by Jo Barnes –
Many years ago living on the Saanich Peninsula required people to draw their sustenance directly from the land upon which they lived. While most of us today rely on grocery markets and at best tend to backyard gardens, there are still those in our community for whom living off the land is a way of life.
This is the sixth in a Seaside series featuring local community members who all share the same passion for the land and love of what they do.
He engineered systems to preserve food – now he spends his time engineering ways to grow food and does so in harmony with the environment. Dennis O’Brien, co-owner of Sun Trio Farm in Central Saanich, used to apply his engineering background to designing refrigeration controls, but now uses his skills to operate energy-efficient greenhouses and a thriving organic farm.
“When we started and saw what was happening at the conventional greenhouse with the use of chemicals, we decided to start an organic greenhouse. There wasn’t much like this around here, and we wanted to extend the growing season,” says Dennis.
Along with his brothers, Frank and Mike, Dennis purchased the four-acre property off East Saanich Road in 2008. The name Sun Trio was chosen, “trio” referring to the farm’s ownership by the three siblings Dennis, Mike, and Mary, and “sun” echoing the vital source of our life and energy.
“Without the sun, we’re not growing!” shares Dennis. “If we grow the little seedlings in their grow rooms, under the light they’ll kind of stretch out and get long and gangly. But when you put them in the sun, they just power out! It’s amazing when you see the growth of things!”
The farm boasts a 20,000-square-foot main greenhouse and another 12,000 square feet of greenhouse space as well as acreage for field produce. There is also another five acres off Halden Road where Sun Trio grows additional vegetables. The energy and drive behind this highly productive farm is underpinned by a singular vision to farm organically.
“I like the growing of vegetables and knowing that they’re healthy vegetables. When you’re doing it the organic way, you’re supporting the earth, the plants that grow in the earth and the people that eat the plants,” says Dennis.
Sun Trio’s story began in 2008 when Dennis visited his brother Frank in Australia who was doing landscaping and finding success in growing greens and sprouts. The experience of seeing conventional greenhouse operations and the use of chemicals on plants sowed the seeds of an idea.
“We saw the chemical feed going into the plants, the sprays that went on them and the problems,” shares Dennis.
Charting a course towards organic farming, the property was purchased and work began on transforming the land and greenhouses into a productive operation. It took creativity, hard work and persistence.
“When we first came here there were four derelict greenhouses. Two of them we rebuilt and the others restructured. We went through a lot of hoops and lost a lot of crops because we were experimenting,” says Dennis. “Using the skills we all had, we put it all together.”
Solar heat was installed and the boiler in the main greenhouse updated to a much more energy-efficient version. Initially sea soil was utilized and then aqua mulch, an effective mixture of forest finds and composted fish, was introduced. Both put nitrogen and nutrients into the soil.
Dennis and his staff grow food in a way that nourishes and sustains the earth. Conventional farming uses herbicides and pesticides to deal quickly with issues like weeds or pests and chemicals such as liquid nitrogen to promote larger growth in plants. These methods, however, have consequences too.
“The use of pesticides and herbicides is killing the natural organisms in the soil. We’ve got to build the soil up to get a stronger plant. We use fertilizers which cost more like feathermeal or bloodmeal. They break down, feed the microbes in the soil, and the plants uptake the nitrogen from the soil,” says Dennis.
And, the farm is thriving. On any given day there’s a superb selection of salad greens, sprouts, herbs, field vegetables and berries. In August strawberries, blueberries, herbs, green beans, sprouts and garlic will be highlights. As well as local walk-in traffic, Sun Trio markets their produce to a variety of retailers including Thrifty Foods, The Local General Store, Mother Nature Market, Market on Yates, Saanich Peninsula Market, Moss Street Market, and Lifestyle Market, and their reach is growing.
Like a seed that sprouts and grows to maturity, the passion for organic farming is truly blooming at this farm. It’s a love of plants and soil that goes way back. Regardless of where Dennis has lived, worked or spent his leisure time, gardens have always been an integral part.
“I come from a family of 10 children. We lived in Ontario. Basically we had three acres, and we had a lot of vegetable gardens. So we all had our hand in the dirt pretty early on,” says Dennis.
A love of the land and producing fresh locally grown food starts with just that: hands in the dirt. And in this case, the hands belong to a dedicated team at Sun Trio.