Artisan cheeses from Salt Spring Island and Hornby Island jams sell like hotcakes at farmers’ markets.
But what are the challenges and opportunities for B.C. Gulf Island farmers and food producers to get their goods to market?
To find out, six undergraduates from the Faculty of Land and Food Systems (LFS) explored the nuts and bolts of local food distribution as part of their community service learning project. The student team focused on 13 Gulf Islands between B.C.’s mainland and Vancouver Island, along with Cortes and Quadra Island.
The project turned out to be a major highlight of their third-year “Land, Food and Community” course, say team members Victoria Elliot, Amanda Hunter, Keely Johnston, Kim Lucas, Catherine Montes and Brianna Stewart.
“Combining hands-on learning with research was an amazing experience,” says Hunter, a nutritional sciences major. “It gave me a better understanding of food marketing and I feel like I have an insider’s view.”
To gather data, the students sent out surveys to more than 100 farmers this past winter. They received a response rate of 30 per cent. Results showed that most of the farmers on B.C.’s Gulf Islands see a need for better food distribution.
Currently, the farmers sell their products mostly at the farm gate, followed by local farmers’ markets and retail outlets. Their most commercially successful products are vegetables, fruit, eggs and bottled products such as jams and pickles, along with meat products and hay.
“A major theme was the desire to expand upon cooperative transport and food distribution networks through collective efforts,” says Lucas, a third-year dietetics student.
For example, 79 per cent of survey respondents expressed a strong interest in a growers association or co-operatives. Other recommendations include a transport system with central distribution points and warehouses, and a small-scale box program which requires consumers to pay the farmer a set price in the spring in exchange for a weekly box of produce through the season.
“Farmers are looking to sell their products more effectively, especially at off-island markets,” says Lucas. “However, they face major logistical barriers such as cost, marketing, time, regulations and ferry prices.”
As part of their project, the student team also helped Don and Shanti McDougall, owners of Mayne Island’s Deacon Vale Farm, look further into their dream of starting a local store. The couple aim to sell their own and other farmers’ produce as well as grocery items and products such as chutneys and jams.
Applying theory to real-life situations was invaluable, says Stewart, who’s in the applied biology program. “We got to have conversations with people actually involved in the food system, outside of the university context. This project made me realize that I have a passion for the marketing side of food.”