Sitting at a table among fruit laden trees in the midst of Fred and Phyllis Nelson’s Cawston orchard late this past summer, Linda and I felt embraced by their large family of neighbours and friends. The surrounding mountains outlined crisply against a pristine blue sky lent an aura of grandeur to the occasion. Scattered among the trees were about 200 people, all at tables, enjoying a delicious potluck meal. At the end of a protracted, dry summer, this was a welcome break in the routine of hard work. In the growing dusk, with talented musicians performing on stage, there seemed a pervasive sense of goodwill in the atmosphere.
Several very young boys with plastic shovels were digging vigorously in Fred’s potato patch. The expert manner in which they used their small shovels suggested they were offspring of local farmers.
Linda and I were intrigued by the Nelsons’ vision for this remarkable event. Wanting to know more, we returned to the orchard last week for a 2 hour conversation. “We’ve done this potluck annually for about 10 years,” Phyllis told us in reply to my question. “It’s a celebration of the harvest. We also celebrate music, and the fact we’ve been here another year. I get on the phone and invite our neighbours and friends. It’s strictly by invitation. There would be too many people if we opened it up.” We quickly grasped that she is a capable, proactive event planner.
I reminded Fred of seeing him shoo the youngsters out of his potato patch and asked if there are problems associated with the evening. “Digging up potatoes is not a permitted activity,” he said good-humouredly. “We spend a day preparing and another day cleaning up.”
Fred and Phyllis both grew up in Nelson, B.C., are only a few months apart in age and attended the same elementary school. “I became interested in Fred at age 8,” she said. “He wasn’t aware of me yet, but by age 13 we were dating.” Clearly Phyllis understood early how to make things fall into place.
After graduating in 1966, Fred trained in forestry at BCIT and Phyllis graduated from UVic with a degree in education. They were married at age 21. When their careers proved unfulfilling, they bought a VW bus and travelled for 26 months in Canada, the US and Mexico. Subsequently they fell in love with Cawston and rented the house in which they now live.
In time they were able to buy the house and a 10 acre portion of the orchard on which it is situated. The orchard was old and not producing an income. It would demand all the qualities normally required for success in any difficult endeavour. Their patience, perseverance and belief would be tested repeatedly. Fortunately Brian Mennell, a neighbour across the street, offered Fred employment and instruction in orcharding.
By this time they had 2 sons, Forrest and Pharron. Life became a financial scramble. Phyllis taught school and gave private piano lessons. Fred for some years was the water bailiff for the Fairview Irrigation District. He also did carpentry.
In 1996 they took what must have seemed a hazardous plunge into the unknown. Fred went into orcharding full-time. In the coming years they would encounter late frosts that destroyed blossoms, cold weather, crop destroying hail and much more. Lately, due to global warming there are new pests that destroy fruit and trees. All problems familiar to farmers. Their decision would require them to become a team forged together by love, trust, commitment and strength of character. They could not falter when disaster threatened.
“I began a l0 year orchard development program,” Fred said. “Each year I took out one acre of trees and replanted with a variety of fruits, especially apples. I also switched to organic growing. For this I needed specialized equipment and materials. We are the only ones in the valley growing organic Aurora apples. They are particularly sweet, but delicate and require great care.”
Now close to retirement, they will soon sell the orchard to Pharron and his wife, who already live and work on the property. Their other son, Forrest and his partner, also live in the Cawston area, and grow organic vegetables. Fred and Phyllis look forward to a slower pace and spending more time with their grandchildren. “I’m amazed at how quickly the years have flown by,” Phyllis said. Fred nodded agreement.