Master gardener Pablo Vimos explaining vegetable production in planter boxes to Klemtu community members in 2019. (N-EAT image)

Master gardener Pablo Vimos explaining vegetable production in planter boxes to Klemtu community members in 2019. (N-EAT image)

Growing food sovereignty at Klemtu

Greenhouse and grow boxes help create circular food economy for Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nations

The Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nations in Klemtu on B.C.’s central coast are working to develop food and nutritional resilience through greenhouse gardening and home garden boxes.

The project started in 2018 with a team from Simon Fraser University (SFU), and has just received a fresh injection of funding from the federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and two private foundations.

The money will be used to double the amount of planter boxes for families in Klemtu to 36 from 18, develop a business model for the produce grown at the community greenhouse, and work on connecting traditional food knowledge with modern growing methods.

Klemtu’s food is delivered via boat once every week or two. Produce isn’t super fresh by the time it arrives, which leads to a reliance on processed foods which have a much longer shelf life.

“In general, our ancestors were healthy, well-built, athletic people,” said Isaiah Robinson, an elected councillor with Kitasoo. But as food and economic systems were disrupted over the past 100 years, health issues have risen, particularly diabetes and obesity. It’s a chronic struggle for First Nations, he says, often being in remote locations with end-of-the-line deliveries.

“We get lettuce that may last a couple of days; we may get milk that lasts five days. So the life span of produce is very minimal. So then we have to default to things such as juice, such as high calorie foods.

“Our goal is to provide our own food for our own community and create a circular economy.”

Klemtu’s restored greenhouse (N-EAT image)

Long-term, they plan to heat the greenhouse to grow fresh food year-round. Robinson is also looking at a hydroponic system called the Growcer that can support high productivity growth in nearly any climate. For now they’re concentrated on helping people learn to garden in Klemtu’s climate. That itself is a variable, Robinson says, as climate change has made the growing season more erratic than it used to be.

“Summer was always very hot and long … this year we basically had two weeks of summer. The rest pretty much rained.”

This year, the coronavirus pandemic exposed more weaknesses in the community’s food supply. Bi-weekly food deliveries were cancelled when the community closed itself off to non-residents, fearing what an outbreak would do to their limited health resources.

The lockdown worked against COVID-19, but fresh food became scarce.

READ MORE: COVID-19 tests come back negative in remote First Nation community

READ MORE: First Nation praises BC Ferries’ ‘phenomenal’ grocery delivery service to community

Dr. Zafar Adeel, a project lead and professor at SFU says the project — Nutrition through Engagement and Agricultural Technologies — aims to get Klemtu’s food security to the point where nutrition isn’t interrupted when external shocks hit.

Klemtu has had two growing seasons with the refurbished community greenhouse and individual planter boxes. The greenhouse produces cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, radishes, squash, peas, melons, lettuce, pumpkins, strawberries, sunflowers and more, and sells the food through the band store. Carrots, peas and lettuce have been popular in the individual grow boxes that are rented out annually for a few dollars.

A primary focus this year will be to develop community resources and knowledge sharing so that people know what to do with a fresh squash, or how to protect against veggie-loving slugs.

Klemtu community members building planter boxes with the N-EAT team. (N-EAT image)

The N-EAT program has sent master gardeners to Klemtu to train people how to garden vegetables, and the lead botanist, Fiona Chambers, is knowledgeable in traditional growing methods as well as more modern technologies. Education is a core component of the program.

“…this is a new thing for this generation. First Nations people have always been able to deal with agriculture in their own way, and of course, we no longer do that as much as we used to,” Robinson said.

Coordinating with the school has helped to engage the younger generation, which he hopes will take the initiative to develop food sovereignty in Klemtu.

Do you have something to add to this story or something else we should report on? Email: zoe.ducklow@blackpress.ca


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