Like many Creston residents I often find myself playing hostel owner/tour guide/entertainer to a bevy of friends and family in the summer. While I’d like to think my charming personality is at least part of the reason for these trips, the innumerable vistas of this valley in full bloom and the opportunity to sample it’s flavours certainly makes it easy to convince folks to take the trip.
It’s a role I relish and over the years I’ve developed a list of activities and itineraries to showcase the area’s favoured local retreats and best kept secrets. Whether it’s a hike up Balancing Rock trail, an afternoon in Bailee-Grohman Winery’s tasting room, a Saturday morning at Creston Valley Farmers’ Market, or a day exploring Kootenay Lake there is something for everyone. Guests always leave with a smile on their faces, a bundle of food in their car, and a few special memories of the area.
Entertaining Guests in the Creston Valley: A Day of Fine Art, Fresh Local Food, and Fruit Stands
Recently, my uncle & aunt, brother, dad, and grandpa decided to make a quick daytrip from Cranbrook & Alberta to visit generally and look for pie cherries specifically (My grandpa who was under orders not to return to Cardston without pie filling). So with 3 hours on a Tuesday afternoon, 5 family guests, and a request for cherries I was determined to give them a great time and a lasting impression.
After catching up over lunch in Gin’s Diner after their arrival, we headed across the street to Sandy Kunze’s new art gallery, aptly named after the iconic grain elevator it neighbours along north-west boulevard in Creston. My aunt and uncles’ memory of Creston as a sleepy little farming valley was quickly altered after a few minutes in this contemporary gallery, home to the works of artists like Stuart Steinhauer, whose goliath sculptures reside in city galleries, corporate offices, and university campuses across Canada. After an enjoyable hour visit my aunt exclaimed “Creston has really changed a lot since last time we were here” as we walked back to the car.
With an hour left before returning back to Cranbrook and still without cherries for pies, I guided my family along highway 3 east of Creston, home to a handful of family-run fruit stands that represent the very image of the Creston Valley to many visitors. My particular destination, Wloka Farms Fruit Stand, even more so epitomizes these fruit stands, nestled in the corner of a thriving orchard, famous for it’s diversity of local fruits and veggies, friendly staff, and generous owners, Bard & Frank Wloka.
Legends of excellent customer service were not unfounded: While the stand no longer carried pie cherries, within a few minutes Barb was on the hunt for us, making calls to a nearby orchard and lining up a visit for us to pick our own, all with her famous sense of humour and good nature. A quick zip down the road and we were in a row of cherry trees at the Flamenco Family Orchard, picking our own while my grandfather sentimentally fawned over a vintage ford tractor still on active duty in that little orchard, no doubt conjuring up memories of his childhood summers on the family farm in Premier Lake, BC.
Pleased with our haul, we popped back in to Wloka Farm Fruit Stand for my aunt and father to stock up on peaches and cherries and thank Barb for her willingness to help us in our quest for now rare pie cherries.Finally, after a three hour whirlwind visit I watched my family pull out of the parking lot, car full of delicious fruit, smiling and waving goodbye.
I realized my tour had been a wild success in no small part due to the Wloka’s, their great staff, and their wonderful fruit stand. I quickly walked back inside and asked Barb if we could do an interview, hoping to capture some of her vibrant personality and gain some insights from a couple that have been in the business of food for over 35 years as orchardists, cherry growers, and finally as fruit stand owners. The ever gracious Barb Wloka accommodated my request despite a schedule that would make most farmers blush.
AFTER AN ENJOYABLE HOUR VISIT MY AUNT EXCLAIMED “CRESTON HAS REALLY CHANGED A LOT SINCE LAST TIME WE WERE HERE” AS WE WALKED BACK TO THE CAR.
Two weeks later I was back with a voice recorder in hand, a lovely photographer (and also my girlfriend) at my side taking pictures, and a list of questions for Barb, who was happily helping staff and customers as we walked in the door.
