Mentor Blog – Jon Alcock

Mentor Blog – Jon Alcock

As I sit here in December, taking a break from cleaning carrot seed,  I have sliced up a beautiful Bosc pear for lunch. I will have it with some roasted garlic and goat cheese on a piece of  homemade sourdough bread. This meal conjures up pleasant memories of  my trip to Grand Forks in September to visit Sheila Dobe at her farm, Spencer Hill Orchard. Sheila had visited us at Sunshine Farm several times during the summer, touring our seed production and observing our vocational service to people with diversabilities. At our original discussion at the BC Seeds conference, she had expressed interest into how we integrated  a ‘social enterprise’ into our farming activities.  Sheila had arranged a couple of field days, one at her farm, with farm tours looking at several bean varieties she had been entrusted with, as well as introducing the seed saver community to the newest acquisition for cleaning seed, the ‘winnower’ which thanks to Mojave and Martin at Planting Seeds Project, several farms in BC  now have to clean their seeds. At Sunshine Farm we have found this tool to be very effective in helping us achieve a cleaner, consistent, higher quality seed product.

The first session was well attended  as we gathered around the winnower introducing ourselves and talking about different crops, how to grow them for seed and how to clean the seed. We used some screens and the winnower to clean some beans, wasabi lettuce and lavender seed and toured the gardens and orchard. The site is a beautiful south exposure with a wide variety of Apple, cherry, nectarines and pears with an upslope garden area where several varieties of beans had been planted. Some of the beans, gifted to Sheila, were of varieties long grown in the Grand Forks area but with no varietal name, I suggested she name them after the woman who has since passed on.

This is somewhat of an important point, if the name of a valuable varietal is lost, should the varietal be lost? Or should it be perpetuated with as much information as possible and  carried on with its new name? As seed savers we should be concerned ultimately with conserving genetics, especially of those varieties which perform well in our situation. Our potluck that evening was an animated affair with much discussion on the history of the area, people’s backgrounds, varieties we like to grow and community development and service.

On day two of the field trip, we visited a site in Midway, just north of the US border in an area of lush loamy soil, flat open exposures and an elevation of almost 2000 ft. Sheila had also planted some of the beans at this site to compare to the planting at her site in Grand Forks. This event was well attended with interest from Bridesville, Rock Creek, as well as the locals including some young folk who had been on a mission project in Guatemala.  Growing for seed is second nature in much of the developing world and this was well illustrated by one of the attendees as he told the story of distributing some corn and beans to a peasant farmer who was expected to use it for food. After a season, the old man arrived at the mission one day with corn and beans.  He expressed thanks for the seed, he had grown it out, saved some seed, fed his family and was now returning an equitable amount of the seed he had been given.

At Midway we also harvested beans, threshed them, winnowed them and compared them to the production at Grand Forks. There was opportunity for almost everyone to try the winnower and Sheila made it known that the use of the machine was available for growers in this region. There is no supermarket near Midway and many of the folks have large gardens to supply food  for themselves and to share and trade with their neighbours. High protein storage food like dry beans are an important part of self sufficiency for this neighbourhood and I can see great potential for an increase in production.

I wish to thank Sheila for setting up these field days, giving me the opportunity to share some of my knowledge, meet some great people with like minds and reintroducing me to Grand Forks, a true breadbasket for the region and beyond. Sheila also graciously helped with our ‘Tomato Fest’ in mid September at Sunshine Farm and in the words of my partner Sher, ‘was an army’. Oh, the Bosc pear, Sheila dropped by with a bag of these one day when I was out, remembering a comment I had made on our walk through her orchard.

Each slice is a reminder of the visit, the people, the orchard, the bear who visits every night as the fruit ripens, and Sheila’s commitment to her community. I know we will be friends and colleagues for a long time.

Although Grand Forks has been an important seed growing area in the past, with a good growing season and a generally long dry autumn, the area now is seeing little seed production. There is also less organic production than ever, with the majority of now chemically grown crops being shipped to larger centers such as the lower mainland of BC. It would be nice to see more of a return to organic seed and ground crop production. I think this area is perfect for new growers looking for more reasonable land cost, great soil, good growing season, great seed production area and awesome community.

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