To say that Corney and Brenda Dyck of Cobren Farm are busy as bees at their harvest share garden and pumpkin patch near Roseau River is a bit of an understatement.
Operating two greenhouses, growing a weekly basket of herbs and vegetables for more than a dozen Winnipeg harvest share customers, and producing 20,000 pounds of ornamental pumpkins for a city garden centre help fill in the hours between Brenda’s busy schedule of volunteer work with the local 4-H club and Women’s Institute and Corney’s full-time job as assistant transportation supervisor and bus driver trainer with Borderland School Division.
But for both the Dycks, being able to do what they love to do, is a far greater reward than any financial consideration. In fact, Corney says, they feel guilty charging their harvest share customers more for their weekly allotment of vegetables than they would be willing to pay themselves.
"And we’re pretty cheap."
Cobren Farm is not something that sprang up overnight but rather started small and adjusted to changing times along the way, always focusing on what the couple most enjoyed doing.
In the early 1980s, Corney worked for Loeppky Brothers Farm as a herdsman for their beef operation and in 1988, the Dycks bought a house and five acres at Roseau River, one mile south of Brenda’s family’s homestead.
A year later Corney started his own small herd and later bought a little more land, increasing the Cobren Farm to 80 acres.
Brenda, who has a life-long love of plants, was working for Bill’s Greenhouse on St Mary’s Road. She grew up with plants, as her mom always had a garden. She had worked in the greenhouse for spring transplantings for five years.
When cattle prices had been decent for a few years, Corney agreed to build Brenda her own greenhouse at Roseau River. The first greenhouse was 20 feet by 48 feet and there was a 12 foot by 20 foot adjacent building for plants as well.
Two years later another 20 by 48 greenhouse was added. Cobren Farm first greenhouse plant sales were in 2000.
When BSE hit in 2003, Corney says they were happy to have the greenhouses to supplement the farm income. The beef herd couldn’t be increased, and though the greenhouse expanded, it never was more than a one-person operation.
The home economist for the area, who Brenda knew through her role as a 4-H leader, suggested the Dycks help start a farmer’s market in Vita.
Because people in the area grew stuff and had their own gardens, Brenda was apprehensive about the success of such a venture, but for the next seven years, every summer, she would participate for eight weeks.
Along the way, Corney heard about CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). The concept was alien to Corny, who couldn’t believe people would pay for vegetables that weren’t grown yet, not knowing what or how much they would be getting. Not only that, these potential customers would be willing to pay more for garden produce than the Dycks would spend at the store.
Nevertheless, with their adult children providing the necessary customer list to start, they launched on this branch of their enterprise at Cobren Farm in 2016.
Joey their oldest son, lives and works in Winnipeg and their daughter Catherine, who is a massage therapist in the city, met people looking for a healthy alternative to store-bought produce and before long more than a dozen were signed up for full and half shares. Half shares were included in the plan, because a full share, filling a two-foot by one-foot bin a foot deep, is too much of a good thing for just two people.
A number of garden plots were established to produce vegetables and herbs for the Cobren Farm Harvest Share. During the season, produce and herbs are picked at 8 a.m. on delivery day, divided and packed in bins, ready to go by 3:30.
Early in the season, the weekly bin would be filled with kale, lettuce, rhubarb, green onions, potatoes and herbs. Later in the season, the weekly supply of produce included cucumbers, herbs, potatoes, peppers, cherry tomatoes, pumpkins and squash.
It was in 2013, when one of life’s coincidences led to a major pumpkin patch being added to Brenda’s gardens at Cobren Farm.
Their son was participating in an "Ultimate Frisbee" event with one of the owners of Shelmerdine’s Garden Centre and the topic of the shared garden came up. Shelmerdine’s apparently had sources for a plentiful supply of regular pumpkins, but wondered if the Dycks would have room in their garden to grow a variety of ornamentals, which are much harder to come by.
Corney and Brenda have been doing that ever since, and the final load of the 2021 crop of ornamental pumpkins was delivered to their exclusive customer the second week in October.
The Dycks don’t use any herbicides to deal with weeds in the pumpkin patch, so they start the plants in the greenhouse, and when they are planted out they are big enough to compete with any weeds that have escaped spring tilling.
"When we first started, we couldn’t find any bees among the flowering pumpkins, so we became adept at the art of hand pollinating the plants."
This meant getting up early, even for a farmer, as the flowers only open early in the morning and only remain open for half a day.
The female flower is easily identified by the small pumpkin that grows behind the flower on the stem, Dyck explains. When hand pollinating, Dyck drops the male flower petals next to the pollinated plant and in that way knows the next day which plants he had pollinated.
Nowadays a neighbor always has a hive of bees and Dyck is content to leave the pollination to them.
But Corney still has to get up early most mornings. He still drives a school bus whenever there is a shortage of drivers, which is most of the time, and is also the driver trainer for Borderland School Division.
"This has been a really good job for me. One of the things I know how to do is drive, and I was never willing to drive long distance."
The school bus driving career, however, did get in the way of his beef operation and prompted him to add a beef-share plan to the garden produce harvest-share.
For quite a few years when he was working full-time for the school division, he only got to see his beef cows during daylight hours on the weekend.
Unwilling to sell off his herd entirely, he talked the neighbors into including his final seven cows with their herd.
"I didn’t know who I was, if I did not own cows."
Corney has changed his view over the years and is open to offers for the remainder of his shared beef herd. He looks forward to doing other things, he says.
Of course, that is if he and Brenda can fit "other things" into their already busy schedules.