Heather Shobe, from left, Nancy Roussel, Kirsty Allen and Ann Marshall (background), Alberni Growers Collective members at their Spirit Square Farmers Market booth. MIKE YOUDS PHOTO

PROGRESS 2019: Collective wisdom grows in Port Alberni

Small-scale growers take advantage of group dynamics to ‘grow’ business

MIKE YOUDS

SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

Small-scale agriculture is gaining ground in the Alberni Valley, responding to a growing interest in locally produced food, greater awareness of food security and the TLC of more than a few green thumbs.

The popularity of farmers markets is one sign of this healthy trend. Another is the emergence of urban growers collectives in Port Alberni and elsewhere in B.C. Unlike co-operatives, which are legally constituted, collectives are small and informal groups.

Alberni Growers Collective formed in 2018, the initiative of four local women who share a similar outlook.

“We just started tossing around ideas and it really has evolved organically,” said Heather Shobe.

Producing revenue from small-scale growing is hard work, she noted. Part of the collective advantage comes from the varied crops members grow, enabling them to offer an attractive array of produce weekly.

“We all have a slightly different forte,” said Shobe, who operates Eden Tree Farm and Gardening. “I guess it has really simplified our marketing process and expanded our resources.”

They’ve opted to keep the group small and manageable, learning as they went. A formal structure for tracking sales makes it manageable.

“It’s really important that you have clear communication with each other and good dynamics as a group,” said Shobe. She also works to support valley growing in her other job as an agricultural advisor with the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District (ACRD).

“I was really happy to hear about another collective starting up,” she said. “We only have so much capacity. We have encouraged other people to start similar groups.”

“Gardeners are social,” said Kirsty Allen, another Alberni Growers member. “We give each other guidance and share the work. It’s a super fun group.”

Uptown Urban Farming Collective (UUFC) is an offshoot of the local advocacy group Women’s Food and Water Initiative. Flooded farms in the U.S. Midwest this spring prompted discussion of climate-related food supply impacts at the group’s AGM.

“I thought, why can’t we form a collective,” said Jen Fisher Bradley. “I think we are ready.”

Jen and her partner Stephen are ready, having operated Mirabel Farm on Fourth Avenue for the past dozen years. In recent years, they’ve adapted to changing conditions, notably a drier season, by adopting permaculture methods and collecting locally acclimatized seeds. Through WFWI, they lobbied for the city’s urban market garden bylaw, which allows the sale of backyard produce. Each spring, WFWI hosts Seedy Saturday, a seed swap and shrub sale based in part on a belief in the importance of genetic variety.

A single urban residential garden wouldn’t be enough to fill a table at every weekend farmers market, but four “urban farms” working and planning in co-operation can, said Fisher Bradley. They share resources, whether in the form of materials or knowledge.

“And this year is a bit of an experimental year because we’re seeing how we do together,” she said. “What do we produce and how much? Each of us has limited space.”

Over the last 30 years, urban farming has evolved into a global movement that seeks to reconnect city dwellers with their food supply in the age of the factory farm. In the face of declining crop yields and rising prices, the cause has assumed greater urgency.

“We’re making a statement,” Fisher Bradley said, a statement about the vulnerability of a food system that is increasingly threatened by climatic extremes.

“We want to be ready, and of course, we want to inspire others to take similar action because every little bit of food we can grow here is food we don’t have to bring to the Island. That’s mitigation, but it’s also adaptation because we’re readying ourselves for the inevitable.

“Before, I didn’t think of it as an emergency, but now we’re in an emergency,” she added. “It just felt like it was the right timing. I suppose we’re becoming a little bit more serious about it.”

•••

Mike Youds is a Port Alberni freelance journalist and a member of the Uptown Urban Farming Collective.

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