Covert Farms is where four generations bring all the Valley's bounty together.
Gene Covert—tanned, relaxed and with his ever-present smile—leans against a bright-red 1952 Mercury pickup. Guests are trickling in, past the alpacas and Highland cattle paddock. He’s ferrying them up a long tree-lined driveway in the back of the classic truck that he uses for farm tours. The custom bench seating holds eight at a time.
They’ve come from Vancouver, Kelowna and Penticton for Covert Farms’ Harvest Dinner, a field-to-table and vineyard-to-glass feast to celebrate what is grown, made and fermented right on this historic 650-acre farm in Oliver, B.C. Run by Gene and his wife, Shelly, this property has been in the family for three generations—and Gene and Shelly’s three teens, who all have jobs here in the summer, will be the fourth.
A farm is always many things, but Covert is truly an ecosystem. More than 40 different varieties of certified organic fruits and vegetables are grown here. It has its own certified organic vineyards, winery, tasting shop and wine lounge. Grapes are also grown on contract for a large winery neighbour. There’s a small herd of Highland cattle, some Barbados Blackbelly sheep, chickens and even alpacas. There’s a produce store and several farm buildings, not to mention the various homes of the Covert family members and those who work here. Walk the U-pick fields and you might even see Mark James Lucas with his paints, canvas and easel—the property’s own plein air artist-in-residence.
Tours, public and private events, school programs and dinners are now an important part of the mix. Covert’s Freak’n Farmer competition, now in its sixth year, attracts 800 extreme obstacle course racers to hoist tractor tires and shimmy through mud under logs. More than 500 guests attend the annual family-friendly Pig Out vineyard pig roast, and then there is the 1½-hour culinary tour, led by either Gene or by the farm’s chef-in-residence, Campbell Kearns.
On the day I arrive, there’s not just one, but two events. A 160-person wedding is happening in the vines and will soon shift to a large tent near the wine shop and lounge. This means that Gene and Shelly have moved tonight’s Harvest Dinner—the reason I’m here—to the porch at Diana Covert’s home. Diana, Gene’s mother, though now retired from farm duties, is the farm’s mater familias. And, as such, her otherwise modest rancher with weathered blue shiplap siding has a sweet promontory view of what seems like the entire region.
Gene brings up another round of guests and Shelly—possibly the bubbliest person on earth—greets them with a glass in hand of Covert Farms’ pale-pink sparkling zinfandel méthode ancestrale. As they stare slack-jawed out from the lawn, someone whispers, “This is what you get when you’ve been on the farm the longest—the best spot with the best view.”
From here, it’s easy to see why George Covert, Gene’s grandfather, bought this land in November 1959, the very moment he set foot on it. George and his wife, Winifred, co-owned a busy tomato-packing house in California, and they decided it was time to slow the pace somewhat. George drove to the Okanagan on rumours of good farmland for fruit and field crops and he immediately fell in love with the region. He bought both the 600 acres (another 50 were added later) that would become Covert Farms, plus a cattle ranch near Osoyoos. He then had to return home to inform Winifred that they were moving to Canada.
That first year, they planted 100 acres of tomatoes and 100 acres of onions. Winifred sold produce on-site at the farm, out of the window of the office where she also kept the books. Their kids, Calvin and Michael, took on farm chores.
Perseverance and hard work were paying off. But farming is about adapting and even trying to be ahead of the curve whenever possible. George was interested in wine grapes in the 1960s, and by the ’70s Covert had had up to 180 acres of hardy but funky hybrids, like Maréchal Foch, and labrusca varieties with names like White Diamond. Sadly, they were grapes of the time, destined for the novice tastes of the Canadian market. “Most of it went into jugs,” Gene recalls.
George and his son Michael then shifted the farm toward the high-density apple plantings of the mid-1980s into the 2000s. (Calvin took care of the cattle ranch.) Covert Farms became a leader in Gala and Ambrosia apple production.
After Gene’s father, Michael, died in 2004, the family felt it was time again for another major shift. “We had a long family meeting and decided to downsize our operations. The apples were out and grapes were in,” says Gene. They planted pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc, viognier and other vinifera grapes, notably a two-acre block of zinfandel, which is still a rarity in Canada. And they would farm organically.
Both Gene and Shelly are ardent believers in good land stewardship and making healthy products available to their community. “When I was a teenager, I got sick spraying, and I studied chemistry in university,” Gene explains. “I didn’t want to spray, and I didn’t want other people to spray.”
They also drilled water wells on the property, changing the farm’s irrigation system so that it no longer drew from the Okanagan river channel. “Our property goes right down to the valley bottom where the river flows. Just by happenstance, we’re right on the last six kilometres of wild, natural Okanagan River. It’s a major spawning ground that supports over 65,000 fish,” says Gene. Now Covert Farms is certified Salmon-Safe, as the sockeye run continues to rebound after decades of worrisome absence.
Back in the kitchen, chef Kearns glides around the space. He’s one of the newest members of the Covert team and is still giddy over the selection of perfect produce he has to work with. “I’m just so in love with this region,” he smiles.
Kearns grew up in Calgary and did his chef training at North Island College on Vancouver Island. He had been working on Haida Gwaii when the job for farm chef and culinary tour guide came up. He jumped at the chance “to be involved with food at the exact moment when that food should be eaten.” He’s getting his sommelier training in and even “sneaks into” the winery to learn more about the process.
Finally, the heat of the day relents and people rip themselves away from the view at the prospect of great food and more wine. They find their places at the tables, and the first course arrives. Gene slides into his role of farm owner, host, winemaker and storyteller.
“All this goes back to 1959, and I’ve been on this farm since I was three,” he begins. And with that, we eat.