The Powerful Force Behind Forstbauer Farm
By Debbra Mikaelsen
If you tell me that Mary Forstbauer has ever sprawled on the sofa with a box of bonbons in one hand and a remote in the other, I will have to call you a liar. I don’t—and won’t—believe that she has idled away so much as one afternoon in a hammock with a well-thumbed paperback and a fruity cocktail. And even if Mary herself confessed to playing Tetris for hours on end, I would have to suspect her of misrepresenting the facts to make the rest of us feel better.
She simply can’t have had the time. It isn’t just that she farms 110 acres of biodynamic soil, producing potatoes, carrots, strawberries, blueberries, eggs and grass-fed beef the old-fashioned, labour-intensive way. It isn’t even that she’s the President of the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets, on the board of the Bio-Dynamic Agriculture Society of BC, and a founder of both the Certified Organic Association of BC and BC Regenerative Agriculture.
It’s all that and quite a lot more.
Mary and her husband Hans also have 12 children. Yes, twelve. Two more than ten, born between 1971 and 1992. Forgive me for belabouring the point, but that’s like having three kids, and then another three, plus another three, and finally three more for good measure. “One of my friends, another farmer, gave me this bumper sticker,” says Mary. “’Organic farmers are more fertile.’ I thought that was kind of cute.”
Now, I don’t have even one child myself, but I’ve met a few. To me, one child seems like quite a lot of work. For most mortals, raising two children appears be exhausting. Three kids can drive some people to distraction. And once you get up to more than three, we’re talking about superhuman efforts: the same stamina, leadership abilities and organizational skills required by the CEO of a multi-national corporation. But without the same support staff.
Of course there was a time—even post-Dickens—when children were viewed as small units of labour, and there’s no denying that when you’re running a farm it does help to have a few extra hands. And the Forstbauer kids do help out on the farm, but they haven’t been kept out of school to do agricultural work. They’ve played on sports teams, taken music lessons, and enrolled in French immersion, just like other kids of their generation.
“When I was expecting my twelfth child people warned me. With so many kids I should be prepared for one of them not to do well.” Mary lifts her chin and flashes her vivid blue eyes. “I said ‘I expect them to do well, and they will.’”
She expected them to do well, but she didn’t expect them to be A students. Yet every one of them—Natalie, Anthony, Annamarie, Rosanna, Amanda, Niklaus, Timothy, Denis, Travis, Katrina, Vanessa and Elyas—was an Honours student. Beyond academic smarts, many of them excel in sports and music. Mary shakes her head slowly, amazement evident in her expression. “Normally, you’d expect a bell curve. You know, ten percent would do very well, ten percent would fail, and the rest would be average. But 100% of my kids were A students.”
It might have something to do with healthy, organically grown food. Or it might have something to do with the demanding work of the farm. As children, everyone helped out with weeding or harvest or whatever needed to be done. Mary tells me about the time one of her neighbours phoned. “Come over right away. Hurry.”
Mildy alarmed, Mary grabbed the baby and knocked on her neighbour’s door. “Come in. Don’t take your shoes off. Just come quickly.”
With growing apprehension, Mary followed her to a window that looked onto one of her own fields, where her children were weeding and picking beans. “Listen to them,” said the neighbour, incredulous and pointing. “They’re singing.” As Mary listened, she heard her kids singing “I’m So Happy”, a song she’d taught them when they were little.
In an era of adolescent ennui, internet addiction, and mall culture, it was understandably perplexing to witness a field of children labouring and singing like Snow White’s happy little dwarves. It was a strong clue that there was something remarkable about this family.
As teenagers and young adults now, several of the Forstbauer kids still work the farm together. They share the chores through some mysterious and diplomatic job allocation, rarely arguing about whose turn it is to wash potatoes or weed the Swiss chard. It seems that they have a genuine love of the land and of farming. Regular customers who visit the Forstbauers at the farmers’ markets say that they can feel the love of the farm as soon as they walk into the stall. It’s a powerful thing, that love. I think I’ve tasted it in their sweet, fat carrots, their enormous beets and their Northland blueberries.
Mary looks serious as she recalls a few years back when she was presenting at an organic growers’ conference. She happened to mention having twelve children, and someone in the audience took exception. “How can you call yourself a sustainable farmer when you have twelve children?”
Mary began to defend herself. She grew all their food. They wore hand-me-downs. But another voice from the crowd immediately jumped in. “I haven’t had any kids. She can have my share.” And then another defender piped up. “I’ve only had one. Mary can have one for me.” Others joined in, and the offers continued until the group had given Mary permission to have an additional four kids.
Now, I know only a little about biodynamic farming, but most of what I’ve heard makes sense. I understand that this type of organic farm is a sustainable ecosystem in its own right. Crops are rotated, the cow and chicken manure becomes compost, and homeopathic preparations are used to maximize the soil’s health. In a closed loop system, what’s created on the farm is used to nourish the land.
The practice of paying attention to planetary movements when planting and harvesting seems a little more esoteric, and I ask Mary about that. She nods thoughtfully, understanding my reason for asking. “I don’t know why it works,” she says, “but I can tell you that it does. If I plant lettuce on a leaf-planting day, and beets on a root-planting day, those crops just do better.”
As I listen to her, I’m watching two of her daughters in the fields, and I can’t help thinking about the superstar calibre of those kids. All twelve. Suddenly I realize that they must have been conceived on great kid-planting days.
There is definitely something to this biodynamic method.
Forstbauer Family Natural Food Farm: forstbauer.com
Debbra Mikaelsen is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and editor who tries to put Edible Vancouver & Wine Country to bed on good magazine-planting days.