Now Hear This Podcast – Northern BC: Are We Food Secure?

Food Secure
Pamela Haasen - CICK - SmithersBC | 22-12-2020
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Now Hear This will take an in-depth look at some of Northwest BC’s most pressing issues, the challenges they present and possible solutions developed right here at home.

By: Dan Mesec, CICK NEWS

Northwest BC is a one road kind of place. We are at the end of the line, so to speak, everything we need gets trucked in. Food deliveries especially arrive on a constant bases and are beholden to Highway 16 being open and safe. A strange realization in the Bulkley Valley, given the deep rooted history with agriculture here.

Over the past few years a movement has been growing, pardon the pun, to stabilize our food systems in Northwest BC and become less dependant on imported food.

Especially since the Pandemic compounded the situation in many respects, the conversation is front of mind for many northerners. Today we dive into one of the key elements to our survival and self-sufficiently here in the north: Food.

Jacob Beaton owns and operates Tea Creek Farms with his wife Jessica and their two teenaged sons, Noah and Ezra. The farm is located just north of Kitwanga on Highway 37 north, the sprawling acreage is well treed on all sides and straddles the highway. With old barns and garden beds spread out on the property this is where the Beaton’s decided to set up shop and grow fresh leafy greens, cabbage, carrots, and potatoes for their community and local grocery store. As they were preparing for their second growing season on the farm the COVID-19 Pandemic hit, reinforcing the need to grow local and not just wait for the next shipment of food to roll into town, which was becoming a bit of an issue back in the early days of the Pandemic.

For the Beatons and Tea Creek Farms recalibrating their approach to this unusual season ensured that they were able to produce enough food to keep lettuce on the shelves at the local grocery store and sell a variety of items at the farmer’s market in Hazelton. It also allowed them to develop a structure to teach other people HOW to farm with the hope of sharing their knowledge about growing and encourage others in the community to start their own farms.

But as Beaton mentioned the pandemic only blew the vail off an already difficult situation in northern communities.

Mark Fisher, a farmer and the elected representative for the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako has been saying for years that the solution to securing our food systems in the northwest is just to grow more food. It sounds simple but with the average age of farmers these days hovering around 65, it’s proving difficult to entice a new generation of farmers to get down in the dirt to grow a tonne of veggies. I asked Fisher that very question: What is it going to take to make our communities food secure?

There are no less than 8 professional egg producers in the Bulkley Valley alone, not to mention the dozens of folks within the town of Smithers that keep Hens to harvest their own eggs after Smithers council amended bylaw 1780 and 1403 and made it legal in 2015, before that it was illegal to keep hens, but a lot of people were doing it anyway, probably because they wanted more access to better eggs, food security at its finest. This past year Smithers Council also signaled the intention to create more community gardens as part of the Official Community Plan.

2020 also marked a major increase in backyard gardening, not only in Northwest BC, but right across Canada. A recently survey conducted by the Agri-food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University found that 51 per cent of Canadians grow at least one variety of fruit or vegetables. And that 17 per cent of gardeners in 2020 started growing food at home as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic. All this at the same time Vesey’s Seeds, one of the largest Canadian producers of seeds out of P.E.I. reported a 457 per cent spike in seed sales this past spring. Clearly local food is on the minds of many.

For Joe Hug of Healthy Hugs Organic Vegetables, just outside of Smithers, on the banks of the Bulkley River, growing vegetables are always on his mind. He’s been farming high quality organic vegetables for over 12 years. Potatoes is one of their specialties, planted and harvested with 100-hundred-year old equipment, that works just as well today than in the 1920s.

Despite being able to provide healthy veggies to hundreds of households in the Valley, Joe has a dismal outlook on our food systems here in the region and across the country. I caught up with him this past fall as he was already preparing greenhouses for next season.

Healthy Hugs Organics is just one of at least 18 vegetable producers in the Bulkley Valley alone, according to the RDBN’s Connecting consumers and producers’ registry. There are at least a dozen more between Kitwanga and Terrace, with a few community gardens popping up in Prince Rupert over the last few years.

Although our collective vegetable growing capacity in Northwest BC, as Mark Fisher, Jacob Beaton and Joe Hug pointed out, is not nearly sufficient enough to sustain all our communities, meat on the other hand is very plentiful.

One of the, shall I say experts, on the situation regarding meat production in the Northwest is Manfred Wittwer of W. Diamond Ranch. He and his family have been ranching and processing meat for more than 25 years just outside Telkwa and is a staple in the community. If you want to know where to get delicious grass-fed beef, pork, lamb or goat, you have to talk to Manfred.

A number of years back Manfred was part of an organization called the Northwest Premium Meat Coop. The coop started out with two facilities in mind, a government inspected abattoir between Telkwa and Smithers, and a cut and wrap operation in Telkwa, all in an effort to encourage local meat processing and help grow the market for meat in Northwest BC. Although the coop lasted for a few years, it ultimately had to close up and sell off assists. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Council chambers for Telkwa now resides inside the old cut and wrap facility, but the abattoir is still there, owned and operated locally, processing everything from black angus beef to Kispiox bread chickens. But back then, part of the problem had nothing to do with production.

Years ago I asked the late former Mayor of Smithers and long-time rancher Jim Davidson why the coop couldn’t make a go of it, he simply replied, “marketing”. Farmers are great at farming he said, not not so great at marketing their products.

Still, keeping the abattoir open after many years has allowed for a certain meat circularity to develop. From lush grassy fields to the cutting floor, to the store shelf and finally, to your plate, meat products, the associated jobs it creates, and even the investment needed to make it all happen, is becoming increasingly localized.

Farming vegetables and ranching cattle, pork or lamb is just one of the ways people in the northwest put food on the table.

Harvesting food from the land is deeply rooted in these parts as well. Indigenous peoples have been hunting, fishing and gathering on these lands for multiple millennia, and don’t even get me started about the significant of salmon, that would require its own podcast.

For many of us foraging and gathering is just part of our usual summer activities, harvesting a variety of mushrooms and berries can be a food sovereignty measure for anyone lucky enough to find a perfect patch of berries.

But despite being surrounded by abundant lands, there are many reasons why we may still be food insecure in Northwest BC. There’s food security, and there’s a person’s access to food.

This is Dr. Annie Booth, a professor in Environmental and sustainable studies at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. Her work has reinforced the need for better local food sustainability and shown how vulnerable our food systems really are. Still at this point, if the trucks stop running, Booth explains, most of us only have a few days of food stored up.

And that is a major problem that won’t be solved overnight.

Because we are so conditioned to the convenience of these global food supply chains – think avocados, bananas, hot peppers, oranges, mandarins – we’ve become accustom to their easy access without considering how far these items travel to our plates. Dr. Booth says one of the first steps we need to take as communities to insulate our local food systems is to help each other better understand where our food actually comes from and to adjust our behaviours.

At Tea Creek Farms in Kitwanga, the work doesn’t stop when winter rolls in. The Beatons will review last season over the winter to see where they can make improvements to their farm systems. They’ll be making seed orders and working on various farm projects. After visiting for a bit and eating a bowl of delicious salon soup, made with everything from the farm, Jacob Beaton heads back to work, this time on a carpentry shed.

Although we may have a long way to go before our communities can be truly secure in their food systems, Beaton points out there is work already being done to ensure the long-term sustainability of locally sourced food in Northwest BC. And that we need to move towards food sovereignty, not just food security. He also acknowledges that there is no easy solution to these deeply systemic and complex challenges, we’re currently presented with.

Now Hear This is available on