This story appeared in Kicking Horse Coffee’s Full Press Journal, issue 2, in the fall of 2017 at https://www.kickinghorsecoffee.com/en/fullpress/pembertons-grown-up-dilemma
Growing your own food might be the greatest equal-opportunity gig, but it can’t happen without access to a bit of dirt. Stories of self-sufficient success in the rich (and increasingly rich man’s) soil of rapidly-growing rural Pemberton B.C.
The most high-test event to kick-off summer race season in outdoorsy Pemberton, B.C. (pop. 5260) is not a mountain bike race or glute-burning trail run. It’s the Women’s Institute Plant Sale, a 50-year annual tradition that takes over the Legion parking lot on the first Saturday in May, with tables of seedlings, cuttings, raspberry canes, trees, shrubs, and local seed potatoes.
Don’t mistake it for a small-town social occasion. This is all business. Maximum focus is required. The prices have barely changed since the 1970s. Everything is grown locally. As a result, the entire market is pretty much cleared out within 45 minutes. Getting the garden started is serious business in Pemberton.
It wasn’t always this way. The valley, located 150 kilometres north of Vancouver, housed a seed potato growing industry that generated most of North America’s french fries, and was derisively known as Pemberbush for its less-than-cosmopolitan ways. In the early ‘90s, the population was ten times smaller, just 500 hardy souls. Frustrated that the supermarket didn’t stock any locally grown produce despite being a valley full of farms, a handful of organically-minded newcomers took matters into their own hands and opened a health-food store. But even after desperate innovation that saw them experiment with adding cigarettes, Wonderbread and Spam to the shelves, the store folded a few years later.
Locals could only dream of Pemberton’s modern day situation, where local cafes incorporate as much Pemby produce into their menus as possible, (think potato bread, local eggs, mixed greens). Or a health food store now offering daily soups, and house-made lacto-fermented beet, elderberry and Echinacea soda to a steady flow of type-A, mountain-air sucking, clean-eating athletic. Even the grocery store offers a deep selection of locally grown produce. For people who care about food and where it comes from, things are on the up and up. Unfortunately, so are land prices. And that is a recipe poised to undermine the joy of home-grown. Unless someone gets creative, and fast, those who want to join Pemberton’s slow foodie revolution, are going to have to look elsewhere.
It’s hard to pinpoint what triggered Pemberton’s foodie makeover but, in 2017, gardening in the loamy river-rich soil is one of the core pastimes of otherwise outdoor-sports-focused residents. Farmers quietly tend their fields, as recreationalists surge onto the hillsides all around them. Sometimes, as the seasons shift from growing to snowing, that person is one and the same. This is a ski town. A mountain bike destination. The kind of place where snowmobiles travel around in the back of jacked-up trucks seven months of the year. Nearby Whistler’s legacy as a ski and mountain bike Mecca has spilled over. Adventuring here is increasingly accessible. Growing a family or a garden is becoming less so. Two bedroom condos are setting people back almost half a million dollars, small acreages are being listed for $2 million, farms are starting to be purchased not by hands-on farmers, but by investors and hedge fund owners. Pemberton is no longer the affordable alternative to Whistler it once was.
Anna Helmer has been predicting for years that when people finally came to understand the true cost of food, and the oil subsidies built into them, things would change. The 46-year-old organic farmer, who hails Joel Salatin and Vandana Shiva amongst her heroes, is starting to look like a prophet.
It only took twenty years.
“It was brutal to be pioneering here,” admits Helmer of being the first farmers in a conventional seed potato valley to grow organically. Not only did they have to start an operation from scratch, and convince their colleagues that they wouldn’t introduce diseases and single-handedly decimate the industry, they also had to grow the market for their produce.
Pembertonians wanted to buy potatoes for a few cents a pound—vegetables were just too easy to grow to be valuable as commodities. So the Helmers would drive their produce three hours each way to the city, where dirt-deprived Vancouverites would line up to pay $2 a pound, or more, for buttery-fleshed organic spuds that they scooped up faster than Anna and her parents could grow them. “If we didn’t show up, they’d wait to get their potatoes from us the next week.”
A host of young organic farmers have since been drawn to the Valley by the Helmers’ efforts, diversifying Pemberton’s agriculture scene into an even mix of conventional and organic farms. After starting Slow Food Cycle Sunday, a pedal-powered farm festival in 2005, the town was suddenly a foodie destination. Award-winning urban restaurants tout Pemberton produce on their menus. Harvest boxes leave the Valley every week, supplying food-minded households of nearby Whistler, Squamish and Vancouver.
Somewhere along the way, it was either discovered, or declared by some internet authority, that Pemberton is “the best little farm-to-table town in Canada.”
