If you are looking for Tender Living Farm’s Isis Velkova-Andrus you’ll quite often find her in the oldest building in Black Diamond, Alberta – Bertie’s General Store. Built in 1909, it was originally owned and operated by three generations (Jack, Bill and Brian) of the Blakeman family. Isis and her business partner named their store Bertie’s after Bill’s wife. The family ran the store from 1922 to 2010 with Bertie being a community stalwart for about 60 years. Bertie’s has been Isis’ second space since opening her business here in 2017.
The Bertie’s building has good bones and great history. Painted pale white with forest green trim, it has the classic vertical facade and false front of buildings of the Old West. The purpose of this architecture was to project an image of prosperity. It hid elements of the building that were not of the same quality as the facade. Once the general mercantile, post office and gas station, it was the buzzing hive of the town. And, the covered porch makes it look like anyone could still ride up and hitch a horse at any moment.
Today, Isis and another bright young woman entrepreneur share the space. Isis forages and grows flowers, herbs and botanicals. Jolene, her business partner, forages vintage items to resell. Entering the store feels a bit like going back in time.
The screen door creaks as you open it. A back counter and wood stove anchor the chocolate brown floors and high ceilings. Natural light falls on pale yellow and white display cupboards lining the sides. Jolene’s vintage finds adorn one side of the room and Isis’s clear glass jars of teas, sugars, salts, herbs, candles, salves, oils, balms, pottery, crafts, plants and textiles are neatly arranged on the other.
It was a sunny early spring morning when I drove down to meet Isis. Because our meeting was just a bit before foraging and gardening season began in full force we had a relaxed visit.
Life in the Sheep River Valley
A few weeks later and Isis would be spending as much time as possible in the truly great outdoors of the Sheep River Valley. This area in Southern Alberta is where she was born and raised. Her childhood was uncommon.
“My parents raised us off-grid. We had a big garden, lots of animals and we lived simply. There was no hustle or bustle. We were home-schooled and lived in nature on a small farm up the valley. The outdoors was a big part of my upbringing and it never really left me. I have a big connection to this land.”
This land, the Sheep River Valley, starts in the Rockies due west of town. It’s a protected area known as the Elbow-Sheep Wildlands. And wildlands they are. Part of the Bow River Watershed, the river’s fierceness has cut a gorge that’s a testimony to the strength of the spring run offs. Crystal clear water pummels its way over the Sheep River Falls and then winds its way to join the Highwood River near Okotoks. Wildlife abounds as do hiking trails.
Once on the trails, deep in the forests and meadows, nature reveals its bounty. Wildflowers flourish, mushrooms come with the rains and ponds and streams are filled with fish. At the top of peaks, the view is undisturbed verdant growth in all directions. Isis spent most of the year during her youth rambling here except for some very special time away each summer.
Travel and Work Influences
Childhood summers spent in the Czech Republic were another influence on this professional botanist and forager. This is where her mother emigrated from.
Family in Eastern Europe were small scale farmers. They did a lot of wild food gathering – mostly mushrooms and berries. And Isis’s mother brought that knowledge with her and instilled it in her children by living her life in a similar way. “I haven’t strayed far from my roots,” Isis says with a smile. And yet, she did for awhile.
“After high school I travelled a lot but I always came back here and I appreciated it more each time I did. Seven years ago, I committed to planting my own roots and found a small plot of land with my partner.”
Once she committed to making her own life here, Isis did farm internships in B.C., studied herbology at Wild Rose College and worked for several years in Black Diamond’s popular Blue Rock Gallery. “That experience gave me skills in business. It inspired me to explore what I am passionate about,” she says.
Do what you love
“I always knew the importance of doing what you love. I saw my parents do that. That’s why I stayed close to farming, gardening and foraging. I wasn’t willing to do something that I didn’t care about. So it seemed very natural to do this.”
Isis started her own business by selling her Tender Living Farm products at Farmers’ Markets. “People loved my products and then the store fell into place. I love making the products and sharing them. And, I just love this place, the Sheep river valley and the foothills, and I know my products represent that sacredness that I feel here. It’s exciting to show people the beauty through something like a bath soak. Or to just have conversations in the shop.”
Some of those conversations of late are about threats to the sanctity of life in the foothills and the watershed of the Eastern Slopes of the Rockies. “I’ve put a lot of effort into defending a lot of places at risk around here. Whether it be coal mining or delisting of parks, my business is a place where I can express my love of the land.”
Isis is maturing with her business. “In my early 20s it was just fun. Now, I understand the importance of growing your own food and of saving seeds. It feels more important than ever. Other people’s grandparents knew how to do this. It’s in all of us. It’s disappeared for a few generations but it’s still there. When I hear stories from others, I’m grateful I’ve never felt unconnected to this knowledge.”
Beyond awareness of threats to the land, Isis is also conscious that she practices her wild crafting on the traditional lands of the Treaty 7 First Nation. “I acknowledge that the craft I practice is on land where I am a settler. So, I donate money to Bearspaw First Nation and to Eden Valley. It’s tricky monetizing things that might not be meant to be sold for money. I strive to honour the sacredness of the land, and the people. We need to take care of it and each other. I try as a business and a human to contribute to the well-being of the whole.”
I left Bertie’s with a bag full of foraged goods. The names speak of this place – Coyo-tea, Wild Rose Sugar, Juniper Salt, Sheep River and Mountain Mineral Teas, and Bath Soaks like Achey Bones, Forest Bathing and Prairie Garden. Isis’s goal is to “stay aware.” Her products genuinely speak to her awareness and her deep bond to this land. Tender Living is a very good name for her farm.
Note: All photos supplied by Tender Living Farm’s Isis Velkova-Andrus. This is NOT a sponsored post. Full Disclosure: My company, Alberta Food Tours is partnering with Tender Living Farm to include the Wild Rose Sugar in our new Foraged Flavours Alberta Cares Package.