Cultivating Community

October 1, 1999

By Michael Jessen

"Community's not a sentiment. It has to do with necessity - with people needing each other. If you allow the larger industrial system to remove the pattern of needs that is the force holding people together, then you lose the community." Wendell Berry

To Dan Ferguson, nothing says community like food. That's why he's honoured to be one of the farmers putting locally grown organic produce on West Kootenay dinner tables.

On 10 acres in Tarrys, he grows carrots, turnips, black Spanish radish, onions, squash, beets, chard, and broccoli outdoors, and parsley and spinach in his year-round greenhouse.

Even after eight years of hard work building up the farm with his partner Regan, Ferguson is most passionate about cultivating community in the Nelson area.

He cites information that West Kootenay residents are the highest per capita consumers of organic produce in North America, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Kootenay Country Store Co-Operative which has been promoting organic for 25 years.

Then he drops the bombshell - 98 percent of our food is imported into the Kootenays. In fact, food travels an average of 2,100 kilometres from farm-gate to dinner table according to Nelson's Community Food Group.

"What would happen if the United States went to war or some type of weather-related disaster cut off our food supply?" Ferguson asks.

Quite a precarious situation for something that is a necessity of life.

Ferguson believes it's even more surprising given that the West Kootenay area used to supply 12 percent of our province's food. "I think every community on this planet has a right to feed itself," says Ferguson.

While organic food is a booming $3.5 million business growing at an average rate of 20 percent annually, Ferguson feels the industry is severely hampered by federal and provincial regulations and centralized marketing boards that are inflexible to the needs of regions like the West Kootenay.

As an organic farmer, Ferguson uses no pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers. Instead, he applies expensive fish fertilizer, bone meal, and blood meal to his soil as required. When he wanted to create his own fertilizer by raising chickens and supplying eggs on a commercial basis, he found out he would have to pay $70 per bird to buy quota and an additional levy fee of 40 cents per bird per week to the egg marketing board.

"It's no wonder we have no commercial egg farms in this area," says Ferguson. "The system has no concept of regional needs."

The answer, according to Ferguson and other members of the Kootenay Organic Growers Society (KOG), is to set up local marketing boards. The current system totally works against areas like the West Kootenay becoming food self-sufficient even though the area has tremendous potential, he adds. He hopes area residents will rally support for KOG's position.

Ferguson began his farm harvesting produce grown on about 1 hectare. "But I have year-round payments so I needed to find year-round income."

Two years ago he built his greenhouse and recently he completed an 800 square foot root cellar which can store up to 15 tons of carrots through a winter.

He hopes eventually to have about 10,000 square feet of greenhouse space "which is sort of a magic mark from my studies to make a living at it.

"It's really hard to compete with California," Ferguson says during a tour of his greenhouse. "In fact, it's almost impossible."

He's particularly upset about the electricity rates he has to pay for lights in his greenhouse. "I should be paying a farm rate, not the commercial rate, especially after all the farmland that was lost to flooding this area suffered when dams were built."

Ferguson also wants people to understand two important benefits of having local farmers. "We spend our income locally which supports the local economy and we protect the land base by keeping it in productive farming."

He says he's deeply worried about the amount of local land being taken out of the Agricultural Land Reserve because people aren't farming it.

Equally troubling is the fact the Regional District of Central Kootenay has no firm idea about how much arable land exists in the district. Therefore, each additional approved subdivision is possibly dooming the goal of local growers who hope to move the region toward food self-sufficiency. Lack of information is most often at the heart of our inability to create sustainable communities.

But open land is not only preferred by many for aesthetic reasons, it also helps local communities stay financially stable. A recent study of land-use patterns and local town budgets in the U.S. compared the revenues from residential, commercial/industrial, and farm/forest taxes to the costs of serving those users (such costs as public works, education, police, and fire). Whereas residential taxpayers required $1.36 in services for every dollar they paid in taxes, farmers cost only 21 cents per tax dollar paid.

Brewster Kneen, an internationally recognized expert on the food system who lives in Sorrento, BC, says a community changes when it supports local growers.

"The people in town realize that their well-being is dependent on the health of the surrounding area, and begin to support local producers to grow food for them rather than big companies producing crops for export," says Kneen, who recently authored the book "Farmageddon: Food and the Culture of Biotechnology." "I envisage people having a family farmer, just as they have a family doctor or dentist," Kneen adds.

Jack Kittredge, a farmer and writer from Barre, Massachusetts, says consumers are increasingly concerned about the use of toxic chemicals in raising food.

"Yet over the last thirty years U.S. sales of pesticides have increased twenty-seven-fold to a current level of seven billion dollars," Kittredge writes. "Antibiotics are now administered in feed to 80 percent of all poultry, 75 percent of hogs, 60 percent of beef cattle, and 75 percent of dairy cows.

"Ninety-two percent of the lettuce harvested in the United States is grown in California and Arizona, where sixty-two different chemicals are used on it. Groundwater pollution from at least forty-six pesticides has been found in twenty-five states. In Iowa and Nebraska, half the wells are contaminated; in California, twenty of the thirty-three counties report detectable residues," he continues.

Though separated by the width of the continent, both Kittredge and Ferguson agree on the importance of protecting topsoil. "The careless practices of our modern world have seen up to half of that soil washed or blown away, and each year every acre loses an average of 7.7 tons more," Kittredge writes.

"If you're doing it properly, growing organically actually replenishes the soil," says Ferguson. "I've seen the difference between organic and non-organic in the height of fields at the fence line."

When informed that community-supported agriculture had its roots in postwar Japan, Ferguson is surprised. Told that an organization known as the Seikatsu Club was formed to protect agricultural land and that, loosely translated, seikatsu means "food with the farmer's face on it," Ferguson just smiles.

It's the smile of a farmer and a community builder.

ONE SMALL STEP - As BC's Farm Folk/City Folk Society says, every bite counts. Every meal is a vote for a particular way of producing, processing, and distributing food. Buying organic confirms your commitment to safe food and a cleaner environment. The way we eat has a significant effect on what we will eat tomorrow. Diseases, allergies, and chemical sensitivities have convinced many that fresh, unprocessed, organic produce represents the healthiest alternative available to food buyers today. Kootenay Organic Growers (KOG) are seeking supporters and members. They meet the first Monday of every month at the Beasley fire hall. Remember, large supermarkets have only three days supply of food at any one time. If you have local farmers and you support them, they'll always be there for you. More than 275,000 people are employed in BC's food and beverage industries. One in seven British Columbians work in this $17 billion industry. Over 200 agricultural commodities are being commercially marketed in BC.

Regan and Dan Ferguson's produce is marketed under the name Soil Matters. It is available in Nelson at the Kootenay Country Store Co-Operative, Overwaitea, and Ellison's Market, as well as Evergreen Natural Foods in Crescent Valley. It is distributed to some other West Kootenay communities through Endless Harvest Organic Produce Home Delivery. It is possible to buy direct from the Ferguson farm by phoning (250) 399-4313 or e-mailing spinach2u@hotmail.com You can also contact the Fergusons if you want more information about Kootenay Organic Growers. Jack Kittredge's essay "Community-supported Agriculture: Rediscovering Community" is from the book "Rooted in the Land" edited by William Vitek and Wes Jackson, published by Yale University Press in 1996. New Society Publishers published Brewster Kneen's book "Farmageddon" in 1999.


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