After visiting Stefan and Nic Butler’s farm
back in April and witnessing the positive impact they were having on the local
food supply in Squamish for the “On the Farm” feature, my wife and I pondered
to ourselves how feasible it would be for us to try and grow some of our own
food over the course of the summer.
Given the alarming distances that the food
we consume travel and how out of touch most of us have become with our food and
how it reaches our tables, we decided to take on the challenge and conduct our
own little experiment. Food these days seem to be better travelled than even
the most avid of travellers.
Having never grown anything other than mold
on bread and with a condo balcony facing Kybers as our only growing area it
would be an ambitious undertaking filled with trials and tribulations.
Starting slightly late into the growing
season, we headed down to the garden center in Function Junction and armed
ourselves with two bags of organic top soil and an overabundant variety of
seeds for our first attempt, including peas, beans, parsley, chives, radishes,
cherry tomatoes, ball carrots and zucchini.
Setting up a rustic garden consisting of
large Styrofoam boxes available at any local restaurant serving fresh fish and
wooden wine crates from the liquor store we began to carefully plant our tiny
seeds in rows separated by what we figured would grow best together.
After around a couple weeks of watering our
mini garden began to come to life with a variety of different shaped sprouts
searching out the best angles to the sun. This whole gardening thing appeared
to be a breeze!
As the weeks went it on however, it became
evident that we had clearly over crowded our planting boxes and while
everything continued to grow it was clear that some major thinning would be
required for the plants to produce anything. Who knew all those tiny seeds
would turn into something?
As the sun continued to shine the plants began
to bloom into flower and the first glimpse of something edible came in the
shape of pea pods, golden yellow zucchini flowers blossoming (great for
stuffing with anything from seafood to veggies) and handfuls of fresh herbs
sprouting like weeds.
It was without a doubt a rewarding
experience to be able to consume some of our own home grown produce, seeing it
grow from tiny seeds into something nourishing to both the body and mind. Herbs
especially were a useful item, and just being able to take what was needed as
they are often expensive in the grocery store and a large bunch is rarely
needed or utilized before it begins to wilt.
The final verdict of our first summer
growing season can only be described as a successful failure. While we surely
would have starved to death if we had to subside on the amount of produce we
yielded it was definitely an insightful and humbling experience. It left us
much better prepared to maximize our micro growing area next summer, learning
from our first-time mistakes. It really makes you appreciate how much land and
continued effort is actually required just to feed two people.
Our biggest mistakes: starting slightly
late, being over ambitious and attempting to plant too many varieties while
overcrowding our growing containers, and, finally, underestimating the amount
of sun required from the beginning. While everything eventually flowered or
produced lush green leaves our only true successes of the summer were the peas,
parsley and chives from seeds, along with cherry tomatoes and strawberries that
we purchased as plants. Like every new thing, the next time will be that much
While growing produce may not be feasible
for all residents due to space limitations and inadequate sun exposure, those
who would like to put their green thumbs to work and try a hand at growing can
do so thanks to the Whistler Greenhouse Project, which is run through the
Whistler Community Services Society.
With the goal of promoting social and
environmental sustainability, the project will be going into its sixth growing
season next summer with 72 boxes available for rent at three different
locations in Spruce Grove, Alpha Lake Park and Myrtle Philip Community School.
Those who are able to reserve a space can
rent a box for a fee of $60 per season which runs spring until fall and
includes soil, fertilizer, a variety of organic seeds, water, a crash,
gardening course and lots of ongoing support. In turn, growers are asked to
donate ten percent of their harvest to the local food bank.
With the addition of the new green house at
Alpha Lake park this year, the project is now at capacity but WCSS encourages
neighbourhoods and strata units to begin their own projects and they are
available to provide all of their data and advice on how to maximize setting up
your own greenhouse project.
Those interested in reserving a box for
2009 should call WCSS (604) 932-0113 to inquire about getting on the waitlist
for next summer.
Trying to address sustainable food
practices on a whole other level in Whistler is Dr. Steve Milstein who is the
honorary coordinator of Whistler’s up and coming commercial greenhouse project,
which will also be managed by the Whistler Community Services Society.
The project, which would fit into
Whistler’s sustainable living plan following the Natural Step Environmental
Sustainability Program would be a major step towards achieving the goals of
Whistler 2020. WCSS hopes that it will also demonstrate the advantage of
non-governmental agencies entering into business ventures that are socially
responsible and profitable, while simultaneously increasing their ability to
deliver needed social services independent of government financing.
Dr. Milstein took the opportunity to share
some of his insight, hopes and challenges for the project as he works to
transform the idea from a seed into a harvestable product.
Pique: For those who haven't heard, briefly
describe the commercial greenhouse concept for Whistler.
Steve Milstein: The plan is for 80,000
square feet of organic commercial greenhouse space growing tomatoes, cucumbers,
peppers, lettuces and herbs. The produce will then be sold to local grocery
stores and restaurants. The project will use heat from the wastewater plant or
utilize geothermal heating (to run year-round). We are now assessing the best
and most sustainable source.
Pique: Why do you think this is an
important project for Whistler?
The project will eliminate some greenhouse gas due to importing food. It
will bring the cost of organic vegetables in Whistler down and move us toward
food security. We believe the attention it will bring will help jumpstart more
year-round greenhouse production in the corridor, specifically Pemberton.
Pique: Has any land or funding been located
to get the project off the ground?
SM: A site in the Cheakamus Crossing
development has been located and we are preparing a development application to
go on that site. Funding to prepare the development application has been
received in the amount of $ 20,000 from the Young Family Foundation. Eight
thousand has just been awarded by the Whistler Blackcomb Employee Environmental
Fund to get horticultural advice from a professional horticulturist. The
Institute of Sustainable Horticulture at Kwantlen University is preparing a MOU
between them and Whistler Community Services Society and the RMOW 2020 planning
group. Mike Vance has met with us and Kwantlen.
Pique: What are the biggest hurdles
currently facing the project?
SM: The next big hurdle is finding sponsors
and foundations to donate the capital for installation which is estimated at
$2,5 million. We will need to find sponsors as we understand and do not expect
the municipality to fund any of this project. The project will only move
forward once all of the funding has been found.
Pique: Once operational, who will maintain
the greenhouse project?
SM: This will be owned and operated by the
Whistler Community Services Society. All profits will to go them for social
Pique: When do you hope the project will
begin producing food by?
SM: If full funding is found by May 1 we
expect to be operational by January 2010.
With the continued efforts and commitments
of many, this project may become a reality. It could have a tremendous positive
impact around Whistler on many different levels, while putting us on the map
yet again for being the innovative socially responsible resort we continually
strive to be.
As food security becomes a growing issue it
only makes sense for communities to take it upon themselves to devote available
resources to providing a safe, reliable and local supply of food. Remember the
massive spinach scare of 2006 where spinach became temporarily unavailable due
to a small amount tainted by e-coli in our centralized food production stream?
How about the recent tomato scare this summer that sickened more than 1,200
people in the U.S. with salmonella, thereby costing the industry an estimated
$100 million dollars?
Unknown to many is the ever increasing
portion of our food making its way across the pacific from China, which has had
more than its fair share of tainted food scandals while working under a
completely different system of regulation and control altogether.
In the age where the simple ingredients
that make up a salad on our plates travel over 3000 kilometres, passing through
several hands along the way, we are left to wonder where our food originally
came from, and how they got there — squeezing through the many gears of
an increasingly unsustainable food supply chain, using up vast resources to
reach your plate from California and beyond.
Wouldn’t it be nice to know that some of
the food we eat is grown in our own backyard?