Kelsey Rieger and Suzanne Rieger
Kelsey Rieger with her mother, Suzanne Rieger, who gave her the idea for making baby food with their orchard fruit rather than giving up on the farm.
Way back in the twentieth century, farms were passed down from generation to generation. Today, it’s an uphill battle just keeping the farm alive, let alone keeping it viable for future generations.
Kelsey Rieger grew up on her family farm, Orchard Corners, in Kelowna. It’s a small farm; 15 acres planted mostly in apples and the rest in peaches, pears, plums and blueberries. The senior Riegers, wanting to retire, put the farm up for sale. Of their three children, only Kelsey was interested in taking over.
The family looked at other options. “We all sat down and talked about it and we thought about doing a cidery. The initial investment was big and we’d have to produce a lot of cider at the beginning to get a license…so we threw that idea out,” recalls Kelsey.
In 2012, her mother, Suzanne Rieger, read an article about a woman from Calgary making her own baby food, selling it at farmers’ markets and making $30,000 a month. “She was so excited to tell me,” says Kelsey, “and it was something we could do together. The cost would be minimal as we grow our own fruits and we could grow more vegetables as we had a lot of land. We already have a booth at the farmers’ market so we wouldn’t have to rent new space – we’d just add baby food to the apples and Emu oil products mom makes.”
Kelsey did some research and found no one else in the Okanagan Valley was making organic baby food. “I thought, ‘Why is no one doing it?’ This is a niche we could really get into and hopefully grow rapidly. Everyone thought it was a great idea.”
Once they started down the road as organic baby food producers, Kelsey discovered why people weren’t doing it. “It’s a high-risk food and there are lots and lots of rules and regulations that have to be met for baby food,” she explains. “The biggest challenge for me was the labeling. There are so many regulations and we wanted to be able to sell outside of Kelowna. There were nutrition tables, and ingredient lists, and having a common name, and being in French, and having things in certain areas on the label. We had to have our mailing address on there, our website and an expiry date. We went back and forth sending The Canadian Food Inspection agency our drafts and they’d send them back and tell us what else we needed. It took a few months to just get the label ready.”
The production end hasn’t been quite as trying. “We are starting with fruit [and] as it is already acidic it doesn’t spoil as quickly and it is safer. There is less risk of botulism,” says Kelsey. “We rented a certified kitchen at the Rutland Centennial hall. So far we’ve made 7,200 jars of apple and about half that in pear. We are doing peaches next.”
Kelsey, a registered holistic nutritionist, wants the baby food as healthy as possible, which means just one ingredient: “Organic, non-GMO fruit. That is the only ingredient.” She’s adamant about this. “The Food Inspection Agency wants us to add citric acid or something else if we make canned vegetables. Until we can figure out a way to not put additives in, we won’t do vegetables.”
When Kelsey isn’t creating baby food, she works at an acupuncture clinic. “I have to work 9 to 5, and whenever my mom and I get a spare moment, we get together. We do a lot of work on the weekends, but we have to rent the kitchen during the week so I have to take time off work. Then we are in there from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.”
There’s a lot riding on Kelsey’s baby food line. “I grew up here, on this farm, in Kelowna,” she says. “And so did my dad. It was my grandfather’s farm and it would be nice to keep it in the family. Doing the value added products is one way, for us, to keep the farm in the family.”
As for being a farmer, Kelsey loves the reaction she gets when she tells people about her ‘other job.’ “Most people are surprised when they find out I’m a farmer. I don’t look like a farmer. They think it is cool, because I grew up on the farm and I have some pretty strong opinions on organic and non-GMO.”
Kelsey also has advice for other young farmers. “When it comes to farming – you really need to do your research. You have to see what the market is looking for in an orchard. If you can become organic, I think it is a way better way to go. It’s what people want and it’s the way of the future.”
You can find Kelsey at the Kelowna outdoor Farmers’ Market from April to October where the Riegers are betting the farm on the value-added products. “My parents have taken the farm off the market for now,” she says. “I am hoping this baby food does well so I can buy the farm from them. There’s nothing else I’d rather do.”