Fields Forward – The Creston Valley’s Ag Future
Like many other rural B.C. communities transitioning from historical resource industry economies, the Creston Valley spent most of the 90’s experiencing something akin to a “mid-life crisis” with the decline of forestry, mining, and even traditional agriculture.
Tough questions hit you as a community when your glory days seem to be in the rear view mirror. It’s easily tempting to try to emulate others around you in the hope of finding new success. Why not sell the farm and go in for early retirement and a sports car like West Kelowna, lure jet-setting big-spenders looking for a wild weekend like Whistler, or go corporate big box like Cranbrook?
Creston Valley’s Agri-Businesses: Same-Same But Different
However, these times of challenge and reflection are also important breeding grounds for opportunity to emerge, forcing us to embrace new ideas or drawing inspiration from past strengths. The Creston Valley seems to have rediscovered its sense of self identity thanks in no small part to it’s heritage as an agricultural hub and some recent trends in the sector that are driving new opportunities.
For example, with it’s long fruit-growing history, the Creston Valley has also proved to be fertile ground for the BC wine industry boom. All opening within the last fifteen years, Skimmerhorn, Baillie-Grohman, and Wynnwood Wineries sell some of BC’s best quality wines (as I noted in my post on Baillie-Grohman winery). Rumour even has it that more are likely on the horizon in the near future.
Also, home to one of B.C’s premiere Farmers’ Markets, Creston springs to life on market days, bringing vibrancy and added business to downtown Creston. Most importantly, the market has helped incubate a slew of small businesses that have popped up to fill it’s stalls. This in turn generates revenues for it’s vendors while infusing 1.72 million dollars back into the community.
Simultaneously, a new batch of educated and innovative entrepreneurs, inspired by the local food movement, have brought imaginative business ideas to town. From the CSA box business of Cartwheel Farms, to the “locavore” menus at Fork Food Truck and Real Food Café, to William Tell’s value-added cider products, successful agri-businesses are sprouting up around the valley.
times of challenge and reflection are also important breeding grounds for opportunity to emerge, forcing us to embrace new ideas or drawing inspiration from past strengths.
All the grassroots buzz has started to get noticed by local government and provincial officials as well, eager to support a strong and sustainable economy in a possibly post-resource economic era.
In fact the Town of Creston and Regional District of Central Kootenay A, B, & C (the rural areas outside the municipality) have begun to focus economic development discussions on the growing potential of the agri-tourism industry. The Town of Creston’s recent approval of the design for a permanent “Market Park” for the Farmers’ Market is a substantial example of that.
Needless to say, all these grassroots signs of success show the real increasing viability in the Creston Valley’s agriculture sector; and all this despite any real collaboration between the sector, local government, and the larger community.
Then in 2013 the Creston and District Community Directed Funds initiative was launched with Kooteanay-based Columbia Basin Trust. Overseen by the Creston and District Community Directed Funds Committee, a committee of volounteers and supported administratively by the Creston-based Kootenay Employment Services, the initiative has provided three years of funding to develop a community priorities plan for the Creston area.
In the ensuing two years the CDCDF Committee has sponsored a series of community engagement events, the Creston Conversations community forum, and research projects like the Creston Happiness Survey to determine priority areas for development. Following this intensive process of engagement, research, and planning the committee determined three priority areas:
- Child, Youth, and Family Friendliness,
- Community Finance; and
- AGRICULTURE & FOOD!
Fields Forward Initiative – Barn-Raising Creston Valley Style
As the old saying goes “many hands make the load light” and the agriculture sector knows that better than most. In the Creston Valley there is a strong sentiment that this success is just the tip of the iceberg; that with coordinated partnership between various levels of government, the agriculture sector, and the larger community, barriers to greater success can be eliminated and the Creston Valley agriculture sector can reach the next level.
Based on the prioritization of Agriculture and Food as an area of development, in late December 2015 the Community Directed Funds Committee announced plans to kickstart the Fields Forward Initiative. In their press release they described it as a “partnership program to boost economic development in the agri-food sector and improve local food security… link[ing] groups and projects, making it easier for them to do their own work and reach shared goals.” In the announcement they described a plan to:
- establish an impact team of economic development and agri-food professionals,
- hire a paid coordinator to oversee this project, and;
- support potential partnership activities with seed funds.
Clearly a “coordinated” response to the opportunity of the ag sector was front and centre on the agenda.To get the ball rolling, the Community started by hosting the Fields Forward Forum on January 11th and 12th at the Creston & District Community Complex.
