NAKUSP – The Arrow Lakes region of the West Kootenays is one of the most scenic parts of the Columbia River, nestled between the Selkirk Mountains in the east and the Monashees in the west. It has a strong agricultural history dating back to the 1800s, when many settlers came to the area to pursue a farming lifestyle. The region supported an abundance of produce and tree fruits for decades, but agriculture began to decline in the 1960s when dams were built, and flooding under the Columbia River Treaty resulted in the loss of 200,000 hectares of rich, arable land.
Supply chain issues such as those seen during the COVID pandemic have contributed to the need to revitalize the agriculture sector and make food security a community priority.
“Nakusp is the largest community in the region, removed from every major highway that connects the region to its closest cities,” points out Aiden McLaren-Caux, economic development coordinator for the Nakusp and Area Development Board (NADB.) “When there are supply chain problems, we feel them first because trucks just don’t come out here.”
To address these issues, NADB worked with regional partners to launch the Grow Arrow Lakes project in 2022. The initiative has provided unexpected insight into what it takes to grow the sector in this remote, rural and tightknit community.
At the start of the project, about 20 producers and agriculture-related businesses were identified in the region, including small-scale vegetable farms, orchards, honey producers, a few wineries and cideries, and hobby farmers who grew food to meet their own needs.
The project was to be a catalyst for engaging the local agriculture sector and developing an easily identifiable, regional Arrow Lakes brand that would help local producers improve and expand their markets. An educational and marketing campaign was planned to help drive the development of agri-tourism ventures, and eventually a year-round central food hub would be created to boost sales for local producers and better connect residents with local food.
Research for the project showed a much different agricultural landscape that “challenged our initial assumptions about agriculture potential in the area,” says McLaren-Caux.
One assumption is that local producers would embrace the opportunity to become part of a regional brand and had the tools and resources to sell to the public including a website, marketing strategy, business plan and an identifiable brand of their own.
They were expected to have the capacity to provide a consistent volume of products to the public through roadside stands, farm gate sales or pre-arranged pick-up or delivery.
It was also assumed that residents, retailers and restaurants would welcome access to more locally grown food.
In fact, only a few producers had the capacity to operate at a commercial level, and none were able or ready to participate in a food hub or agri-tourism initiative. Most were unwilling or unsure about committing to provide a consistent supply of products, while consumers, restaurants and retail outlets were not willing to participate without that commitment from producers.
In addition, collaboration among local organizations involved in agriculture and food security initiatives was weak.
Despite extensive outreach to the agriculture community through press releases, social media, one-to-one interviews and surveys, few chose to respond to invitations to be listed in a new Grow Arrow Lakes directory. Most of those who did respond said they were “too busy to participate,” “have no desire to gain more business,” “nice idea but I don’t want the public on my land,” and other similar comments.
A lack of consumers willing to pay market prices for locally grown food was a major reason producers were reluctant to expand their capacity.
“At this point, we took a step back, realizing that most producers required basic support and encouragement to increase their capacity and confidence,” says McLaren-Caux.
Building on the work of Phase 1 of the Grow Arrow Lakes project, Phase 2 launched in 2023 with financial support from the Economic Trust of the Southern Interior, the Arrow Slocan Tourism Association, and the Nakusp and Area Community Forest.
Phase 2 resulted in the development of the regional Arrow Lakes brand and a multimedia marketing campaign to inform and excite the community about its agriculture heritage. The Grow Arrow Lakes website was revised to be more interactive so producers can add and change information about themselves and product availability. A print and web-based directory, map of local producers and product stickers were created to inspire the community to buy local.
A Supporting Local Agriculture Committee was also formed, made up of NADB members and others with an interest in local agriculture. The committee sets terms of reference and scopes out potential initiatives, such as the Grow Arrow Lakes project.
While Phase 2 is still launching and its full impact is yet to be realized, positive results are taking place.
“The analytics are much higher now that the site is up and running,” says McLean-Caux. “Users are taking advantage of its interactive nature, and it is becoming a reference point for local agriculture information, including profiles that tell the stories of local growers.”
Educational needs of farmers and producers including best practices, greenhouse growing, regenerative agriculture and sales and marketing have been identified. Growing information for different parts of the Arrow Lakes is also needed since its communities are located in different zones with diverse soil types and varying amounts of rain and snow.
“For the time being, we are estimating increased purchasing from visitors to the area at farmers markets, locally owned retail outlets, and farmgate sales, promoted by our multimedia campaign,” says McLean-Caux.
Agri-tourism initiatives and development of a food hub are considered longer-term opportunities once the sector becomes more stable and resilient.
Mickey Wojnarowski and his wife Brenda Lee Morgan own the HomeGrown Market & Juice Bar in Nakusp. The store sells produce, flowers, health supplements and artisan gift items made or produced in the Arrow Lakes region. Wojnarowski also sits on the new agriculture committee and the Central Kootenay Food Policy Council.
“We were already connected with some 60 producers and artisans in the area when the website and directory came out, and since then we’ve been in touch with many more,” Wojnarowski says. The HomeGrown Market is undergoing an expansion that will double its size.
Carlee Hughes, owner of Nakusp East Farms and a long-time Nakusp resident, says conversations about agriculture in the region are taking place again.
“There is a sense of pride that the sector is an economic priority for the region,” she says. “At our farm, we’ve had more inquiries and orders due to the social media work that has been done, and the profile we’ve received has helped our credibility as a trusted farm in the area.”
“Once people try our products, the majority become repeat customers,” Hughes points out. “This shows how important it is to create awareness and connection to high-quality local food.”