Almost four decades of Tom Salley’s life has been spent in the Cariboo.
He arrived here from Colorado in 1973 with 12 university buddies in search of a young man’s adventure, he says.
A year later, the group of 13 buddies purchased the Bobb Inn Ranch between Quesnel and Williams Lake, seven miles off the West Fraser Road.
“It was a small scale cattle/hay ranch,” he explains.
None of the guys were experienced with agriculture when they arrived; however, today the ranch is still in operation with about half the original purchasers living in homes there.
After a decade of involvement with the ranch, Salley branched off on his own and purchased property at Mackin Creek, also west of the Fraser River.
It was an old homestead with a couple apple trees.
Since then, the land has been cultivated to include 200 apple trees with 30 apple varieties, a 2,500-square-foot greenhouse and around 3,000 square-foot garden.
“I mostly sell apples and tomatoes, and a few other things,” he says.
While most grocery stores sell a combination of around 10 varieties of apples, Salley notes with 30 varieties he is able to space his harvesting and sales.
The varieties range from early apples that don’t last very long, to storage apples that can last for months in a root cellar.
If all trees are producing, his customers might get three new varieties every week.
“If I had 200 trees and had to pick them all in two weeks and market them I could never do it. With different varieties coming in every week for about eight weeks straight, then I can market them and keep up with the picking alone.”
Old-style McIntosh is the variety that surprises people the most, Salley points out.
“The reason they have such a wonderful taste is because of where we live. I can allow my apples to get a frost on them before I harvest them and that doubles the sugar.
“My McIntosh are often much sweeter than those from the Okanagan because I’ve been able to leave them and get a frost.”
It’s a trick he’s discovered as he has gone along, he says with a chuckle.
Salley, who has no official education in agriculture, sells produce at the Quesnel Market, and in Williams Lake at Margetts Meat Market and the Cariboo Growers Co-operative. He also plans to sell to the Sta-Well Health Food Store this fall.
He has been part of Cariboo Growers Co-operative from its inception.
It took six years to bring the concept to fruition, he says, describing the Williams Lake Food Policy Council that initiated the venture as a great team of people.
Locally grown food is going to become more and more important for a host of reasons, and while he only grows food part time and doesn’t make a ton of money, Salley believes there is an opportunity for local growers.
“If you know what you’re doing, and you have good ground and water, you can make a good living for a family on five acres of ground. Some crops, if you know how to market them and how to grow them correctly bring in $20,000 to $25,000 an acre.”
The key is marketing and gaining knowledge by accessing people who have the expertise.
“Agriculture’s easy until you get to the marketing.”
There’s opportunity there, he explains.
“If we could have somebody grow five tons of potatoes and put them in a root cellar, and somebody else grow carrots and store them we could supply those. At the co-op we’re trying to fill gaps of the food that we have to bring in.”
It’s doable and better, he adds.
Aside from growing food, he works as a social worker and guitarist and vocalist in the local band Big Twang Daddy.
Salley credits the call of nature and wildlife as drawing factors of living in the Cariboo.
“There’s not too many places you can live down in the USA that you can have wolves, cougars, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, coyote, all living right there with you,” he says. “That’s just the way I wanted to live.”
People have a role to play, he adds.
“It was such an adventure coming here, working on ranches and in the bush. All the work I did in the beginning was all trades and labour.”
He was employed by other ranches, in mills, as a truck driver, and carpenter — whatever he could find.
He didn’t become a social worker until the late 80s.
Social work is rewarding and raising food is the most basic form of social work there is, he suggests.
He sells what he can and the rest of his produce goes to non-profits.
“Where a lot of people just dump all of that stuff, part of the main thing for me is to sell what I can to the people that can afford it and then give away the rest to the people that can’t afford to buy locally grown stuff, rather than packaged food.”
Monica Lamb-Yorski photo
Big Twang Daddy’s Tom Salley, lead singer and guitarist, along with bass player Joel Stern and drummer Lyle Tribe perform Aug. 9 during the summer concerts series in Boitanio Park.