With a host of regional politicians, government representatives, community members, and farmers themselves, The two-day “training and community action planning” forum’s invite list was a who’s who of agriculture industry stakeholders. And somehow a guy who likes to write about local food also managed to sneak in and get front row tickets. Here’s what I saw and learned.
Fields Forward Forum – Day 1: Teaching a Community to Raise a Barn
Arriving late Monday afternoon, I snuck into a crowded room of people listening attentively to keynote speaker Scott Hutcheson. As director of the prestigious Center for Regional Development at Purdue University in Indiana, Scott has spent a career understanding how communities like post-NASA Cape Canaveral, Florida successfully plan for socio-economic transition and revitalization.
Essentially, Scott’s message was simple: Community economic initiatives don’t fail from a lack of enthusiasm or will, but in setting lofty objectives without clear steps to achieve them, burning out passionate community members and breeding cynicism.
Rather than a lot of big talk and ideas, the Center for Regional Development proposes a strategy based instead on small achievable actions, aptly called “Strategic Doing”. In it they suggest success depends on:
- Creating networks of small working groups
- setting a manageable objective,
- establishing a series of clear steps to achieve it,
- determining measurable outcomes,
- coming together regularly and;
- requiring no more than a few hours of work from each participant between regular meetings.
In the end these modest wins generate momentum in themselves, inspiring more and more action with greater impact. For a room full of busy people familiar with burnout, there was a noticeable sign of understanding and hope as they absorbed this idea.
A Barn Blueprint: Vermont’s Farm to Fork
To inspire food for thought following Scott’s message, Laura Hannant, Community Development coordintor at KES also shared the story of Vermont’s statewide Farm to Plate program, an incredibly successful agricultural initiative that the Fields Forward project was clearly modeled after.
First kicked off in 2007 in Vermont, the program brought together state legislators, farmers, buyers, and agri-businesses to respond to the decline of the once strong dairy industry and address growing concerns over food security in the state. Simultaneously, the initiative was also aimed at supporting new businesses meeting growing consumer demand for high-quality, local foods and value-added products. The primary goals of the project were to:
- Increase economic development in Vermont’s food and farm sector.
- Create jobs in the food and farm economy.
- Improve access to healthy local foods.
By 2012, Five years after Farm to Fork’s implementation, food systems sales in Vermont had increased by 32%, value-added food manufacturing increased by 58%, and 5,387 new jobs have been created in the agriculture sector.
Day 2: Barn Raising From the Ground Up
The next day was all about putting some rubber to the road and taking all these good ideas out for a test drive. Admittedly I was still a little skeptical. Like many folks I’ve sat in a lot of meetings where few results came out of hours of breathless discussion.
Breaking into small working groups, participants joined tables discussing topics ranging from finding a permanent Farmers’ Market location to expanding the regional market for Creston Valley products. I managed to squeeze my way into a table working on marketing local products under a wider Creston Valley brand (think Okanagan Wine or Alberta Beef).
Following the “strategic doing” model presented the day before, each table broke into a quick “lightning round” planning session, before reconvening to present their projects to one another. By the end of these presentations there was a positively infectious buzz in the room. Somehow aspirations like a permanent Farmers’ Market felt easily achievable and persistent challenges to economic development surmountable.
The Field Forward Forum brought together a passionate community, taught us how to work towards our collective dreams, and then gave us the tools to begin that work.
Equally as important as all the strategies and policy examples, new connections were made between participants and interesting ideas were inspired. At one point I sat and listened to the CFO of the Lower Kootenay Band and a local fruit stand owner discuss ideas for creating value-added products and jobs by processed the thousands of tonnes culled produce thrown away annually. I’d be willing to bet that more than a few good ideas and plans were hatched in that room.
However, the end of the forum was not really the ending, but rather the beginning of a lot of work to get some of these good ideas off the ground. The Field Forward Forum brought together a passionate community, taught us how to work towards our collective dreams, and then gave us the tools to begin that work. Since then many Fields Forward working groups have already met and are actively collaborating towards the goals they identified in that room.
Conclusion: Looking to Creston Valley’s Agri-centric Future
Clearly with such a successful template to follow, the Fields Forward Initiative is hoping for some significant results in the Creston Valley. The message in both Scott Hutcheson’s workshop and the example from Vermont was clear: with community-wide buy-in rooted in a collaborative model for development, Fields Forward can help elevate agriculture in the Creston Valley to a potential that so many feel is just within reach. While time has yet to tell us how this will all play out, it’s at least fair to say that the Fields Forward initiative has inspired hope for the Valley’s future… and that is fertile ground for a seed to grow.