Spirit Square Farm Market in Port Alberni will open its 2020 season on May 2 with food-only vendors and social distancing measures in place due to COVID-19. (MIKE YOUDS/ Special to the AV News)

Seed money helps Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District ‘garden packs’ grow

Groups partner to promote local growing, food security on Vancouver Island

By MIKE YOUDS

Special to the News

Garden starter packs, a local initiative to get more people growing their own vegetables, will make a debut at the first Spirit Square Farmers Market of the season, Saturday, May 2.

Volunteers with Alberni Farmers’ Institute, Alberni Valley Food Hub and Alberni Valley Gleaning Project have teamed up with ACRD’s What’s On Your Fork? program to supply the do-it-yourself gardening packs in time for spring planting. Kickstarted by an anonymous donation of $1,000, the initiative responds to increased interest in backyard growing due to the coronavirus pandemic and concerns over reliability of the food-supply chain.

“There’s so much interest in starting back yard gardening right now,” said Heather Shobe, Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District (ACRD) agricultural adviser. Seed suppliers have reported backlogs due to heightened consumer demand and lots of people are looking for chicks to start raising backyard hens, she noted.

“There seems to be a surge of people wanting to get started,” Shobe said.

The project is coming together in short order through the ACRD’s agricultural development committee, which ran a Grow Local campaign with provincial funds a couple years ago.

In this case, the idea is to have vegetable starter packs for container gardening and in-ground planting as well as for growing potatoes. They hope to make them as affordable as possible with prices ranging from $10 to $50.

“We wanted to make it really accessible,” Shobe said.

Organizers hope additional donors, producers and retailers will step forward to contribute momentum and materials such as seeds, seedlings, manure, soil and containers through sale or donation. Initially this season they plan to sell 200 starter packs, starting at Spirit Square Farmers Market, set to open its season Saturday, May 2, at Harbour Quay.

They see marketing opportunities through the packs themselves, augmented by social media and email to provide ongoing support to home gardeners.

Farmers markets are classified by the provincial government as an essential service. Port Alberni Farmers Market, better known as Cherry Creek Market, has resumed on Saturdays with shorter hours, 8-10 a.m., at Cherry Creek First Baptist Church. Outdoor markets have resumed in some communities, such as Qualicum Beach and Comox Valley, with physical distancing and other health precautions.

Spirit Square Market Association intends to adopt special public health measures when it resumes its weekly operation on the quay, said manager Theresa O’Neil.

“We’ll be starting back up as a modified market, meaning only food and starter plant sales,” O’Neil said. They intend to ensure increased distance between vendors, provision of hand sanitizers and possibly consider pedestrian traffic flow measures as the season progresses, she added.

The global pandemic has increased people’s awareness of food security and dependence on the supply system, said Jen Fisher-Bradley, an Uptown urban grower and president of the Women’s Food and Water Initiative, a local climate action group. Last spring, the group held a demonstration called the Great Family Potato Project, promoting a no-dig method of cultivating spuds.

“Growing food gives us an opportunity to take back some self-reliance,” she said, emphasizing soil science and permaculture principles that minimize soil disturbance. “This is a perfect opportunity to teach the children and youth about the importance of soil quality.”

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