Taking a gorgeous bike ride through a gorgeous valley on a gorgeous August day to hang out with your pals and enjoy delicious food and drink at the front gates and under the shady barn roofs of some of the most beautiful working farms in Canada is seductive, sensual and just plain fun. The last thing on Earth you'd think is that it is a political act.
But it is.
However, when I press Anna Helmer, whose family has been farming in Pemberton Valley for over a century starting with her great-grandfather on her dad's side — Walter Carey Green, called Grandpa Green by the family — about why she started Slow Food Cycle Sunday eight years ago, she hesitates to call it political.
But it was. A wonderfully pleasurable, powerful political act any Trojan horse builder would be proud of, one comparable to the sly and sensual Trojan horse in this story:
"When my friends and I opened the doors of our new restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971," writes legendary food activist, Berkeley activist, active activist — and sensualist — Alice Waters, in her intro to Carlo Petrini's classic, Slow Food Nation, "we thought of ourselves as agents of seduction whose mission it was to change the way people ate. We were reacting against the uniformity and blandness of the food of the day. We soon discovered that the best-tasting food came from local farmers, ranchers, foragers and fishermen who were committed to sound and sustainable practices. Years later, meeting Carlo Petrini [founder of the Slow Food movement] for the first time, I realized that we had been a Slow Food restaurant from the start. Like Carlo, we were trying to connect pleasure and politics — by delighting our customers we could get them to pay attention to the politics of food."
Then there's politics of slow food in its home and native land, Italy, where the cap "S," cap "F" Slow Food movement works on things like developing political programs to preserve family farms, lobbying to include organic farming concerns within agricultural policy, and lobbying against government funding of genetic engineering and pesticides.
Here I can't help but think of Pemberton's Jordan Sturdy, Blackcomb ski patroller turned family man who, when looking for a suitable home for his family in the early 1990s came across a beater of an A-frame in Whistler and a 52-acre farm in Pemberton for the same price. He went for the farm, something of a political statement itself, but it didn't stop there.
North Arm Farm went on to become legendary and organic, working closely with chefs throughout Sea to Sky to grow specific crops for their menus, essentially re-shaping the way they and others sourced at least some of their food. Jordan eventually became the local mayor and, recently, the local MLA, sitting on numerous boards of influence along the way, including the Squamish Lillooet Regional District and BC Association of Farmers' Markets, the politics of which are obvious, especially when he is able to effect Petrini-like changes.
Then we have the slow food tales with a political backstory told by Carlo Petrini, a celebrity in his native Italy as is the Slow Food movement itself, says Anna, who attended the mothership of Slow Food events, Terra Madre, which is held in Torino, Italy, every year and attracts thousands. There, Carlo was fawned over by the paparazzi and public like an Italian Brad Pitt, something hard to picture in Canada where the official Slow Food movement, with its membership of around 1,000, has barely captured the collective Canadian consciousness.
Nonetheless, here's one of Carlo's stories from Slow Food Nation that nicely illustrates what we've all been up against in the world's food supply over the last 50 years or so:
In the summer of 2001, Petrini visited Mexico after attending the first national meeting of Slow Food USA, held in San Francisco. In Tehuacán, he visited a "tiny family-run farm" to see amaranth being grown, which was part of one of Slow Food's many projects to improve biodiversity worldwide. In this case it was re-introducing amaranth, which, along with beans and corn was once the foundation of the Aztec diet, to one of the poorest areas in Mexico. Accompanying Petrini was Alicia De Angeli, a well-known European chef from Mexico City and an expert on native Mexican cuisines. After looking at the amaranth field, De Angeli and the farmer's wife were walking back to the farmhouse when a big leafy herb caught De Angeli's attention. She pointed it out to her companion, but the native Mexican woman didn't know it was edible or how to use it and had to ask the European chef for instructions. Here the impoverished family's home was surrounded by freely growing plants their ancestors has used but they weren't even aware they were edible. Later, a truck arrived down the street delivering Pan Bimbo, sliced white bread made by Grupo Bimbo (note that "Bimbo", a conflation of "Bambi" and "bingo", doesn't connote the same way in Spanish as it does in English. Bimbo went on to buy Weston Foods Inc. in the U.S. for $2.4 billion, making it the largest national bakery in the States. It also owns and produces Sara Lee baked goods.) The Bimbo truck pulled in under a huge billboard advertising Coca-Cola, which owns the largest spring for bottled mineral water in Mexico. The bottling plant is only a few kilometres away, across the dusty desert from the farmers' home.
