half Mexican and half Guatemalan — busy harvesting the crops. “We’re down about 60 people, but we’re grateful to have what we have.”
Porter says that the workers decided as a team to stick close to home during the pandemic. “They’re not going to Kamloops, but we have an Amazon account for them so they can order things. The ladies at the Ashcroft post office have been phenomenal. And they go into Ashcroft’s businesses and restaurants, and support the town’s economy, which is great.”
They can also get authentic Mexican food staples at Desert Hills. Several years ago the store began bringing in the items for the workers, so they could have a taste of home, and stocked them in the store. “In the beginning we hardly sold any, but now it’s really popular.”
It is a small indication of how thoroughly the Desert Hills workers and their culture have become a welcome part of the community. Last year a summer session for children at the Ashcroft Museum focused on Mexico and its traditions and culture, the fresh-cooked Mexican tacos are always a huge hit at the store when they’re offered, and at Safety Mart the Journal hears a cashier welcome a Desert Hills crew member with “Hola! Cómo estás?” (“Hello! How are you?”) and conclude the transaction with a cheerful “Adiós!”
Porter says that they planted about what they normally would this spring, albeit a little later than usual. “We only had so many people, so we could only plant so much, but we got it in. There was so much going on [in the world] that tomatoes being planted a week late was no big deal.”
This summer’s weather has not been as good as usual, further delaying the crops. “We had so much rain. The peppers aren’t too bad with it, but the melons don’t enjoy it. Everyone has been really accommodating, though. If we work as a team we’ll work through this.”
Porter is grateful for the ongoing support from local residents and those who come from further afield to get fresh Desert Hills produce.
“Our customers have been phenomenal, and we want them to realize how grateful we are to have them,” he says. “Without their support over the years we wouldn’t be here. It’s a whole world, but we’re one big family, and we have to work together and be kind. Our business is based on family, and we treat our workers and customers as family.
“Things might not be the same at Desert Hills this year — they can’t be — but the support people have given us is really special.”