Welcome to one of the best little spots that no one wants you to know about – The Cob House in Cawston, BC. Surrounded by ancient apple trees on one of the first Certified Organic orchards in Canada, Vialo Orchard, this BC Farm Stay offers you a unique and moving experience you will not find anywhere else.
Hidden in the heart of wine country, The Cob House has just appeared on the Airbnb scene giving others the opportunity to enjoy a new unique, and natural experience that feels like the familiar hug you didn’t know you were missing.
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We couldn’t help but cover this experience in all of its rich complexity. There are so many threads that could have easily woven their way into their own book. Although it is the longest story we have written so far, we feel it doesn’t even come close to scratching the surface of what’s available here.
Feel free to wander around amongst the chapters and get lost in the same way we did while we were there.
Welcome to The Cob House at Vialo Orchard in Cawston, BC
Original Cawston BC Certified Organic Heritage Farm
This farm was born out of the Veterans Land Act in 1946. “With only a small down payment, ex-servicemen could purchase land with the help of a government loan; additional funds were available for livestock and equipment. Repayment terms allowed settlers time to re-establish themselves without incurring heavy financial obligations.”
These heritage trees were planted in a 20 x 20 grid (classic style) on a 5-acre plot of land that was connected to neighbouring farms.
In the fall of 1976, this young (self-proclaimed) hippie named Wayne Still was hitchhiking down the road in Cawston BC when a local farmer named Brian Mennel pulled over to ask him if he wanted to learn how to prune trees.
In the fall of 1978, Wayne bought a neighbouring 5-acre piece of land now called Vialo Orchard.
But let’s dig into the details a little bit here. Because not only was Wayne one of the folks who spearheaded Organic Farming in BC, but what he did with the farm when he left, was nothing short of spectacular.
Wayne, together with about 10 other farmers in the area started to notice a difference begin to emerge in farming practices in the early 80’s. They thought there might be a more natural and sustainable way to farm. They were watching Organic Farming start to take a foothold in California and were curious about implementing similar practices in Canada.
Wayne was quite interested in a Summerland Research Station project that was trying to determine how to implement a non-chemical way of controlling the coddling moth (the worm in the apple). “If you can irradicate an insect over a period of time, it will be less expensive to control them.”
Initially, the findings from this study were not incorporated for commercial farms. Wayne tells us that after doing a couple of sprays on his trees, he felt “sick and stupid”.
“In nature, there is a balance between beneficial and harmful insects. The benefits far outweigh the harm. This spray was killing off everything.”
After lobbying for the integration of findings from the study and working with his neighbours on further developing the first Canadian organic standards, Wayne became the president of the Similkameen Okanagan Organic Producers Association.
"We were all hippies." - Wayne Still
While many farms in the area were converting to high-density farming, Wayne maintained that these “big old trees were a tremendous resource”.
When we postured that high-density farms must produce a far bigger yield, Wayne surprised us with the fact that the yield is actually quite similar.
Why, then would anyone start a high-density farm, we wondered?
Time is money.
These types of trees can take 10 years to get to the stage of bearing fruit, and 20 years until they are in their full vibrancy. While high-density trees take 3 years to enter their prime. On the flip side, the bigger trees produce fruit for over 100 years, while high-density trees have about a 30-year lifespan.
While this whole concept would require a far deeper exploration to fully understand, what we took away from this brief conversation is that traditional farms like this? Well, they need someone with a unique vision to maintain and protect this type of tremendous resource.
So, that’s just what Wayne did. He created a way to make it feasible for future generations to continue this sustainable practice of farming.
The Farm is in Flow
Enter Melissa. Arriving on the farm in 2006 with her 4-month-old baby girl and husband at the time, she began to realize her lifelong “Little House on the Praire” dream by working the land in a wild way.
Living in her van with her little family, Melissa’s first working summer on the farm ended up becoming the opportunity of a lifetime.
Wayne was a visionary. He felt that ancient farmlands were not to be bought or sold but something that flowed through you for the next generation of farmers to continue sustainable farming practices.
As Melissa (and her then-husband) were aligned with this unique vision, Wayne crafted a plan that will essentially pass the land stewardship through to them to manage under the following conditions: Preserve the organic standards, continue the 20×20 grid pattern with new growth and follow the same succession plan for the next generation to protect this extraordinary legacy.
Amazing. What inspiring stewardship.
"Be the change you want to see in the world." - Gandhi
In January 2007, Melissa and her little family moved into The Cob house and the succession officially began starting with posting a downpayment on the business side of the orchard.
“Wayne lived on the farm and worked with us for 1 year before moving to Penticton to follow his passion for Structural Integration. He taught me everything he could at that time. I had no idea what I was doing and wrote down everything that he taught me because I was worried after he left I wouldn’t know what to do anymore!”, said Melissa.
Although Melissa’s marriage came to completion quite some time ago, Melissa has been tending this farm like the wildly independent and strong maven she is. She and Wayne continue to carry out their land succession plan for future generations.