Even though a Sara Lee cheesecake or two can likely be found in some Pemberton Valley fridges, it's unlikely the place will be seeing Bimbo bread delivery trucks, huge Coca-Cola billboards, or bottled water manufacturing plants anytime soon. But when Anna started Slow Food Cycle Sunday, the nub of this sad tale was nipping at the heels of Pemberton farmers: The loss of farmland and the depletion of local food supplies.
Although the factors impacting B.C.'s dwindling local food supply are complex and vary throughout the province, one fact says it all: In 1946-47, B.C. imported three per cent of its food supply. By the 1990s, we were importing up to 40 per cent.
"There is a lot of development pressure on this farmland," says Anna by phone from her family's 76-acre certified organic and biodynamic farm in Pemberton Valley. "Even though it is in the ALR (Agricultural Land Reserve)... we really were feeling like it was going to slip away from us like Richmond, and these other places that are having a tough time keeping their farmland."
And while you're indulging your sensory-cycling self on August 18, touring farms and sampling amazing local products and chefs' creations, around Pemberton remember that the event has another key purpose.
"It (slow food) is all about trying to link different people from different kinds of positive food communities together," says Sinclair Philip, co-owner/-operator of the renowned Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island, which has devoted itself to local foods since 1979 (In a stroke of serendipity, he and three others decided on the spot to start Slow Food Canada when they met up at Whistler's food and wine extravaganza, Cornucopia, in 2001).
"Putting people in touch with local farms in (Pemberton) will help support the local economy, the sustainability of those farms, and — something that's really important to slow food — rebuilding a sense of community in a society where there seems to be less of that.
"This whole event is a really, really positive one from that standpoint."
But slow food isn't just about pleasure, politics and community; it's also all about hard work. The degree varies, but you have to admit even cycling the 56 km, if you go the full slow food cycle distance, is hard work.
On a day-to-day basis, sourcing good food that's "slow" takes extra effort, too. It usually costs a bit more, as Anna points out, which means you have to work harder to get it, or you might have to make a hard choice, like eating less meat in order to afford those delicious $3-a-pound organic potatoes.
In most cases, you have to get yourself to a farmers' market or farm gate operation or wait for the delivery of your Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) produce box to get your good food. These aren't major efforts, but neither are they as mindless and easy-peasy as running up to the mall whenever you want.
However, the toughest part of slow food is producing the food itself. The strategic and operational logistics — like being out on the tractor until 10 o'clock at night or maintaining a second job — to get those farms to produce like they do and keep enough cash flowing to live on and pay the mortgage can be a ridiculous amount of hard work.
"I'm looking out the window right now and my mom (Jeanette) is working out there. She is in her late 60s, it's 35 degrees out and she just walked by with this enormous wheelbarrow full of things," says Anna — the farm produces up to 18 varieties of specialty potatoes as well as root crops, mixed vegetables and honey.
"If you walked by you would say, 'Oh, this place looks amazing!' But don't forget, someone has been working and working to get it that way."
Every farmer has his or her own strategies for keeping things going; the resulting farm models are equally unique.
"I don't do housework in summer — there's no time for it," says Sarah McMillan, farmer and co-owner of Rootdown Organic Farm operation along with partner and equally active farmer, Simone McIsaac.
The total farm site is 20 acres, which Sarah owns and the farm operation leases back from her. Together with two apprentices taken on every year for six months, they pull 12- to 15-hour days during high season to farm a mere three-acre site with mixed vegetables and Tamworth pigs, an endangered heritage breed known for its excellent bacon.
Only last year, after three years of operating, Rootdown started to earn its keep in summer. The plan is that it will one day offer the two partners a full-time living but for now both Sarah and Simone still have to work winter jobs to stay afloat.
Over at Ice Cap Organics, where Delaney and Alisha Zayac farm five acres and lease an additional five to grow more than 30 varieties of vegetables and herbs, they've been putting in full working days seven days a week, especially in the beginning when they were just starting up.
"We've worked really hard to be able to afford our own farm, but we've also had to be really aggressive in our business plan, and take some substantial risks to get to the point where we can afford to pay the mortgage," says Delaney via a 6 a.m. email from the farm.
"To do what we wanted to do we had to be realistic about what we could afford, because starting a farm from scratch takes a lot of capital and time.
"But how hard should it be?"
It's always been hard for start-up farmers and it can take generations to establish some farms, but from what Delaney has seen lately, it's even harder than ever with the cost of land.
"I think this is largely due to the ALR being chopped up into hobby farms and estates," he says. "If there was no way in hell a person would be able to subdivide any piece of land in the ALR, then (it) wouldn't be open to speculative buying."
But farmers have to do much more than just farm. Marketing is equally important and demanding, and it can go way beyond hauling your produce to farmers' markets, setting up, standing there for half a day to sell it, then reversing it all to bring it back home.
