by J. Kathleen Thompson
You might have noticed the “Corn for Sale” sign on the highway at Billings as you approach Christina Lake in the summer. If you didn’t, it’s likely because it’s buried by the gaggle of cars already clustered around the stand.
It’s Tony’s corn, and his famous peaches and cream variety has legendary status in our valley and will likely be sold out before you can find a spot to pull over. Ask the family from Spokane that returns every year just to pick up some of Tony’s corn!
“Yes, I have a lot of loyal customers, like summer residents at the lake, that stop for my corn,” Tony says. “ I get a lot of Americans, too, even when my corn is double the price of what they pay down there. I think they like the varieties I grow—either Fastlane or Luscious—as they are known for their sweetness. And my location—nothing beats being right on the highway!”
And maybe it has a little to do with the way the corn is grown. Adapting techniques gleened from Rodger DeMille in Salmon Arm (who can’t keep his popular sweet corn on the shelves in his farmers’ market there in the summer), Tony MacAlpine has turned the two acres of land in Billings nestled between the highway and the Trans Canada Trail into a festival of summer fresh corn.
“I plant it all by hand with a handplanter—you can do that with just two acres—and weed it by hand as well, sometimes with a little help. Weeding is vitally important to corn, especially in the early stages of growth before the corn stalks are tall enough to overwhelm the weeds and block out their sunshine.
“Between May and September, I’m out in my cornfield every morning to check their progress, weed, fertilize and make sure the electric anti-bear fence I install is holding up! Learned by lesson last year when a mama bear and her cubs pretty much devoured the last of my harvest, leaving a heap of husks in their wake. This year, I’ll be watching for them!
“Farming has to be a labour of love,” Tony continues, “With seed, fertilizer, labour costs, various repairs and the odd pest repellent strategy to try out, there isn’t much cash left at the end of the season. This growing season has been pretty good. Right now, the early corn is starting to silk, so it should be ready soon.”
Other tricks of the trade, like soil preparation and type of fertilizer used, is privileged information and likely a well-kept secret in the three generations of the DeMille family farming traditions in Salmon Arm, as well. Tony would divulge, however, that one of the key components of quality corn is its freshness—best when it is picked just that morning!
“In the height of summer, I pick twice a day, and luckily by afternoon they’re usually all sold!”
Tony finds that the success he is enjoying as a farmer all a bit bemusing, considering it is something he didn’t begin until he was 64, and that it is an occupation that is as elementally different to his first one as earth is to water.
Before gaining his landlegs, Tony spent the first part of his life as a marine engineer and ship’s captain on tugs, tankers and passenger ships.
His experience and familiarity with the sea and body of regulations governing shipping led to the last post in his career as director of marine services for the Government of the Northwest Territories where he was hired to “straighten out the ferry system” on the MacKenzie, Peel and Liard Rivers.
“Even though I spent most of my life on the water, I was around farms a lot as a child. I was “an abandoned child,” and my foster homes were all on farms in the Pitt Meadows area, so I got to know how to plant a potato or two. Luckily, too, my foster parents, and my biological father, knew my education didn’t end at the barnyard fence, and my high school years in an independent school in Vancouver (Vancouver College) prepared me well for my ‘other’ career!”
But he’s delighted to be back where the farming’s good, and the community caring.
“After living in larger towns in the north, like Yellowknife, I love that aspect of small community living that if you don’t show up at your usual time for coffee or haven’t been seen for a while, people will come looking for you!”
Tony has called Christina Lake home now for 18 years, and hopes to enjoy many more years divining increasingly better ways to grow corn. At 82, that’s nothing short of inspirational!
Look for his sign come August on the highway, or check out his corn, Okanagan fruit and his other home-grown produce such as garlic, beets and cabbage in front of Durand’s Nursery at Christina Lake on Wednesday and Saturday mornings in July and August.