For Helmer, as she wrestles tractors into submission, logs long hours in the fields, and manages a grueling market schedule, all their success boils down to taste. And unlike all the other factors she does daily battle with, nailing things on the taste front is simple. Deliciousness derives directly from the soil. As the poster hanging on the wall at the local burger joint, Mile One Eating House, attests, “Everything that goes into making good farming soil has happened up here: receding glaciers, exploding volcanoes and frequent flooding.”
With soil like this, Pemberton’s success was inevitable.
Chef Erin Paige Kerr sees the poster every day. It hangs across from the line where the 26-year-old oversees the kitchen.
The restaurant, featured on the Food Network’s You Gotta Eat Here, and dubbed “one of the best restaurants in Canada, with everything a discerning foodie could ever want,” by Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, serves up mountains of Pemberton potato wedges, and hundreds of grass-fed natural beef burgers a night.
Kerr is also responsible for concocting a daily dinner feature—she’ll offer octopus, sea-urchin, bánh mì, Pacific Dungeness crab fritters—as seasonal showcases, a fresh sheet developed always by instinct, never with a recipe. “I’m really a by-feel chef. I love cooking for people,” she says from the open kitchen, looking out over the jam-packed tables. “I like to see their reactions.”
The pink-haired, tattooed Kerr is the youngest person on the line. She stepped up to the role of chef de cuisine in January. Founder Randy Jones, Kerr’s boss, entrusted her with his vision of dishing up incredibly good comfort food. She’s been with the restaurant since it’s opening, six years ago. She was responsible for the house-made relishes that made their way onto the menu, transforming overflow from her own garden into jars of pickles that looked so appetizing, staff had to put a sign up to keep the clamouring customers away: “Not for sale.”
Jones is now focusing his energy on a new ranch in the nearby Chilcotin foothills, where he hopes to start growing hay, and eventually run his own beef cattle. So, it’s ironic that, Jones, alluding to Kerr’s give-zero-f#@*s persona, is the one calling her a cowboy.
“I love Pemberton,” says Kerr. “I don’t think I could ever move away.” But rumblings from her landlord in the winter forced her to confront the possibility. She was given notice on her little cabin and its lovingly tended garden. Rents in Pemberton are skyrocketing, and not many places come with storage, a garage, or a garden. She had no idea where she was going to go. At the last minute, her landlord changed his mind. But the fault-lines remain. The sense of precariousness. What does it mean to fall in love with a buzzworthy place if you don’t own a piece of it?
But this isn’t Whistler or Vail, where more than half the homes sit empty most of the year. It’s a town with one traffic light, no fancy amenities and no Starbucks. It’s where people go to get away, and keep their hands dirty. Can this Eden of veggie-growing hippies remain fertile ground for food culture?
Most recently, she’s helped write an Agricultural Parks plan for Pemberton, proposing the use of 26 acres of land that the town owns as a community farm. She imagines a Farm to School Program, pollinator gardens, acres of garlic and lavender that could double as a work program for the marginalized or under-employed, a community orchard, and plots upon plots for gardeners. “I see amazing possibilities,” says Johnson.
And the demand is huge. The community garden, tucked beside Pemberton Creek and a dense cluster of condominiums, is oversubscribed – every plot is taken and 17 families are on a waitlist for a little patch of soil of their own.
In the spring of 2016, Johnson was invited to a workshop in Vancouver on sustainable food systems, full of policy wonks trying to work out how to meet a new government target and increase the domestic purchases of British Columbian products by 43% by 2020.
Johnson, as the head of a grassroots organization in a small out-of-the-way town, wondered what she was doing there. “The room was filled with brilliant university professors, environmental lawyers, representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, leaders from food processing plants, procurement reps with massive budgets and a bunch of inspiring legends from the non-profit sector who are changing the face of agriculture.”
“Our project doesn’t focus on selling food, but providing locals with access to land to grow food on,” says Johnson. Yet, throughout the Summit, the experts turned to Pemberton. “We were used as an example of how to think outside the box,” marveled Johnson. “Several times, someone would ask, ‘how did you do that up in Pemberton?’”
The Agricultural Park Plan has since been adopted by the local government, but a ton of funding is needed before the ground-breaking idea actually gets into the ground. Getting the project out of the Too Hard Basket might mean convincing a tribe of individualistic competitive givin’er outdoors folk to lend their collective energies to the idea.
Collaboration may not come naturally. But in Pemberton, making sure that anyone who wants to grow their own food has a patch of earth to work with, seems to be an idea worth cultivating, and fast.
Perhaps protecting paradise might not require anything more than creating a park, a space dedicated to growing and everyone getting along.