Tending an Organic Heritage Farm in Cawston BC
We could spend all day listening to Melissa share her passion for the orchard. Learning about the complexity of the trees, their soil, and the maintenance of everything that encompasses the farm was nothing short of fascinating.
Melissa likes to keep things as simple and natural as possible. From irrigation to bird mitigation, you won’t find anything fancy, here. Nothing but real and raw farming.
Twice a day, every day, Melissa performs what she calls, “The Dance of the Pipes”. No drip lines are found on this farm. You’ll find her hauling pipe around to irrigate this 5-acre farm. It takes her about 2 weeks to have the whole orchard watered, at which point she starts again.
"I often joke that I farm grass. And it's violent."
It takes Melissa 14 hours to mow all the grass in the orchard. She spreads that out over 2-3 days, waits a few weeks, and does it all over again.
I have never heard someone describe cutting grass as violent, so I got a little chuckle about that. But on the farm, that’s exactly what it is. Oftentimes, stuff gets left behind in the grass and it gets absolutely destroyed by the heavy equipment.
All About Apples
We learned so much listening to Melissa tell us all about Apples. We had no idea that if you planted a seed from one type of variety, you had a 1/12,000 chance of getting that variety of apple. 🤯
So to keep the farm viable, rather than rip the trees and plant new full-size rootstocks, current trees are grafted with the variety that is most marketable. A Red Delicious Tree can produce Ambrosia apples, for example.
Birth of Ambrosia Apples
A cool little side story… the Ambrosia apple was discovered on a neighbour’s farm by accident! Nature just decides to make new varieties on her own by dropping new seeds, called chance seedlings in the soil. Wilfred and Sally Mennel’s farm happened to have one of these random trees growing. You can read the full story here, but you can find some of the oldest Amborisa trees in this orchard thanks to a chance seedling found on a neighbouring farm.
When I asked Melissa what her advice would be for the new people who might want to get into farming, she says…
"Farming is a dwindling art. Don't be afraid, I f!@# things up on a daily basis. Lower your expectations, in the best possible way because the default? Plants want to grow. Life wants to live."
I was marveled by Melissa’s work ethic and attitude during our whole tour, but when we sat with her and her farm worker team for coffee, I really understood just how tightly woven this team is.
The Freedom of Fruit Picking
By this point, we’re all blown away by Melissa and Wayne, right? Me too.
But let me introduce you to some real characters who, if you sit with them for even mere moments, will blow you away.
Our introduction to this fascinating crew was through morning coffee time. We were surprised how sheepish Melissa was when she said she delivers coffee “only” about 75% of the time the workers are on site.
How many jobs have you had where your boss brings you coffee every morning? (Or 75% of the time?)
It’s no surprise she attracts a reliable crew that has come back year after year. And when you listen to their stories, you can see why she treats them like gold. They are to be cherished.
We sat with these incredible men for over three hours and each of them shared their stories with such eloquence that I could only wish to bring to my storytelling. In fact, it was J who came up with the opening line to this story. They know just how special this place is that they don’t want anyone else to know about it.
This conversation happened with Melissa’s invitation:
"After thinking about it for a few minutes, if you had some time to talk to the farm workers and hear some of their story, you might find it really interesting. They make up such a huge part of this community and industry, but rarely get to have a voice."
This conversation lasted over 3 hours, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to learn more about this community of “travelers” and how they meet life.
*I have only used the first initial of names here in the interest of privacy*.
Some of these men have been traveling for 15 years finding short-term piece work jobs like picking, tree planting, festivals, movies, and more. They typically will live out of their vehicles, tents, or short-term rentals.
15 years packs a whole lot of experience. These fabulous folks are masters of their craft. They love the freedom that comes with being a traveler. They are working to live the adventure and creativity they crave. They thrive on short-term projects and places.
This is a lifestyle for them that, from what G says – for better or for worse, is what works best for them. Sure, they have tried other options, like G says – property management, but this? This is what works.
Until, sometimes, it doesn’t. And why not? When does it become unstainable?
Piece work can come with lower wages without benefits or sometimes even standardized labour guidelines.
Farm workers love the freedom of camping, that’s not the issue. It can become a challenge when some farms or communities don’t have proper amenities like clean showers, toilets, or cooking facilities for the team to easily access.
Thankfully, new initiatives like Secrest Hill Agriculture Worker’s Campsite are in play to find solutions to this challenge. The province is recognizing the need for safe and secure accommodations for seasonal workers where basic necessities like showers and toilets are essential. However, these spots are not yet a staple for Canadian workers in all farming communities. Workers are staying on-site which may or may not have basic amenities included.
Melissa’s farm is smaller so doesn’t utilize the Temporary Foreign Worker Program for large staffing requirements and therefore does not receive funding for accommodations. Her team camps in the orchard and has access to all basic necessities, including laundry, which according to this team of travelers, is very difficult to access in Cawston.
Introducing The Cob House in Cawston, BC.
