“The Farmland Belongs to the Community”: Glen Valley Organic Farm Co-op

Nestled along the Fraser River, about 10 minutes from Fort Langley, is Glen Valley Organic Farm Co-operative (GVOFC). This unique and beautiful patch of land has remained a small, organic farm for the past 20 years despite increasing pressures to develop or sell. 

The farm has survived because local people believed in its ability to provide organic food to the community and formed a co-operative. With it’s excellent flood-plain soil, the founders of the co-op felt it should not be forfeited to private development. 

The Co-operative Solution

Because the owners at the time couldn’t find buyers that intended to keep the farm organic, a co-operative was formed in 1998 and — with the money raised from memberships and a mortgage — this group of visionaries bought the farm. 20 years later, the mortgage on GVOFC’s land has been paid off and a couple of farming business have come and went, but it remains an organic farm.

Currently there are two farming businesses leasing land from the co-operative: Close to Home Organics and Earth Apple Organic Farm. Both are family-owned businesses and each family lives on the farm. They often share meals and co-operate in a number of ways, making this farm feel much like a community all its own. 

One of these farmers is Chris Bodnar. Along with his wife Paige and their children, Chris runs Close to Home Organics. During our conversation Chris showed us around the farm.

Buddy the dog lives on the farm and was almost as good a guide a Chris!

Successful Sustainability 

Once we started talking, I started to get a sense that they understand the value of this place and have made concrete steps to protect it. Parts of the farm remains forest, and the farm is certified salmon safe — a step they took due to the river being just a stone’s throw away. Leaving the forest was only possible because of the lack of pressure to make every square foot of land generate profit, Chris said.

The co-operative also put in place measures to halt the potential sell-off of the farm. For example, membership shares are set at a fixed value regardless of whether the assets of the farm appreciate. This measure reduces the incentive to sell at a profit, which helps secure the land for organic farming. 

The people involved here are very serious about organic farming. They live on the land, and many aspects of how the farm is operated, including right down to its very structure, is done in a way that ensures the farm will churn out organic produce for a long time to come. 

A Community Farm

This farm is important to more than the people living on it though. Peggy Vogler, the farms largest buyer of rhubarb and daughter of Allan Christian who founded Aphrodite’s Café and Pie Shop and spent time living on the farm, has kept her ties to the farm. Organic produce is important to her clientele, and so the farm remains a key supplier. 

Likewise, Michael Marrapese, who does all things communications and technology for the agricultural support organization Farm Folk City Folk, commended Glen Valley’s current farmers on the connections they’ve been able to form with the community.

We met Michael at the Langley Farmers Market, which is where you can find Close to Home Organics on Wednesdays. Being at the market was a great way to see the market side of the farm and get in touch with how the community outside of the farm interacts with its products, all of which looked stellar!

The farm has this undeniably welcoming quality to it. With everyone cheerfully going about their business, I felt as if I’d stepped into some sort of pastoral wonderland. Over here a coop full of chickens androws of beans, and over there potatoes, rhubarb, and many other veggies. Glen Valley’s got everything you’d expect — and great people too! 

Net Zero at Mile Zero: the Peace Energy Co-operative

Dawson Creek sits just off the Alberta border in northern British Columbia. It’s named for the creek that runs through town and is known for being Mile “0” of the famous Alaska highway. 

Dawson Creek has a population of roughly 13,000 and certainly has that small-city feel. While it has historically been an agricultural town there has been an influx of oil and gas in recent years. Another industry that’s gaining traction here is renewable energy. And of course, at the centre of this emerging sector is a co-operative. 

This line of windmills are visible from Dawson Creek.

The Peace Energy Co-operative (PEC) has been around since 2003 and has developed impressive wind and solar installations around the region. Its Dawson Creek office is a testament to its mandate — it’s located in a house with a rooftop full of solar panels. The panels provide enough power for the building to reach ‘net zero’, which means they offset the entirety of its energy consumption.

Our three excellent hosts in Dawson Creek are also founding members of the co-op and great guides to the region. 

PEC Executive Director Don Pettit is the voice of the organization, and keeps people in the region up-to-date not just with PEC, but with all renewable energy news through his press releases and great blog (hilariously named “Watt’s Happening”). When you talk to Don, his passion for and knowledge about renewable energy is apparent.

Our other guides, Joanne Dueck and her husband Greg, told us about their experience driving an electric car in a rural area. (Joanne is a director of PEC, and Greg is its solar designer, so they know a thing or two.) They said it can be easy to rely on electric when driving the short distance to and from town and, if a longer range is needed, they always have the gasoline engine to rely on.

We were thrilled when Greg generously offered to let us test drive their hybrid! Neither Tanner nor I had ever had the chance to get behind the wheel of an electric car. We were both surprised by the vehicle’s unexpected acceleration and, having grown up in diesel trucks, the silence of the engine. We had a blast!

