From the fields to our forks

Tech-friendly foodies have a new tool right at their fingertips to help them eat local, and to do it more easily.

The Pemberton Farmer's Institute (PFI) has gone through a number of incarnations since it was formed in 1925 to support the local farming community and make the agricultural industry viable.

Most recently, the group has gone high-tech, launching a flashy new website ( www.pembertonfarmers.com ), loaded with photos and valuable info, just last week.

Anna Helmer, a local farmer and secretary for the PFI, spearheaded the new site, which is designed to connect people within the agricultural community.

Agriculture has long been an important activity in the Sea to Sky region; from the time of the First Nations peoples, who hunted and fished throughout the Lillooet River Valley and grew potatoes and other root vegetables in the fertile lowland regions, to the gold rush and on to modern times. Agriculture has gained status as an important part of the local economy, particularly because of the area's designation as a certified virus-free seed potato producer in 1965.

"The seed potato industry started because of its isolation and (because of) the clean air and the clean water, it was able to achieve this virus-free status," Helmer explained. "The seed potato industry has become the mainstay industry in the valley, along with logging, but definitely the seed potato industry is the backbone of the farming up here."

Today, the area is diversifying its agricultural roots: on top of potatoes, local food producers offer up a range of other root veggies like beets, salsify, carrots, garlic, and artichokes. The valley is also producing honey, delicious baking and other seasonal goodies. More recently, they've started expanding beyond the traditional crops, making their own vodka and roasting coffee beans.

"We're really going for it, and Farmers Institute members are not just farmers, now," Helmer said. "We've got chefs and consumers in town that are just really wanting to stay connected to the farms."

One of the big problems faced by the vast majority of local food producers, Helmer explained, isn't actually growing crops; it's getting their product out to the food-buying public.

"I'm always getting the question, 'how do I find Pemberton food? I heard it's so great!'" Helmer said with a laugh.

So, the new site also aims to connect consumers with Pemberton's farmers, using sections called, "Where to Buy" and "Farmstand," where farmers can post their seasonal products online.

"The whole idea is that people in town that are looking for food will have somewhere to go to find it," Helmer added.

She added that their farmers markets don't always seem to draw large crowds, so they've decided to take this new approach to distribution. And while the site doesn't offer an opportunity to actually purchase the products online, it does provide updated pricing and contact information for all of the farmers and producers.

"I guess I think that the consumers and the farmers are totally connected. It totally matters what the consumer is doing, to the farmer," Helmer said. "...This is the final act of agriculture, I guess, is buying it and eating it."

Extra helpings

After nine years, Whistler's reigning king of restaurants, Araxi, has finally passed the crown on to another fine dining hotspot: the Bearfoot Bistro.

In the 20 th annual Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards, which took place on Tuesday, April 14 in Vancouver, the Bearfoot earned a new accolade: Best Whistler Restaurant.

Erin Kincaid, manager at the Bearfoot Bistro, said the award was icing on the cake for the restaurant, whose executive chef, Melissa Craig, received top honours at the Golden Plates competition last year.

"It's so hard saying that we're number one in Whistler - I think everyone in Whistler, we all do something different and we all do something awesome," she added. "...It's an awesome distinction, but we're really proud of everything in Whistler."

It's been a tough season for restaurateurs around town, which makes the award all the more special. The Bearfoot, like many other restaurants, has been forced to adapt and change to survive and thrive in uncertain economic times, adding special menus and prices to draw crowds in the door.

"I think it's been good that as a team we all really switched it up and made whatever we needed to make it work to bring it all together, and that's the kitchen team, the floor team, the managers, sommeliers," she said.

While the Bearfoot has captured the Silver distinction in the Whistler category in previous years, this is the first time they've grabbed Gold. Araxi captured Silver, and the Four Seasons' Fifty-Two 80 Bistro won a Bronze designation.


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