How has a process so crucial to our survival come to feel like a criminal act?
By: Chloe Vance
It’s midnight on a cold Friday in January. The running lights of a transport truck cast a yellow glow on a downtown side street in Canmore, illuminating three bundled figures. They exchange paperwork and shake hands as the low drone of an idling engine muffles their words. A hooded figure meticulously maneuvers a small skid steer, extracting teetering pallets laden 10 feet high with boxes from the back of the truck.
The figures spring into action, a sense of urgency rising like their breath in the icy air. Scurrying back and forth, they shuttle precious cargo piece-by-piece into a wooden shed and into the back of a white cargo van.
This is the underbelly of a growing revolution that is creeping into our backyards, sprouting on our rooftops, growing on our balconies and taking root in our public parks and schoolyards.
A voice emerges from the darkness.
“Let’s get these apple boxes stacked to the left, pears right beside them and all the frozen heirloom tomatoes into the van,” calls Chrystel Vultier, pointing with a mitten to coordinate the delivery of a mid-winter shipment of organic produce direct from Okanagan farms.
Farm Box, led by co-owners Chrystel Vultier and Avni Soma, is a Canmore-based company that sources organic food, direct from local producers in Alberta and British Columbia, and delivers it to residents of the Bow Valley. What began as one solo mission to an Alberta farm in a borrowed van – to pick up farm-fresh produce for a few families and friends – has blossomed into a thriving local business, an alternative food system and an evolving real-food culture.
This is the local-food movement. These are some of its ringleaders. And while your mind might conjure serene pastoral images at the thought of an organic, whole food movement, the reality of what local food looks like mid-winter in the Rockies when the majority of our “100-Mile Diet” radius is encapsulated in rock and glacial ice, is a much different scene.
Food for thought
Despite the suggestive nature of late-night, back alley deliveries, Farm Box’s operations are completely legal. As an alternative to mainstream grocery systems, the company offers consumers the opportunity to source local alternatives, make informed decisions and connect with where their food comes from. Moreover, their business is supporting small-scale, family-run, sustainable farms across the province – now a rarity.Farm Box’s exponential growth over the past four years is just one testament to our mountain community’s hearty appetite for locally sourced food. For instance, over 230 homes and offices from Canmore to Lake Louise currently receive Farm Box shipments once a week, year-round; however, beyond simply having access to affordable, organic, sustainably produced food, there is a groundswell of primal enthusiasm from people wanting to grow it themselves.
But here’s the pickle.
Living in this mountain ecosystem poses a cornucopia of challenges, including:
- Short growing seasons
- Subarctic alpine climate
- Expensive and scarce real estate
- Strict national and provincial park regulations
- A complex political landscape
- Rigid bylaws
- Sensitive wildlife corridors.
National park regulations and strict wildlife management policies combined with a cold climate, as well as an evolved culture of respect for our four-legged neighbours, has naturally forced backyard food production underground.
“Living in an active wildlife corridor comes with a large amount of responsibility and compromise,” explains Kim Titchener, program director of WildSmart, an organization that strives to reduce negative human-wildlife interactions. “The ultimate goal of these guidelines is to enable the continued flow of wildlife through their natural corridors. We need to continue to reduce the number of reasons wildlife have to come into our townsites. If people really want to live a sustenance lifestyle – growing food and raising animals – perhaps they should seriously consider moving to a place with no endangered bear population and a longer growing season.”
On the flip side, Soma and Vultier are outspoken advocates for creating local food systems. They’re also the founders of the Canmore Community Gardening Society and board members of Alpine Edible Schoolyards, two non-profit organizations that are educating people about gardening in the Rockies. “Be it British Columbia, Peru or the Himalaya, there are examples of people surviving and thriving by growing their own food in mountain communities all over the world,” says Soma.
“It is time for us to revisit the paradigm that humans are separate from the environment. We need a holistic approach to this issue, to see ourselves as one component of a thriving ecosystem,” adds Vultier.
One gets the sense that gardeners and wildlife conservationists are poised on opposite sides of a 12-foot tall, wildlife-proof electric fence. But this conversation is relevant to more than just foodies, gardeners and wildlife experts.
If you live here and you like to eat, this topic affects you too.
It’s time for interest groups, policy makers and mountain community members to gather around a collective dinner table and dig into important conversations about food security, wildlife conservation and building healthy food systems in the Bow Valley and beyond.
By looking at the past, we can envision the future and work together to devise creative solutions that will thrive within the context and realities of our mountain towns.
Where the wild things roam
Though the popularity of organic, locally produced, whole food systems might seem like a new-age yuppie trend, the reality is that this mountain landscape has embodied a rich local food culture for millennia.
The Aboriginal people of this region were the first foodies to be drawn here by cuisine. Over 10,000 years ago, “local food movement” referred to keeping up with the food that was moving through the river valley. Nomadic hunter-gatherers followed roaming herds of bison, elk, deer and caribou from the open plains to the mountains and back again. They fished nearby rivers and lakes and foraged for berries and plant medicines based on availability and season. The land provided, and when it did not, they moved on.