Small farm operations producing slow food products have to develop relationships with chefs and other local users; build customers bases for produce boxes then deliver them; run u-pick operations; get their beef or milk to market — in short, do whatever it takes to earn money from their products.
"Having a market is always the underlying problem here in Pemberton," says Allen McEwan, a fourth generation Pembertonian — the third generation to farm the current site — whose great-grandparents were the Millers for whom Miller Creek is named. For 20 years, the McEwans were known for their strawberries, but now he and his wife, Tonette, farm 55 acres with a small herd of cattle.
"My great-grandfather struggled to find a market and we still struggle to find a market because the population numbers are so low," says Allen. "It's important for people to realize farming is only perhaps half the job even though it takes up all our time. Marketing it is equally difficult and probably takes just as much time, if not more, and that's often the missing link in these farming operations.
"I mean, you don't dare produce a crop and then hope that someone is going to come along and buy it. You have to know how you're going to sell it."
Add in the challenges that Mother Nature throws your way — the diseases and pests, the bees not being able to pollinate at the right times, the frosts and wind and unexpected rain, and now all of it being exacerbated by climate change — and it's a miracle anyone wants to carry on farming, never mind loving it with a passion.
It's even more miraculous when that person is a smart young woman who's just graduated from high school, like 19-year-old Emma Sturdy, who's been pretty much running North Arm Farm these days.
Sister, Thea, an accomplished equestrienne, helps when she can but she's often busy with her riding. Mom, Trish, who does the books, in addition to running the farm store, managing on-site events and weddings, and driving the school bus part-time, and dad, Jordan, now MLA for West Vancouver-Sea to Sky, are available by phone or in person to advise or lend a hand. But this summer it's been Emma who's picked up the reins now that dad spends so much time in Victoria.
She has always been involved in operations, even when she was in school, and now Emma also manages orders for fruits and veggies not grown on site, like tree fruits from the Okanagan, as well as the orders and deliveries for chefs the farm serves in Whistler, Squamish and Vancouver. It's all done with a joyful sense of purpose.
"It gives me a direction in my life that I haven't been able to find with anything else," she says by phone from the farm. "It's something that I am very fond of — how could you not be?
"It's so beautiful here! Not to sound like a tourist, but it really is!"
In fact, the farm's beautiful setting and its long-time working relationship with chef James Walt at Araxi means it will be hosting another Long Table dinner right in the farm fields the eve of Slow Food Cycle on Sunday. At a feast, more than 100 guests will dine at a single long table elegantly set with white linen and china to sample wonderful dishes made from ingredients grown on the land around them.
All the hard work it takes to grow those ingredients — coping with the floods, the frosts that hit at the wrong time, the missed orders you have to drive back to the city and deliver, the vacations you never get to take because the farm is part of your life 24/7 —the Sturdys and all the other Pemberton Valley farmers take in stride as long as the rest of us keep cycling, seeking and enjoying what they produce.
"People need us to grow their food but at the same time we need people to be invested in eating local, eating organic, and eating fresh food," says Emma.
"It's a real relationship that we have to build with the community to make us work, and to make the community work. And I think it's something that's very important to everyone.
The Kuurne farm: A hotbed of connectivity
Like most small farming communities, the threads tying together farmers and farms in Pemberton Valley overlap and intertwine like a free-form tapestry.
Maybe it's the isolated nature of the place — the same isolation that spurred it to become one of the top seed potato producing areas in Canada — or maybe it's its singular beauty that keeps people sticking around, but there seems to be an extra layer of interconnectivity in the community, and one of the richest loci is Roxy and Mark Kuurne's farm.
Mark's mom and dad, Petter and Aino Kuurne, came to Canada from Finland in the 1950s when it looked like Russia's Iron Curtain was descending on their homeland. Petter first worked in the gold mine at Bralorne before buying land in Pemberton to farm. That legacy has stayed in the valley.
Now, after years away daughter, Carrie, has returned with her husband, Remi Charron — both of them engineers — along with their children, Maxine, 5, and Cedric, 6, to take up farm life, mostly for the kids' sake.
"We wanted them to be able to learn things they couldn't in the city, and I think they have officially become farm kids," says Carrie.
"We were out picking beans this afternoon and when I found them they were all covered in mud after playing in a mud hole. When we first got here my son wouldn't even walk through a mud puddle with boots on...."
The Kuurnes all live together in the two-and-a-half-storey family home on 163 acres. The family also owns another 200 acres where son, Petter, raises cattle for Pemberton Meadows Beef plus they lease seven additional sites for farming. Everyone helps out everyone else with the various operations.
