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Vancouver Island's drivers of local

The owners of a small grocery store help farmers put fewer miles on their food

By some estimates, Vancouver Islanders used to produce at least half the food they ate each year. That was back in the 1950s. These days, it’s closer to 10 per cent tops, says Daisy Leslie-Orser.

“It’s appalling.” And so she’s doing her bit to change that.

Leslie-Orser (in photo) is co-owner, along with her husband, Adam (right), and Phil Lafreniere (left), of the Root Cellar, a 5,000-square-foot grocery store in Victoria. In order to get more locally produced food into their store, the trio work closely with farmers on everything from crop selection to dealing with waste.

“We’re in the relationship business with our farmers. We probably have 100 small farms that we buy directly from and finding ways to meet our customers needs is critically important to us,” she says.

Take, for instance, the relationship the owners of the Root Cellar have with Raphael Guite, a farmer who runs Oldfield Orchard and Bakery in Saanichton, about 25 kilometres north of Victoria.

Every fall, Daisy and Adam sit down with Guite to “plant a menu,” as Leslie-Orser puts it. Together, they decide which crops to plant again and which to drop in the upcoming season.

Additions could be a new variety of squash, specialty lettuce or, as it was last year, strawberries. Pitching in on crop selection helps the Root Cellar target its food selection while ensuring the farmer can sell his product.

“Farmers have actually expanded their fields because they know that we’re behind them,” Daisy says. “It feels as if we’re actually growing what we’re selling.”

Every bit as important as a self-sufficient retail and agricultural sector, she says, is sustainability. Corn-based packaging, energy-efficient technology and buying local to cut down on the use of diesel-guzzling B.C. ferries and trucks all help to protect the planet.

Working with farmers to recycle waste has also proven to be of mutual benefit. “We have a recycling program that includes take-backs with our farmers. We set unused produce aside, which they then take and feed to their chickens and then we buy back their eggs.”

Crop planning and recycling programs might work for smaller operations such as the Root Cellar, says University of Victoria professor and Canadian research chair Aleck Ostry, but he doesn’t see larger stores climbing on this bandwagon any time soon.

Ostry also says there’s very little data to support Vancouver Island’s claim to past food self sufficiency, adding that if Vancouver Island is less self sufficient than in the past, it’s because of a lack of processing capacity.

But Adam Orser thinks progress is being made. He’s encouraged by the number of farms that are increasing in size, though meeting the volume demands of even small stores such as his continues to be a problem.

The Root Cellar has worked closely with one of the stalwarts of Vancouver Island farm production, Vantreight Farms, near Victoria, to help it meet the rising demand for organic produce.

Vantreight currently devotes approximately 40 acres to organic produce; they and Orser look forward to the day when the farm is fully organic.

“They’ll be up to 300 acres over the next few years, but it’s been a heck of a process to understand the crops that are going to work well in that arena. We sit down with them every year to review that stuff,” says Orser.

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