Setting her apron aside while Frank drove tractors in the orchard, Barb took a moment to offer me a coca-cola before we sat down to chat behind the fruit stand. We would go on to have a wonderful thirty minute conversation that spanned three decades in the Creston Valley and gave me a renewed admiration for our amazing valley, the people who farm it, and the genuine passion that inspires the way they do business. The following is a sample of that conversation and I hope anyone who takes the time to read it will sincerely enjoy it as much as I did.
An Interview with Barb Wloka of Wloka Fruit Stand
Jesse: How long has the fruit stand been in operation?
Barb: 5 years.
Jesse: How many employees do you have?
Barb: Right now we have about 27 on our payroll. Some are part time. We have no one year round. We’re just not a viable business for year-round.
Jesse: What do you grow?
Barb: All the tree fruits, everything from cherries through to pears, and everything in between. A lot of different stuff. The only berries we do are raspberries. In the fruit stand, everything aside from the strawberries is grown by us. We do a lot of vegetables.
Jesse: Describe a typical day at the fruit stand?
Barb: There is no typical day. Every day is so different. Thats what makes it exciting. It is. It really is different. There is no typical day.
Jesse: How many hours a day do you work on average?
Barb: I usually get up at 2am to do my book work. My brain works best at 2 o’clock. I try to go back to bed for an hour or so and I get up again at four or four thirty, and that’s when the day starts. We close up here at 7 and get home around 8, have some dinner and go to bed. That is our typical day.
Jesse: What is the most challenging thing to grow, in your experience?
Barb: It’s all a challenge. You’ll think you have your onions doing well and then all of a sudden you’re fighting with a field.
Jesse: What is the most important thing to making your customer happy?
Barb: Service is the most important thing. Without service, including everything from the moment a person drives in our driveway, to when they drive out, they have to have service. I have to admit that our parking lot is not always the best, but you know, trying to keep things cleaned up, greeting them when they walk through the door. I had a lady tell me once, I am going to have to spend my money on food, and I want to spend it where I enjoy spending it.
Jesse: How important have good employees been to your business?
Barb: Everything. We’ve got some really young staff, and it’s been a huge learning curve for them. They’re going to make mistakes, but as long as they’re learning from their mistakes, that’s all I can ask from them. It’s neat to see growth from one year to the next.
Jesse: When did you get into the agriculture industry?
Barb: 36 years ago.
“WHEN WE FIRST STARTED, WE FOUND IT HARD TO MARKET. PEOPLE WANTED THE GROCERY STORE LOOK, AND WEREN’T INTERESTED IN THE FACT THAT IT WAS FARM GROWN AND THAT IT TASTED REALLY GOOD… BUT NOW WE FIND THAT PEOPLE ARE THRILLED AT FINDING LOCAL GROWN PRODUCE.”
Jesse: So you guys started as orchardists?
Barb: Well Frank was almost born in the orchard, so he grew up here, his parents were orchardists. When I met him I couldn’t tell a Spartan from a Red Delicious, and have I learned a lot. The year that we met, he purchased the [orchard] on the Hwy three that we used to run our fruit stand on, and the joke is always that I ran the fruit stand the first year, and he wouldn’t marry me unless I could run a fruit stand. I must have done something right because we got married that fall. We ran it for 16 years, and then it was time for a change. We sold it and then did a year’s international travel, came back here and did cherries. Loved the cherries, loved the pickers. But again it was time for a change and we thought, what did we really like doing. And so this is our golf game. This is our retirement. We love it. It was something that we both looked back on and loved.
Jesse: If this is your retirement, I can’t even imagine what your working years looked like. In that 36 year period, how has farming and agriculture changed in the Creston Valley?
Barb: Actually a lot. Good examples are broccoli and cauliflower. They’re usually nice and tight looking. But when you grow it yourself it’s often looser florets. When we first started, we found it hard to market. People wanted the grocery store look, and weren’t interested in the fact that it was farm grown and that it tasted really good, so we actually only grew it for a couple years. Now this years turned out fairly well. But now we find that people are thrilled at finding local grown produce.
Jesse: The public perception of food has changed, people aren’t looking for the perfect product anymore?