Now thrown into the mix is Camel's Back Harvest, a small strawberry operation Carrie and Remi have started on the Kuurne homestead with plants, advice and equipment from the McEwan strawberry operation down the road — something Allen and Tonette McEwan started with help from the Naylors, who also once ran a strawberry farm. In fact, some of the equipment Carrie and Remi use today once belonged to the Naylors.
And there's one more important community connection woven through the Kuurne legacy: The land Sarah McMillan operates Rootdown Organic Farm on is the same 20-acre site that Petter and Aino Kuurne originally farmed. It was passed down through the family until Sarah purchased it in 2009.
"It's nice to be using a property that's come from a multi-generational farming family and to put it back into food production that's 100 per cent organic," says Sarah.
"I appreciate it came from a couple who came over from Finland and didn't speak a word of English but they built up this farm and their son is now a really important farmer in the valley."
S-L-O-W down, you move too fast
The No. 1 reason listed on San Diego's Slow Food website to inspire you to join the official movement could have been written for Pemberton's Slow Food Cycle Sunday: Slow down. Enjoy family, friends. Meet new, like-minded people.
One of the most interesting aspects about Slow Food Cycle Sunday, held this year on August 18, is it has changed little over the years.
"That's the unusual hook. We don't at all try to do anything new and different because it's really important that we do things we can keep on doing," says Anna Helmer, co-founder of the event who now runs it with Niki Vankirk "off the corner of the kitchen table."
"It's pretty much organized by two, maybe three of us, year in and year out for thousands of people, and it's really important we're able to keep doing it while still farming and doing our regular work."
The K-I-S-S rule has ensured up to 4,000 people cycling a total of 56 km year after year have fun with few pitfalls.
Yes, it's a little hard work pedalling, and you'll be out of cell range at kilometre 14, but that's all in keeping with the spirit of slow food. Even the route is simple: with only one road you can't get lost.
As you meander along Pemberton Meadows Road, you can stop at any or all of the 13 farms offering everything from farm tours and fresh lemonade to chef-prepared delicacies.
At Helmers' Organic Farm alone they will be boiling up 300 pounds of their Sieglinde potatoes for an assortment of dressings created by chef Andrea Carlson. Now owner of her own restaurant, Burdock & Co. in Vancouver, Carlson is formerly of Raincity Grill, where she created the first Canadian restaurant menu based on the 100-Mile Diet.
For full details on Slow Food Cycle Sunday, visit the website. Meanwhile, Ms. Helmer, the Queen of Slow Food Cycle Sunday herself, offers these tips to best enjoy the day:
1. Other than what you choose to spend on food and drink, the event is free. But donations are very gratefully accepted.
2. Look after yourself. Make sure you bring enough water and snacks, just in case the next food stand you were counting on sells out. "It's just like real life," says Anna.
3. Bring about $30, ideally in small denominations, to buy your food and drink.
4. Try to car pool to get there. Driving a couple of thousand cars to the event is kind of anti-slow food.
5. The route is a flat, working road. Respect the vehicles using it.
6. Please don't bring your dog.
Enjoy yourselves, be safe and as you pedal-power past, remember Anna's mom, Jeanette, her big wheelbarrow and all the other hard-working farmers behind the pleasure you are about to receive.
The Poetics of potatoes
If you think all there is to potatoes is red, Russets and maybe a Yukon gold or two thrown in for variety, check out this list. These 29 varieties of potatoes are all grown in Pemberton Valley. If you don't get to try them all, consider celebrating the hidden diversity of our food supply by writing a poem using every name:
A POTATO NATION HISTORY
From the early 1900s to the 1930s, farms in Pemberton Valley were diverse: bees and dairy cows were raised along with the mainstay crops of potatoes, turnips and hay. In 1922, the Department of Agriculture attended the Fall Fair at Meadows School near the Ronayne farm and convinced several farmers to pursue seed potato production and certification. The seed had to be grown for two years under the department's supervision, then it could be certified and sold commercially. Pemberton Valley's isolation and the high surrounding mountains that made it difficult "for the bugs to climb in" made it ideal for seed potato production. Farmer Jack Ronayne soon switched from dairy to seed potatoes; W.C. Green, Anna Helmer's great-grandfather on her father Doug's side, followed suit with Netted Gems. By 1938, Pemberton farmers were noted for award-winning products such as potatoes, turnips and field peas. In the 1930s, about three dozen farmers were active in the valley. By the 1950s about 25 farmers worked 700-800 acres. Today, nine farmers do the same.
— From Pemberton History & research by Niki Madigan, curator, Pemberton Museum