Cob Houses are one of the most popular unique stays on Airbnb. In fact, a beautiful cob house on Maine Island is Canada’s most “wish-listed” unique stays.
I have been pinning cob houses to my Pinterest board for well over 10 years. I’ve always loved these natural buildings with their curved walls. I sensed they would bring a greater feeling of groundedness and overall peace and calm.
I was exactly right, the simplicity and natural materials of this house feel like a hug from the earth.
This Cob House was originally built in early 2000 as part of cob building workshops with Cindy Walker. Cob is a mixture of clay, sand, straw, and water. Wayne’s contribution to the home was the timber framing. They later added the second story combining cob with straw bale construction.
The Cob House is smack dab in the middle of these ancient apple trees with a lovely little garden off to the side. “A veggie garden beside the cob house can be your inspiration for dinner, full of fresh herbs and whatever else is seasonally ready. Fresh organic fruit and veggies are always available and every booking will receive a farm treat as a courtesy.”
Mornings Are Better On The Farm.
We loved morning coffee at The Cob House. The fresh outdoor smells of the orchard on the simple porch was so relaxing. We just hung out with our dog Brandy while we decided what we were going to do that day. Although Cawston BC is super small, it’s gorgeous. We went up into the hills to explore the area and discovered Madden Lake. Although you need an offroad vehicle to get you there, the views are stunning coming back down of the Similkameen Valley. You can check out a few other things to do in Cawston, but the most popular would be to visit the Cawston wineries.
Cawston, BC Wineries
Cawston Wineries are super close to The Cob House. Some popular choices are Orofino Vineyards, Vanessa Vineyard, Clos du Solei, Corcolettes, Hugging Tree Winery, Seven Stones Winery, and more. You can see we didn’t open our beautiful bottle from Vanessa, we decided to save it for our upcoming 1st anniversary! We ended up enjoying a lovely bottle from Orofino (as seen below) with our dinner.
We especially loved the history of Rustic Roots Winery & Cider. This is their SIXTH generation farming in the valley! It’s also where Melissa sends her fruit off for packing.
We really wanted to stop in at The Farm Store, but unfortunately, they were closed while we were in town. Next time!
Bathroom Business at The Cob Home in Cawston BC
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with the Outhouse. But it was actually super cool, clean, and had zero smells. Melissa even opted for an outhouse in her other home once she moved from the Cob House. As she often works with a team of farm workers, she says that’s 11 people not flushing and loves how many gallons of water are being saved.
When I asked her about winter in the outhouse, she shrugged it off and said, “it sure wakes you up in the morning”, and continued with:
"I really like being uncomfortable sometimes. I don't feel like everyone should be comfortable all the time."
I can actually get behind the joys of an outhouse. Talk about reframing what “Best Ever” means to everyone!
Cooking in a Cob House
The kitchen at The Cob House comes fully stocked with everything you need to prepare your meals. At the time of writing, this beautiful escape was brand new to Airbnb. We might have been the 4th group through so everything looked like it had barely been used.
A lovely bottle of Rustic Roots Apple & Pear wine with a bowl of fresh strawberries from her garden was waiting for us when we first arrived. The antique stove stood out as a beautiful centrepiece to the kitchen with the cast iron pan hanging above.
Steve is the Red Seal Chef in our family, so he planned our lovely seafood linguine meal but I loved helping him prep in the kitchen. There’s nothing like cooking in a natural earth home, everything just feels more real and grounded. We paired our meal with a delicious bottle of wine from the nearby Orofino Vineyards.
Getting Grounded in the Cob Home
If you were to look at that charming curved bench and wondered how it could possibly be comfortable? You are right, it’s not. The Cob House is not somewhere you want to go if you are looking to lounge in front of a TV all day.
It spurs connection, creativity, and oneness. I was able to relax into the chair or hammock with my book and be at complete peace. It’s a hard feeling to describe, as though you are in a whimsical fairytale without a care in the world.
Cob House Building & Decor
I love all the little touches Melissa added to The Cob House to make it hers. I believe her kids helped her with the art on the floor when they renovated the house for Airbnb. So cute!
Many little trinkets were gifted to her by her friends or collected over the years.
Melissa did quite a lot of work from when she lived here with her little babies. For instance, the stove used to be smack dab in the middle of the living area. She replaced it and moved it over to the outside wall.
Sleeping in a Cob House BC
Waking up in a Cob House in the middle of a heritage orchard? #BestEver. Seriously, look at that beautiful view out of your fairytale window?
Getting our dog and her kennel up and down that ladder was a sight to be seen. She’s such a big baby and was not having us leave her downstairs.
Goodnight, Sweet Cob House in Cawston, BC!
But that sunset, though! Wow. Similkameen sunsets are something else. You feel like you are in another country while staying at The Cob House in Cawston, BC.
We hope that wherever your travels take you, you fully immerse yourself into the deeper story of a place once in a while as we were able to do here. Our experience with Melissa and her team on the farm and our stay in the house was something we will cherish forever.