A challenge in promoting local agriculture may lie in the nature of the sector, a regional advocate say.
On March 23, economic development project Beyond the Market celebrates its fifth anniversary with local farmers, supporters, and representatives from partner groups at the North Country Inn’s restaurant in Vanderhoof.
The project involves providing a voice for the agricultural businesses of the region in trade shows, farmers’ markets, fall fairs, community events, and inter-sector meetings, explained Jillian Merrick, who recently passed her role as program coordinator to Christine Kinnie.
“I spend as manny hours engaging with other sectors, as connecting with farmers,” she said.
Compared to other industries such as mining, the agriculture sector involves many very small businesses with owners tied to their land. Representation of the industry is thus difficult to manage in multi-sector discussions, as well as having projects that work for many operators, Merrick said.
For example, in Williams Lake, nine priorities were identified to promote agriculture in the community and 34 strategies were developed for two alone.
Aiming to promote and support agriculture along Highway 16, the project started as an 18-month initiative and grew to also receive calls for assistance from other parts of the province, Merrick said.
Through on-the-ground volunteers based out of various communities, the project provides one-on-one farm business coaching services and training sessions, as well as matched demand with supply in farm employment, products, and land.
For some businesses, it may involve assisting with grant applications, and for others, it may be a matter of creating a website to connect with the rest of the community, Merrick explained.
For Michelle Roberge, co-owner of the Vanderhoof-based Bioscape Farm and market manager of Vanderhoof Farmers’ Market, the program started when her business started.
“We were clueless, and it helps us along,” Roberge said.
The project is funded by the Omineca Beetle Action Coalition, the District of Fort St. James, and the Regional Districts of Fraser-Fort George, Bulkley-Nechako, and Kitimat-Stikine.
RDBN creates agriculture committee
For Mark Parker, RDBN’s director of Fraser Lake Rural and chair of its new agriculture committee, agriculture, with its diversified nature, can serve as the region’s diversification tool, he said.
Started in February, the new agriculture committee was created in light of the current economic situation, Parker explained.
“Part of it is we’re facing downturn in the commodity,” he said. “We’ve got a tough time in the mining industry, forestry is there but not a growing industry, whereas agriculture is probably one of things that can tide us through this and keep us going.
“People will always want to eat.”
Parker explained that some of the identified priorities so far include injecting youth into the industry’s aging population, expanding the production variety of the region to include other viable crops such as fruit-bearing trees, as well as keeping up to date with changes in the local Agricultural Land Reserves.
“[The committee is] in its infancy stage, but it’s going to be a very solid move, with the enthusiasm and the feedback not just from the board, but also with the agriculture groups,” he said.