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OUTLOOK: From the gate to the plate
Chilliwack’s farm gate industry is showing outsiders it’s more than just corn.
Small-scale farmers throughout the city have been opening their gates for years in an attempt to provide the community – and beyond – the delectable food riches it desires.
An increasing number of consumers want to know where their food was grown, how it was grown, when it was grown.
And Chilliwack farmers have those answers.
Fresh, locally grown and harvested fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, cheese, poultry, beef, and yes, corn too picked straight from Chilliwack soils all being sold directly to consumers on farms, roadside stands, farmer’s markets, or CSA programs.
According to the 2011 Census, direct farm gate sales in Chilliwack were $360 million for the year, an increase of more than $100 million from the 2006 numbers.
As well, a recent study commissioned by the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets and the University of Northern British Columbia showed a significant growth of farmers’ markets. According to the study, the number of markets in B.C. have increased by 62 per cent since 2006, and have produced 147 per cent more sales in 2012 than 2006.
“More and more people are buying local,” said Debra Amrein-Boyes, director of Fraser Valley Farm Direct Marketing Association. “People are looking to buy direct, they don’t want their food shipped, they want more transparency.”
And when they see it on the farm, or directly from farmers, “they feel confident of quality and integrity,” said Amrein-Boyes.
Holly and Ken McKeen, who operate a small black angus cattle farm in Greendale, have a policy never to deliver their beef cuts.
They want their customers to see the farm, the cows grazing naturally, the every day practices.
With just 50 heads, 10 mother cows, 10 babies, and the rest calves purchased at auction, there’s no crowded feed lots, no inhumane practices, no stress for the cows.
“It’s not feed lot beef; there’s a big, big difference,” said McKeen. “It’s not 10,000 cows jammed into a huge lot. Our cows are raised on the grass without hormones. They’re well cared for.”
“It comes out in the taste,” she said. “There’s no comparison.”
Like other small-scale farmers, the McKeens rely heavily on consumers buying local.
Even though their beef business is subsidized by their separate pottery and guest house businesses, if there’s an unexpected expense, like the tractor breaking down, or the fence needing replacement, “there goes one to two years profits,” said McKeen.
“A large part of the community is so dependent on price point. Parking lots at big box stores are full and that’s because of price point. But there’s a growing portion of the community who want to eat naturally and they’re coming to us.”
Doug and Katy Lowe, owners of Greendale Herb and Vine, are spreading Chilliwack’s delicacies beyond the local community.
Throughout both the summer and winter months, the couple spend upwards of four days a week manning booths at various farmers’ markets throughout Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, pushing their Greendale grown garlic and tomatoes onto city dwellers.
With them, they bring cheeses from Smits and Co.w, hazelnut products from Canadian Hazelnuts, and organic muesli from Anita’s Grain Mill.
They boast about Chilliwack farms, they brag about Chilliwack’s leisure, and they promote Chilliwack events like Slow Food Cycle Tour and the Greendale Sampler.
“I try to promote the area as much as I can, the farms, the events, the leisure places to enjoy,” said Doug Lowe.
“I’m showing people in the city that there’s still a farm scene in Chilliwack, there’s still local farmers able to grow good, quality herbs and vegetables. And once they taste our local produce, something that’s been freshly picked that morning, you can’t get fresher than that, they’re hooked.”
Still, the farmers agree increased education is required in order to win over the masses.
Many people don’t realize fresh food can be obtained locally year round, said Dan Oostenbrink, who owns Local Harvest Market on Lickman Road with his wife Helen.
The Oostenbrinks hope their market will shine a spotlight on that misconception.
Local Harvest Market sits on 30 acres of land, which is dedicated solely to growing fruits and vegetables compatible to the Chilliwack area, which are then sold in the retail outlet at the front of the property. Each fare seeded is selected based on viability, time of year, and consumer interest. It’s picked fresh daily, handled by one set of hands, has no sprays or fertilizers.
“We want to educate consumers on buying local and supporting the local community, and we want to educate the very young on where their food is coming from,” said Oostenbrink, a former school principal.
The plan for the market is to evolve it into a full-scale agri-educational outlet with farm tours, educational workshops, lessons on home gardening, and eventually building a hands-on school facility on site that would educate the youth of the community in local farming.
“As a principal and teacher, I recognized that the way schools currently function, we’re only serving 30 to 40 per cent of students well,” said Oostenbrink. “We have to do something different to cater to the needs of all students.
“A place like this, there are so many opportunities for learning centred around food, which is a huge necessity for now and for the future.
“It’s going to be real life learning.”