Evidence of this thriving food culture has been discovered in the form of charred bones, cooking hearths and stone tools at over 35 prehistoric archeological sites peppered throughout the area. The Stoney Nakoda people, native to this region, were even named for their forward-thinking culinary technique of cooking with hot stones.
Railways and mineshafts
Centuries later, as the railway snaked its way west and tracks were laid along the banks of the Bow River, a new wave of immigrant rail workers and miners from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds, flooded the valley.
With them came the need for basic services, access to supplies and a food system to support rapidly-growing populations. Instead of pursuing food hunter-on-horseback style, calories came to residents by way of steam train – the Iron Horse – and later, by automobile.
Canmore’s first grocery store, Joseph Chenier and Co., was established in 1885 in the basement of one of the town’s first buildings, Mountain House. It was the first of a handful of food providers to set roots here.
As the railway steamed west toward Banff and beyond, so too did the need for food. The Brewster family founded a dairy in 1887 at the corner of Banff Avenue and Moose Street, and others sprouted up in the areas we now know as Dead Man’s Flats and Spring Creek Village. For decades, farm-fresh milk was delivered to locals by horse-drawn carriage.
After the Second World War, Cardo Marra established ‘Cardo Marra and Son Groceries’ (affectionately known by locals as ‘Marra’s’), which would serve as a community hub and as the main retailer of groceries for the town of Canmore for more than 50 years.
Though local businesses provided imported staples and supplies, the truth remained that rail workers and miners lived on meager wages. To supplement empty pockets and bellies, many relied on the skills, ways of life and traditions of their home countries by planting backyard gardens to provide fresh produce for their families.
Legends still circulate of the Italian old timers’ ability to grow larger-than-life cabbages in this mountain soil, and rhubarb plants remain scattered amongst the ruins of Lower Bankhead, perennial reminders of Chinese rail builder’s gardens long overgrown. Small farms were established along what is now Bow Valley Trail in Canmore and, get this, there was once a pig farm right behind the Canmore Hotel.
Development and activism
The mines closed and the Olympics came – all within a 10-year span, between 1979 and 1988 – catalyzing a shift away from blue-collar jobs towards a thriving real-estate and tourism industry. In the coming decades, neighbourhood topography transformed from humble homes on large lots to condos and large homes with little green space. Suddenly Canmore was “on the map,” and visitors began pouring in from the Trans-Canada like they never had before. Dependence on, and demand for, grocery store variety and convenience took hold, and chain grocery stores managed to supplant the “mom and pop” varieties.
Against this backdrop of rapid, large-scale development and the influx of users flooding the sensitive habitat, seeking lifestyle and outdoor recreation opportunities, a culture of conservation began to grow amongst the locals resulting in a renewed awareness of and respect for living within an active wildlife corridor.
In a community effort to reduce negative interactions between wildlife and humans, local citizens and burgeoning environmental groups, such as the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and WildSmart, worked diligently with town council to see that items considered to be “animal attractants” were removed or revised: garbage bins were bear-proofed, berry bushes and fruit trees were uprooted, gardens tilled over, composters ousted, and even bird feeders banned. Anything considered an attractant to wildlife became back yard taboo. As a direct result, animal death rates declined.
Soon, browsing the produce aisle for California-greenhouse-grown lettuce and strawberries was the closest thing to hunting and foraging that most mountain-dwelling folk could hope for.
Or so it appeared on the surface…
CASE STUDIES: What’s growing in the Rockies?
Growing local food within the current system requires the utmost patience and passion. Despite the struggles (and potential recourse) of growing in the Rocky Mountains, many residents have continued to take local food production into their own hands.
But growers remain tight-lipped about their activities for fear of being exposed, having their goods seized and their operations shut down. I was asked to meet with interviewees in public places, had phone calls unreturned, and took vows of silence before being ushered down back laneways and into garages, basements and backyard sheds. I have even chosen not to share some specifics in order to protect sensitive operations.
Then I found a safe zone – Farm Box’s annual general meeting. There, talk of rooftop beehives, community chicken coops, aquaculture systems and vermicomposters flowed freely. Dreams of a time, place and space where residents could cultivate locally grown food for their families were shared with an air of hope.
Feeling as though I was attending a secret meeting in the underground lair of a hidden subculture, I listened further and realized that these weren’t just dreams. Many of these systems were already in place, albeit piecemeal, small-scale and hidden in backyards, garages, sheds and greenhouses throughout our mountain towns.
Stella Alpina B&B
Carmelo Ciaramidaro & Anneke Rijpma-Ciaramidaro, owners of Stella Alpina B&B, are longtime residents and advocates of locally grown living. Their bed and breakfast business in south Canmore thrives on produce grown in their backyard gardens, as well as wild edibles foraged in nearby forests. Growing up in Holland and Italy (respectively) instilled in them a close connection to the seasons, the land and their food.
