CASTLEGAR – With about eight weeks before their inaugural season of weekly produce box deliveries was complete, Skattebo Acres owners Mira Fahrenbruch and Matt McClelland decided to take on a new challenge by launching weekly winter boxes.
But space was a bit of an issue.
“You can’t just till another 100-foot bed,” says Fahrenbruch.
To ensure that the 29-week CSA they started in May would seamlessly transition into a 22-week winter CSA, the couple used the space they had available, converting two bedrooms in their West Kootenay home into growing rooms, complete with shelving, LED grow lights and seed trays.
The weekly winter box subscriptions, which include salad greens, microgreens and sprouts, were in such demand they sold out a few weeks before the launch. Subscriptions were capped at 70 due to finite growing space.
Pulling the project together in such a short time required a steep learning curve, but provided an opportunity to re-examine winter growing possibilities. McClelland said it was timely in light of recent flooding in the Lower Mainland that led many to question food security.
“I’ve always been a big fan of hyperlocal food systems,” says McClelland. “As a young adult, I lived on Vancouver Island and realized there would be three days of food if the boats stopped coming. In the ’50s, they would have been fine.”
Fahrenbruch grew up in Procter, a small community east of Nelson on Kootenay Lake. While her parents were not farmers, their property was home to horses, rabbits, chickens and ducks.
“As a kid, I grew up around a farming way of life,” she says. “My family didn’t have a lot of land, but the land we did have was garden.”
Fahrenbruch travelled widely in her 20s, but a passion for farming stuck with her.
“It has always been a dream, but I wasn’t sure it would ever be a reality,” she says.
She and McClelland bought a 3.5-acre property that would become the home of Skattebo Acres in Glade, a community located across a cable ferry between Nelson and Castlegar, at the end of the 12-kilometre Skattebo hiking trail. Vegetables are grown in greenhouses leased from their next-door neighbours, Ruth Fraser and Glen Sorenson of Glade Valley Gardens. Their own land allows them to raise livestock.
“The fun part of the property was that it was a fairly blank canvas,” says Fahrenbruch.
They had grown their own food for some time, and saw the CSA as a logical extension. The initial deliveries ended December 3.
“Part of what attracted us to the CSA was being able to offer food to the community over an extended growing season,” says Fahrenbruch.
“It’s not as fun when you’re harvesting in -1°,” says McClelland.
“But it is fun bringing fresh food to the community,” adds Fahrenbruch.
Winter food production would be a welcome development in the East Kootenay community of Fernie, where growing is a challenge even in the summer.
“We only have 90 frost-free days of growing in our region,” says Fernie Mountain Market co-founder Dawn Deydey. “We currently have no year-round farmers. We have heard of a local farmer that is exploring growing microgreens year-round, and Wildsight Elk Valley is currently exploring hydroponic lettuce production.”
The Mountain Market launched in 2001 with the goal of bringing more local food to the community. It is now a project of the Elk Valley branch of Wildsight, an East Kootenay-based organization that works to protect biodiversity and encourage sustainable communities. The market runs Sundays during the summer, with 40-60 vendors attending each week.
“We currently only operate outdoor markets, so winter markets don’t work for us,” says Deydey.
To ensure food is available year-round, Wildsight launched Local Market in late 2020, opening an online store and physical location in downtown Fernie. Local Market offers honey, meat, baking, sauces and other products sourced from BC and Alberta.
The store was an important step, but more help is needed to allow producers to continue growing food through the winter.
“Additional infrastructure would be required for year-round growing in our region,” says Deydey. “Funding would be a big help as there is often a large capital expense required to build winter greenhouses or hydroponic growing.”
The need for year-round growing was identified in the Fernie Food Action Strategy, a project that surveyed residents and engaged them online in late 2020.
“The season is so short! Need more greenhouses,” said one respondent.
“We need to educate ourselves on cold-season growing,” said another.
Support for growing in general and, considering Fernie’s short growing season, preserving food are also necessary.
“I’d love to see a community garden where people could volunteer and take home some of the fruits of their labour as payment, especially locals who don’t have a garden to grow in,” said a respondent.
“This is something we have moved away from in the last 40 years,” said another. “We are ignorant of how much we rely on the trucks and no longer see canning and preserving as part of our lifestyle. How did we live here year-round 100 years ago? We canned and preserved. Eating local is now considered ‘gentrified’ almost and a lifestyle choice, instead of simple good security.”
It all points to one thing.
“Year-round food production is key to strengthening our local food system,” says Deydey.
In Glade, Fahrenbruch and McClelland were mentored by the Sorensons as they launched a CSA program delivering certified organic vegetables to 12 shareholders.
“We started small to allow for a learning curve, with the goal to expand next summer to 40 members,” says Fahrenbruch.
While offering vegetables year-round is their top priority, the couple is also considering the possibility of offering meat. They currently have three Tamworth-Berkshire sows and a boar, as well as a small herd of Katahdin-Dorper-cross sheep.
“We had laying hens right away, even before the house was built,” says Fahrenbruch.
With the development of the winter CSA, she is now able to work on the farm full-time, while McClelland continues his work as a youth substance use counsellor and therapeutic recreation co-ordinator in Castlegar and the Slocan Valley.
“Outdoor education is a nice way to segue into farming,” says McClelland. “A lot of work translates to farming – you’re out in the elements.”
“We’re community-based and relationship-based, which is a great way to connect with the shareholders,” says Fahrenbruch. “CSA folks become really interested in the entire process, not just the final product.”
The satisfaction that the couple derives from that connection is simply but eloquently stated on their website: “We often remark that our farm feeds us three times: Once while we are growing, once while we are eating at our table, and once when we are able to share the food we have grown with others.”
Fahrenbruch appreciates the shareholders’ positive response to their efforts as first-year, first-generation farmers.
“It’s fun having something I held in my mind and seeing it come to fruition,” says Fahrebruch. “Seeing the interest for local food production is really exciting, and there is potential for it to really skyrocket.”
“People are often overjoyed,” says McClelland.