We also learned of their passion for renewable energy. For the Duecks, getting involved with PEC was about leaving a legacy and cleaner world for their children. 

The pair also told us about the small town of Hudson’s Hope, west of Dawson Creek, which packs a big renewable energy punch. When its solar program was created, the town put out a press release with the headline “Hudson’s Hope Goes Solar, Big Time!”.

Joanne and Greg said the Hudson’s Hope solar project is PEC’s largest: 1,550 solar panels were installed on nine municipal buildings. I was amazed by the foresight of this small community – these panels are expected to save the municipality around $3 million over the next 30 years!

I was also glad to hear that the installation process employed several highschool students from Hudson’s Hope and that solar education and training opportunities were offered to the community. Education is a major aspect of the PEC, as they are often educating people about how a personal array can cut costs, or the impacts of their large projects.

Another big PEC project is the 34-turbine wind power installation on Bear Mountain. The windmills can be seen on the horizon from Dawson Creek, but we wanted a closer look.  Don, Greg and Joanne were happy to take us up.

Bear Mountain 

As we approached the site I realized why we had taken a pickup truck — the road was a bumpy grid that reminded me of some of the backroads I had taken during my youth in southern Saskatchewan. I should have expected as much — the place is called Bear Mountain after all. 

There was this beautiful moment when we got our first close look at one of the turbines through the truck’s sunroof. It’s a little hard to describe but they’re much taller than you think and nearly silent. The final effect is this lineup of quiet giants that blend mechanics with nature. 

Tanner and Don snap photos of the wind power installation.

While Tanner was getting footage of these quiet giants I chatted with Don about the process of installing them. The three-megawatt Enercon turbines were shipped in from abroad while the towers were constructed in Canada. The installation has a production capacity of 102 megawatts. Don tells me that this is enough power for several Dawson Creeks! 

Due to the massive nature of this project PEC had to bring on several partners, but much of the data collection and groundwork for this project was laid by this co-operative.

When we talked to Don, his love for the community really showed through. He spoke about having lived in a variety of cities in both the U.S. and Canada before coming to Dawson Creek. As a nature photographer Don fell for region’s rolling hills and beautiful foliage and decided to stay. 

After seeing Dawson Creek from Don’s perspective, it was hard to disagree about its beauty. And while the views are great, so are the people and the unique co-op they’ve created. 

River Select

At the end of August, we had the chance to visit the Okanagan to spend some time with an amazing Indigenous Co-op: River Select.

Smoke from the August wildfires plaguing northern BC was evident in the Kelowna area during our visit, but the natural beauty of BC wasn’t hidden by the haze. Our drive into the Lower Fraser Valley was highlighted by corn fields, winding roads, and lush green landscapes. The area is packed with the promise of good food and good people.

Harrison Select

We were fortunate to encounter both when we met with Dave Moore, Manager of River Select Co-operative on the Sts’ailes First Nation near the Chehalis and Harrison Rivers. Dave gave us a tour of the fish processing site operated by the Sts’ailes and Scowlitz First Nations. This partnership, dubbed Harrison Select, brings together fishers from both Nations to brand and market a product that is harvested using traditional learnings. The logo for Harrison Select is the Sasquatch walking alongside a salmon: the Sts’ailes First Nation recognize the Sasquatch as the caretaker of the land, and the Scowlitz recognize the salmon as their logo.

(Unfortunately, there were no Sasquatch sightings during our visit.)

Sisan and Kyle with the Harrison Select logo

Dave said many First Nation communities that rely on the fishery have been concerned with declining stocks and overharvest resulting from commercial activity over the last 150 years. River Select was created in response to this destructive practice. The co-op allows relatively small-scale First Nation-owned fisheries to conduct sustainable harvest using sustainable methods while finding efficiencies through co-operation. By working together, the eight members can maintain feasibility allowing them to preserve their traditional fisheries.

“Our co-operative came into being when it became clear that these small artisanal fisheries of yesteryear, they can’t survive in today’s global economy because it’s all about large, consistent volumes year-round,” said Dave. “…we designed a fisheries co-operative that could provide the financing, the infrastructure, the professionals in order to help do the kinds of things they couldn’t afford to do as a single small enterprise, but could do collectively if they shared these things.”

While the co-op only employs four people directly, it fosters the livelihoods of hundreds of Indigenous fishers across BC.

“We invest in value-adding that fish so the community and the fishermen see more value from their efforts,” Dave said.

Each Nation maintains a storefront where they sell their own branded products that are distributed by the co-op. This complements the online store and allows each Nation to capitalize on tourists hungry for local salmon.

As a biologist who has worked in the fishing industry for over 30 years Dave knows a thing or two, so we had to ask: ‘How do you cook the perfect salmon?’ His favourite: Chinook salmon, barbequed on a cedar plank.

