A Spirited Adventure

New to farming, this couple work the land with a sense of pride and a sense of humor, and, in the process, make a new life for their young family.

By Jodi Helmer | Photos By David McIlvride

James Caldwell loves telling the story of the time he tipped his 1962 Massey Ferguson® 300 combine. The novice farmer was running the machine in a field of heritage red fife wheat with worn-out brakes and the table too high when it happened. No one was hurt—although James did bruise his pride—and the incident turned out to be an apt metaphor for life on the farm.

“Farming is a learning experience,” he says. “It’s not a learning curve, really, more a steep trajectory,” similar, he says, to a rocket launch.

James and Kristi Caldwell started Caldwell Heritage Farm in 2014. Kristi’s parents, Jake and Julie Warkentin, created the 6-acre retreat in Kelowna, British Columbia, and ran a few head of cattle in the pasture as a hobby. It was, however, never meant to be a working farm. “It was their dream to retire to a secluded little farm in the middle of the forest,” Kristi recalls. 

Although the couple spent countless summer vacations on the farm and hoped to retire there, too, the move came far sooner than they expected. Kristi lost her mom in 2010, and her dad died a mere four years later, leaving the young couple the farm. The property was too special to sell, and, as a four-hour drive from their home in Vancouver, it was too far to be used as a weekend getaway, so James and Kristi decided to make it their forever home. 

The Right Choice 

The couple believes moving to Kelowna and raising their daughters, Olive, age 5, and Charlotte, 3, on a farm was the right choice. They are, however, quick to admit they had no clue how to turn a few acres of land with a few head of cattle into a working—and income-producing—farm. 

Their plan: Leave their stable 9-to-5 careers in Vancouver behind, move their young family to Kelowna and build a farm distillery. Yet, starting a distillery from the ground up takes time. And, while James and Kristi are growing acres of heritage red fife and soft white wheat with plans to launch Wiseacre Farm Distillery, they needed faster options to establish agricultural status, benefit from tax breaks and put food on the table for their family.

Generating Revenue

When asked about raising chickens, a neighbor said that a flock required minimal care. James then suggested starting with just a dozen birds. Kristi ordered 55. 

Compared to their previous harvesting setup, the Caldwell’s Massey Ferguson 300 combine increased the amount of grain captured during harvest many times over.

While the flock does produce enough eggs to generate immediate income for Caldwell Heritage Farm, it’s hardly enough to cover expenses, especially with the distillery still under construction. The couple’s original plan to raise beef cattle also fell short of expectations, at least in terms of revenue generation. 

Having raised two head of beef cattle their first year on the farm, the Caldwells now take a “farm-to-never-table” approach to raising animals. This means the original hens—and all of the heritage breeds added to the flock since—will live out their retirement on the farm, requiring food and housing long after the eggs stop coming. Their Red Angus heifer, Valentine, and a pair of miniature Mediterranean donkeys, Peppa and Patsy, also are permanent members of the farm family.

“We’re not very good farmers, as our traditional neighboring farmers like to tell us,” James jokes. Yet, the Caldwells are good businesspeople. 

The farm hosted a total of 21 weddings and culinary events during their first two years of operation, which helped generate the funds required for the distillery’s construction. Partnerships with local florists, photographers and farm-to-table caterers—including some who featured vegetables and herbs grown on Caldwell Heritage Farm in their event menus—allowed Kristi and James to fund their farming dream while supporting other local businesses. 

Using the farm as an events venue did not require additional infrastructure. Events are hosted on an existing expanse of lawn set among the gardens (and rented tents can be set up on-site), allowing Kristi and James to direct revenue toward their true passion—building Wiseacre Farm Distillery. 

In Good Spirits

The Caldwells devote most of their time to growing grains, building the distillery, navigating the local legal requirements and preparing to make their first distilled spirits. Wiseacre—a more decorous version of James’ childhood nickname and a nod to their commitment to using their minimal acres wisely—plans to release its first gin and vodka later this year. The couple will also open up the farm distillery to tours and tastings, while their first whiskey is planned to follow in 2021.

The couple is committed to creating true field-to-bottle spirits. In addition to growing several varieties of wheat on 1 acre of their 6-acre property, the Caldwells lease an additional 14 acres from neighbors, where they also plan to grow and harvest grains for distillation. Until James and Kristi can scale up production to provide all of the grains for Wiseacre Farm Distillery, they plan to source grain from other British Columbia farms, but Kristi promises, “We’ll be pouring from a full-fledged farm-to-bottle distillery in no time.”

When the distillery opens its doors, James and Kristi will raise their glasses to achieving their dreams. In the meantime, they are (mostly) enjoying the process—while enduring some good-natured ribbing from the neighbors. “The skill sets required for farming and farm distilling are both tremendous and very different, and we’re the definition of ‘learn as you go,’” Kristi says.

“To say this is not what Mom and Dad would have done is the understatement of the century, but we’re taking the legacy they’ve left us and creating a new dream.”