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Community supported agriculture taking off in Pemberton Valley

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I drove up to Pemberton last week to interview Bruce and Brenda Miller who own a 500 acre farm 7 miles north of Pemberton on Pemberton Meadows Road. It was a beautiful sunny day and the mountains could be seen clearly, rising above the valley floor. Almost to the driveway of their house my three year old, stuffed into her car seat in the back, took in the scenery and exclaimed, "bootiful momma."

It is exceptionally beautiful country. This farm has been in the Miller family since 1912 and while over half of it remains a wilderness of wetlands and old growth cedars, the other half produces seed potato crops and a stunning variety of organic produce. The latter endeavour, growing organic vegetables, is a relatively new development. Demands and support of friends and neighbours pushed the little family vegetable garden to become a full fledged company, called Across the Creek Organics, which has grown significantly since its inception six years ago.

Across the Creek Organics is community supported agriculture (CSA), whereby, Bruce explains, farm fresh vegetables are delivered in boxes to members of the local community. Unlike other box delivery systems, the produce delivered to a customer’s doorstep is at its nutritional and flavour peak, having been harvested and washed either that morning or the previous afternoon. This ensures that the quality of the produce delivered to your door can only be beat by harvesting from your own garden – if you have one.

Produce in the grocery store, often harvested from farms that are at least a truck drive away, is warehoused before being shipped to stores. Once it hits the shelves produce is usually already a week old. The longer the length of time between picking and consuming the more nutritional value decreases. This is why flash frozen vegetables have greater nutritional value when compared to the same product bought off a grocery store shelf. Fresh vegetables, consumed shortly after being harvested deliver the best nutritional benefit and are by far the best tasting ones, too.

I was a little nervous bringing my two kids to the Miller’s house, after all toting an infant and a toddler isn’t professional when trying to conduct an interview, but I was pressed for childcare. My worries were unfounded, however, as Bruce and Brenda are parents to five boys and they were genuinely warm and accepting.

Their experimentation with organic foods began when one of their sons, diagnosed as a child with special needs, was placed on an eight month waiting list to live away from the family in a care facility. Having tried everything else, Brenda says, she panicked and turned to changing their diet. Surprisingly, the change to eating organically helped.

"It isn’t a cure but a cleaner diet made it better. He could cope," explains Brenda.

From that point on, the family started to grow their own vegetables for eating. An abundance of vegetables prompted Brenda to make up baskets of veggies for 10 of their friends and the next year 10 had become 40. The business has slowly increased to delivering weekly boxes of fresh vegetables to customers in Pemberton, Whistler and Squamish from June through to October.

The Millers have had nothing but great feedback about the taste and quality of their vegetables. Occasionally a smiling customer will show up at their doorstep holding up a vegetable in puzzlement – "What is this?" – but they are only too happy to educate people about trying new vegetables.

As the season progresses, vegetables are harvested as they hit optimal ripeness, as assessed by the small crew of loyal employees, learned gardeners themselves.

Customers of Across the Creek Organics never know what the contents of their harvest box will be each week as picking for ripeness is too unpredictable, but this appeals to many people. Some customers liken opening their weekly box to opening a weekly Christmas gift. Sometimes you may get an item you are not familiar with but it is the best way to be introduced to a new vegetable – when it is its freshest.

Bruce admits to not liking Brussels sprouts but after he tried them picked after a frost he realized that this was the real way to eat them. "They are so sweet and delicious you could make a whole meal out of brussel sprouts."

Brenda adds that she always knew you had to encourage children to try new things but she didn’t think they would have to with grown ups. As well as standard vegetables like carrots, broccoli and potatoes, the Millers are meeting consumer demand by adding more exotic fare like fennel, tatsoi, red mustard greens or kohlrabi, to name a few. Customer reaction has been very positive. The Millers have hosted what they call Harvest Dinners for friends to highlight different vegetables and the different ways that they can be used in various dishes. They hope to invite local chefs to showcase their produce the same way.

Consumers who choose to eat organically have a variety of reasons for doing so. Often this includes a conscientious effort to maintain bio-diversity while supporting herbicide- and pesticide-free farming, but it is also a political fist shaking at modern industrial farming.

Over the last 50 years or so the farming industry has changed dramatically. The movement of produce from farm to grocery store has become a complicated process that involves several different layers of distribution, often leaving the farmer little profit. In the case of organic farming, where weeding is regularly controlled by hand, the expense increases at the grass roots level, literally. Adding up the expense, not to mention the pollution, of trucking produce to a warehouse, the electricity needed to keep it refrigerated, another truck ride to the grocery store, exporting and importing duty and taxes, equals a lot of extra hidden costs, energy and decreased nutritional value in the food. These are strong, real reasons to make a conscious effort to support local farming by participating in CSA and shopping at farmers markets.

A few years ago Brenda asked her husband if he wanted to turn back to conventional farming; the organic business is a lot of work. "No way, this is too much fun," was Bruce’s reply.

The Millers and their staff take great pride in their work and they are enthusiastic about sharing their garden with other people. As their experience with different crops increases, their harvests will continue to delight customers in an ever growing number.

Anyone wishing to sign up for this upcoming season’s weekly harvest box deliveries, starting in June, can do so by calling 604-894-6463, or visiting the Web site at acrossthecreekorganics.com or e-mail info@acrossthecreekorganics.com

Across the Creek Organics also sells their produce at the Whistler Farmer’s Market and at the market in the West End in Vancouver.

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