With mouths watering, we purchased some salmon jerky from the Sts’ailes store to satisfy our craving on the drive home.

Okanagan Select and Osoyoos Lake

On our second day, we met Howie Wright with Okanagan Nation Alliance, a representative of eight Nations in the area and the owner of Okanagan Select. Howie gave us a tour of Okanagan Select’s storefront, processing site, freezers, and dry storage areas.

After our tour of the Westbank-based site, Howie asked if we could join him at the landing ground on Osoyoos Lake where he had arranged for us to meet some local fishers. The Backroad Diaries team is always up for a road trip, so we set off for Osoyoos.

If you’re wondering how to get to Osoyoos Lake when heading south, Howie’s directions were spot on:

  1. Turn left on road 22 off highway 97
  2. Turn right onto Black Sage Road by the old barns
  3. Turn left by the second set of houses where a toilet used to be
  4. Keep left until you reach the lake

When we arrived we met Louie, the owner of Louie’s Extreme Fishing, who took us out on the lake to meet some local fishers. With the smoke thickening, we were unable to appreciate our mountainous surroundings, but that allowed us to focus on fishing.

We also met Reagan, a local fish harvester. Using sonar technology, Reagan can detect a cluster of fish, then cast out a net to surround the fish and pull them up. Once near the surface, a packing boat (a smaller boat filled with totes) moves alongside the fishing boat to receive the catch. The fish are then poured into the totes and brought ashore.

Community Fishery

Louie told us that that week the fish weren’t being harvested commercial purposes, but for the community food fishery. The fish harvested on the day we visited would go to Merritt, and fish from the following day would head to Vernon. Communities rely on the fishery for more than just revenue: the co-op helps preserve a way of life that has been practiced for thousands of years.

Limləmt, thank you, to Dave, Howie, Louie, and everyone else we met throughout the Okanagan for your hospitality and kindness.

Co-op Town: Nelson, BC

When we started thinking about communities we wanted to visit for The Backroad Diaries, one stood out as a can’t-miss: Nelson, British Columbia. This town of 10,000 is tucked in the Selkirk Mountains of BC’s West Kootenay region, and in addition to an abundance of natural beauty it hosts an abundance of co-operatives. We wanted to know why.

Upon arriving we checked into The Adventure Hotel: a bright yellow heritage building in the centre of town. We sat down to Google-map the co-ops we planned to visit during our stay, to get the lay of the land. We soon discovered we were well-situated.

The Adventure Hotel, Nelson

Sisan: “Where’s the bakery co-op?”

Aasa, google-mapping: “It’s…a six-minute walk from here”.

S: “The Community Health Co-op?”

A: “…six-minute walk”.

S: “City Hall? We’re going to talk to the mayor.”

A: “Six minutes.”

S: “Where’s the grocery co-op?”

A: “It’s across the street.”

S: “Kootenay Co-op Radio?”

A: “Around the corner.”

As a local remarked shortly after we arrived: “You can’t swing a co-op without hitting another co-op around here.”

As we chatted with people around the community, the reasons for the existence of all these co-ops were unveiled. Some people pointed out the groups who moved to the area during its history, including the pacifist Dukhobors in the early 20th century, and American draft dodgers during the Vietnam War. Others talked about how Nelson doesn’t have a dominant industry on which to base its economy. These factors, it seemed, added up to a community where people pulled together and created things for themselves.

Because Nelson is a place where people understand the co-op model and its value, more people use it when coming up with local solutions. Co-ops beget more co-ops.

We spent our days traipsing around laden with camera equipment and recording devices, attracting the attention of strangers on bicycles. We passed men in the park practicing yoga poses by putting their legs behind their heads, troubadours strumming guitars, and – on the evening before the Senate vote to pass marijuana legalization – two young men smoking a joint on a park bench over-looking the city.

“Tomorrow it will be legal!” called out a cheerful passer-by.

We quickly learned that marijuana production has a long history in the region, and makes up (some say) around 30 per cent of the economy.

Legalization brings some interesting and exciting opportunities, which — unsurprisingly — one group in the area is using the co-operative model to capture. (Todd Veri — above — is involved in the Kootenay Outdoor Producer Co-operative, which will grow outdoor cannabis).

Throughout our stay we also noticed a trend: that many of the people who make up Nelson were not born in the area, but came to visit at some point and just decided to stay. We could certainly see the allure: some stay for the scenery and the opportunities for outdoor activities, some for the artistic community or hippie-vibe, others enjoy the peaceful seclusion of being tucked into a tree-filled valley. Whatever the reason, they’ve chosen to be part of a community that is, perhaps above all else, co-operative.

To see more about the co-ops we visited, follow us on Facebook (@TheBackroadDiaries), Twitter (@TheBackRDiaries) and Instagram (@TheBackroadDiaries).