Joe Hug surveys his vegetable sprouts in the greenhouse prior to planting this spring. (Thom Barker photo)

Joe Hug surveys his vegetable sprouts in the greenhouse prior to planting this spring. (Thom Barker photo)

Back to the land: Organic farmer reconnects with his roots

Joe Hug turned his land inheritance into a thriving organic veggie business

Although Joe Hug has developed a reputation for having one of the greenest thumbs in the Bulkley Valley, he hasn’t really been in the organic farming business very long, relatively speaking.

As a young man, the now-owner of Healthy Hugs Organics on Laidlaw Road kicked around various jobs, mainly in construction, but was eventually drawn to the gemstone business. When he was 28, he packed his bags and headed off to Santa Monica, California where the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) is headquartered.

” I just thought, I wanted to go there and just live the L.A. lifestyle for a while,” he said.

After graduating as a gemologist, he got into the game of buying and selling stones, travelling extensively, mainly in Asia. But after a few years, he found the lifestyle wasn’t for him.

“There’s only so much you can really do with that, if you’re not living in a big city, or travelling and buying and selling. I just didn’t like living in cities.”

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He came back to the country and got into construction again. Then, around 15 years ago, Hug’s father, decided he was going to divide up the farm among Joe and his four siblings by way of a living will.

“It’s the smartest thing anybody can probably do when you’ve got kids,” Hug said. “I’ve seen families, who, well, it just gets ugly sometimes when that will gets read. But then if the person who’s making the will is there at the time, and we’re all talking. My father used to say ‘OK, everybody, speak up or forever hold your peace’.”

Each of the five siblings got a similar-sized piece of the roughly 400 acres that were left from the original much larger parcel that Hug’s grandfather obtained after emigrating from Switzerland in the 1930s.

Hug said it worked out for all of them very amicably.

For his 56 acres, Hug decided he wanted to farm them responsibly and sustainably.

“When I was young, I travelled a lot and I saw the world a lot, and I saw what we needed to do,” he explained. “I saw that land ownership means land stewardship. They say, be the change you wish to see. I thought, well, what can I personally do? I can complain about everything all the time, but that ain’t going to do any good. So I could do something with my own home. And that’s the way I see it.”

While Hug had not professionally farmed in his adult life, he did come from farming stock and credits his mother for his aptitude with plants.

“The first… kind of work I did was with my mother in her garden. She had a pretty big garden on the farm. And some days I’d have a choice of working with my dad or my mother in the garden. And I would choose my mother all the time. My dad was pretty strict. My mother was more easygoing and I enjoyed weeding. Weird, yeah, strange, I enjoyed weeding.

“I guess it was the zen of it. I don’t know, something spiritual. I didn’t even know what Zen was back then.”

Originally, the new farm was a very small-scale operation.

“I didn’t want to borrow any money from the bank,” he explained. “So I thought, if I’m gonna do this, I’m going to buy old equipment, fix it up for what I need to do with it, you know, really shop around, just take it really slow. And that was a smart thing.”

He also wasn’t certain when it started, if it would be an organic operation.

“I wasn’t sure at first, but just the more research I did, the more I realized I had to go organic,” he said. “I want to support organic in any way I can. And I’m quite sure a lot of gardeners around here who sell at the farmers market, they may not be organically certified, but most of them, I’m quite sure are fairly organic anyway.

“I don’t think it really makes much of a difference. Especially here. It’s not hard to be organic here because we don’t get those pests that they get in the warm places. And in places where they mass produce vegetables, they just invite all kinds of critters in by their farming practices.”

In terms of organic practices, Hug said the most important things are keeping the weeds under control and doing proper crop rotation. It is labour-intensive, but he believes it is worth it.

“We don’t generally use a lot of fuel in organic production,” he said. “We do use some, I mean, my tractor burns diesel and I’ve got a couple of little rotor tillers, but it’s a lot of labour… but you’ve got to control the weeds, that’s the thing. If you can get your weeds under control, because a lot of organic farms spend the vast amount of their labour on weeding. You want to spend the vast amount of your labour on harvesting and that’s where we are now.

“We do weeding, when weeding needs to be done, but we spend most of our labour hours on harvesting and, of course, planting, and working on soil, and I just can’t understand how we took such a wrong turn in agriculture.”

That being said, Hug recognizes it would be extremely difficult to feed the world’s almost eight billion people with organic farming practices.

“I’m not a fool, I wouldn’t say we could all just turn to all-organic farming,” he said.

While the farm has grown, it is still a fairly small-scale operation. In addition to himself, Hug keeps three to four people employed throughout the growing season.

His philosophy with people is similar to his philosophy with the land, it’s about sustainability.

“We decided to pay really good wages,” he said. “And that makes a big difference because then we can attract people and keep people. I think you can’t just pay minimum wage. It might sound good on paper, you know, to an economist in the short term, but in the long run, you’ve got to pay people well.”

The people he is trying to attract and keep are hard-working and like-minded.

“They’ve got to have a connection with the ground,” he said. “You know, most of us have lost our connection with the ground, so I like to walk around in bare feet a lot.”

The season starts in the spring in the greenhouse where he plants vegetables in generations approximately two weeks apart. This allows for planting in and harvesting from the approximately three-and-a-half acre garden throughout the summer.

This year, it has been a tough spring for farmers. Due to cold, wet weather, Hug said everything is about two to three weeks behind.

Nevertheless, Health Hugs has begun showing up at the Farmers’ Market in Smithers on Saturday mornings and the annual veggie box season is still scheduled to get underway July 6.

The program provides a Rubbermaid bin full of seasonal organic vegetables each week on Wednesdays until Oct. 12 (15 weeks). The price is $390 plus a $15 registration fee. There is a signup form on the Healthy Hugs website.

Pickup is at the Smithers Civic Centre parking lot between 4 and 6 p.m. on Wednesdays.

The farm also welcomes volunteers who get to take home fresh veggies as a token of appreciation.

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Joe Hug. (Thom Barker photo)

Joe Hug. (Thom Barker photo)