Less a hobby and more a way of life, Anneke and Carmelo abide by the “grow food, not lawns” philosophy. Utilizing every square inch of available growing space in their fenced yard, they plant a variety of vegetables and flowers to keep humans, butterflies, birds and bees happy. Their plants thrive with the help of small greenhouses, raised and covered garden beds, an integrated rainwater collection system and wisdom gathered from decades of Rocky Mountain growing seasons.
Carmelo took me down to the cellar to show me the contents of their large chest freezer. It was overflowing with homemade soups, sauces and pesto, chopped and frozen herbs, kale and greens from the garden’s harvest stored for winter use. He beamed with pride as he allowed me a peek at his collection of hand-foraged, sun-dried morel mushrooms, the star ingredient of the B&B’s well-known wild mushroom omelets.
“Growing food here can be hard. We have learned a lot over the years, but if you have the passion to grow here, you will succeed,” says Anneke. “He who plants a garden, plants happiness,” smiles Carmelo, as he places a steaming shot of espresso and an Italian almond cookie in front of me. After spending a morning with these two green thumbs, I would have to agree.
Roger Lapin (not his real name) is an animal guy. Growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan fostered a love, respect and connection to the animal world and a belief that animals are, for him, a sustainable food source. When he and his wife (let’s call her Jessica) moved to Canmore with their dogs, it didn’t take long for him to devise a solution to the high cost of living here.
Inspired by “the bunny problem” here in town, Roger began his own breeding program.
Hold up: it’s not what you think. After scouring the bylaws to find that hunting and trapping, as well as keeping wild animals within town limits, is illegal, Roger refrained from utilizing the food source that happily hops through his yard each day. Instead, he invested $150 for three New Zealand White rabbits and started a legit breeding program in a backyard shed.
This unassuming, cheerful, young guy is able to single-handedly produce over 30 pounds of local hand-raised rabbit meat each month in his backyard in downtown Canmore, feeding his family and providing extra nutrients for their dogs.
“People have become way too out of touch with where their food comes from,” states Roger as he casually guides me through the most humane way to “dispatch” a litter of a dozen roaster-sized bunnies. He and his wife also tan and process the rabbit furs, ensuring all parts of the animals go to good use.
“Plus,” he adds, “the neighborhood kids love to hang out with the baby bunnies.”
Christian Wright has no qualms speaking outright about his vision for a greener Bow Valley. Urban farmer by day and bartender by night, this multi-talented Canmorite imagines a local network of high-producing urban farms.
In fact, he’s already operating one on the rooftop of Canmore Collegiate High School. By revitalizing and planting an underutilized section of the school’s roof, Wright was able to harvest more than 600 pounds of artisan organic greens over the course of the first summer production season in 2013. The greens were used in the high school cafeteria, taken home by student’s families and sold at the Canmore and Banff Mountain Markets.
Funds raised through the sale of the greens established the financial seed for a second urban farm: with the support of the Canadian Rockies Public Schools and Alpine Edible Schoolyards, a quarter acre urban farm is being installed in the schoolyard of Lawrence Grassi Middle School in May 2014.
Wright’s dream is multifaceted: he wants to prove that growing food in the Rockies and composting the waste is possible, and he aspires to grow nutritious, local organic food for his community. But most importantly, he believes he can inspire a new generation of farmers. “I hope that some youth involved in the garden project are inspired to want to be urban farmers too. If motivated young leaders want to take over operations or start a small urban farm of their own… awesome,” beams Wright.
We are at a crossroads.
Our need for healthy communities fuelled by sustainable food systems in this valley runs parallel to our collective desire to be stewards of our natural environment, ambassadors of our wildlife corridors and global leaders in the conversation about locally grown food systems.
These may seem to be conflicting goals. But the more people I meet from both camps, the more synergies I begin to hear within their respective arguments.
As if to echo Farm Box’s Vultier, WildSmart’s Titchener offers, “We need to take a holistic approach to these issues in order to come up with safe options for what our communities ultimately want.”
Titchener personally believes the solution lies in shared spaces. “If people really want to raise chickens and keep bees here in our mountain towns, perhaps there are opportunities for community-based coops and collaborative hives that can be kept safely and securely, while still offering individuals the freedom to provide for themselves.”
There have already been steps towards success in this realm. The communities of Canmore, Banff and Hinton have all devised wildlife-safe frameworks for establishing community gardens and greenhouses. Moreover, Banff is currently piloting a large-scale municipal composting program. However, our adoption of larger scale policies on these matters seems to shift and change like the seasons in response to changes in our natural, political and social landscape.
Will we seize the opportunity to set an example for mountain towns world-wide by working together and devising creative solutions wherein a mutual respect for all components of this dynamic system – food, feather, fur, family and friends – are honoured? Or, will we continue to push backyard-growing initiatives underground with outdated bylaws and policy structures?
One thing is certain: from hungry hunters to urban farmers, the resilient, innovative inhabitants of the Rockies continue to learn from the past and look to the future to devise their own clever solutions to the age-old problem of feeding ourselves year-round in a subarctic alpine climate.
Collectively, we are tasked with writing the next chapter of the Bow Valley’s local food story. How do you think it should read?