Barb: Exactly, people are more interested in how it grows. We’ve always done a lot of local sales, but people are very aware of their food stuff now, more so than they were before.
Jesse: I would not have expected that answer. I have to ask, what inspired you to get into business for yourself? What inspired you and Frank to do this instead of something else?
Barb: Well Frank is an entrepreneur, so it’s really Frank, he’s the one who got us into it. I don’t know that I knew I could sell things. I didn’t know I could sell things until I married Frank, and then he taught me a lot, and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot from customers too. Information on how they cook it, or do with it. I mean, Dill weed, the whole plant is useable, but a lot of people don’t know that. Trying to educate the public is really important.
Jesse: What do you think has been the key to your success?
Barb: My staff. We could not do it without the staff. We rely on them a lot, and they come through all the time. Last year we picked raspberries and it was such a hot year, and we picked them every morning. We started at four thirty, and I had six teens that picked every single morning, because we didn’t have any rain last year. I had one late once. No one missed a shift. This year we weeded our onion patch, and I had kids coming in at five thirty, working until about seven thirty, going home and then cleaning up for school.
Jesse: So that myth of lazy teenagers is not there?
Barb: Haha not at all, fantastic staff. We couldn’t do it without them.
Jesse: Well you must be doing something right, so that they want to come?
Barb: The irony is that their two favorite jobs [are] digging potatoes, harvesting melons and pumpkins. Staff is huge.
“And so this is our golf game. This is our retirement. We love it. It was something that we both looked back on and loved”
Jesse: What inspires you and Frank, what motivates you to come to work?
Barb: I look forward to every day. I am always excited to see what the day brings. Every day is different. And that’s the thing about farming too. We picked raspberries every year, but you have different weather conditions, different pests. Every year is a completely different year. It’s the same crop, but it’s different. There’s never a dull moment.
Jesse: Do you every think you’re going to master, or you’ll be like you learned everything?
Barb: No we know that’s not possible. We are always learning. I love learning. This is my university.
Jesse: What is your favorite part of running your fruit stand?
Barb: The people. That includes staff and customers. I am very proud of our product, but I love the fact that we have so many return customers, and they tell me what they’ve done with it, or if they’ve had a problem with it. I always tell my staff that complaints are extremely important. If a customer comes to me and tells me we have a problem, that’s much better than telling 62 people down town. 1) aware we have an issue 2) Try and correct it for them 3) we can build a relationship with that customer.
Jesse: What inspired you to do special messages on the fence?
Barb: I got the idea in Peru, and there was a fence that was very colorful, I liked it. So when we put this fence up, I wanted to do messages on it. My sister is doing the lettering for us now. Now, when someone wants to put up a message, all the proceeds goes to the therapeutic riding school.
Jesse: If you could give advice to a young person getting into the business, what would you say to them? Barb: 2 things: 1. be prepared for a lot of hard work and a lot of learning. There is a lot of learning. You always have to be aware of the yearly variables. 2. Budget. Because you can have really good years in agriculture, and if you spend it all, then the years that you have bad years you could be hooped. Frank has been very good about that. All of our married life, he is the one who figures out when we could do the big expenditures. I think we compliment each other very well, that is his area. He is very good at it. I let him do that.
Jesse: What kept you in the Creston Valley?
Barb: We love Creston. Look at this place. Where could you grow all this. On this nine acres, we have 14 varieties of plums, 6 peaches, 32 of apples, 3 of pears, 3 rasp, nectarines, white peaches, it is all here on nine acres. Where could do that!
Jesse: I am still blown away. 32 varieties of apples. The land of milk and honey.
Barb: We did what we wanted to do with this land. We were so excited to get this property.
Jesse: Is there anything about Creston as a community that is special?
Barb: Very much so. I get given all sorts of pies and jams and pickles from everywhere. Creston cares. We are thrilled with Creston. It supports us in a big way.
Wloka Fruitstand is located at 3524 Highway #3, Creston, BC (across from Erickson Elementary School). For more information please contact them by phone at (250) 428 0510 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the webpage (www.wlokafarmsfruitstand.com)