Tuesday, November 28, 2023
November 28, 2023

Islanders and government funds make composter dream possible

It takes a profound patience to grow things. 

At every step there are countless moving parts to arrange, plans to lay out that take shape months or years before the first chick hatches, or the first leaf peeks from the dirt. It can take everyone you know — and some you don’t — helping out to make it work. And the process is fraught with the chance of failure, whether from honest mistakes or unavoidable catastrophe — and the possibility of having to start over is always looming, even with the finish line in sight. a

So the sense was one of cautious optimism — and some well-earned satisfaction — at the Burgoyne Valley Community Farm last week, as a visiting MLA toured the site of Salt Spring Island’s new community composter, flanked by representatives of several groups that helped the project along.

Guided by the Farmland Trust’s Sheila Dobie and the Abattoir Society’s Anne Macey, Richmond-Queensborough MLA and Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment Aman Singh saw a project long-shepherded by an army of volunteers on an arguably shoestring budget, squaring off against the familiar concurrent crises of inflation, staffing, resources and housing.  

And while the focus this day was the composter, like everything else in agriculture, it’s part of a larger plan.  

“We identified three key pieces of infrastructure to support farming,” said Macey, who was involved in creating the Salt Spring Island Farm Plan, published in 2008 and updated in 2020. “The abattoir was the first one we got going; the second was The Root, and now there’s the composter.” 

Quantifying the steps needed to get to this moment requires a chart as complicated as any grower’s schedule; every subsequent piece is necessary for the system to work.

Salt Spring’s Capital Regional District (CRD) director Gary Holman pointed out it took several years and the involvement of multiple stakeholders to initially secure the community farm site in 2010 — a swap with Three Point Properties that traded an additional density for a residential development in the south end for 65 acres of prime farmland. 

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Then there’s The Root, a “food hub” on land once owned by the Slegg family and contributed through a similar amenity-zoning exchange. That facility on Beddis Road will be opening doors at its 3,000-square-foot food processing and distribution centre for on-island growers this summer.  

The Abattoir Society itself was born in 2012 out of necessity, through a long-nurtured partnership between Island Natural Growers and the Farmers’ Institute — themselves having joined forces to create the Agricultural Alliance. A nonprofit, community-run abattoir is unique in Canada, if not North America; when fully staffed, this one can process beef, pork, lamb, goats and rabbit, along with poultry.  

Finally, with grid power so far removed from the Burgoyne Valley site, a partnership with Salt Spring Community Energy for solar panels and storage batteries will provide electricity to turn the composter’s giant drum and spin an aeration fan. Project manager Kevin Chipperfield said those panels could also operate pumps to help better utilize wash water from the composter, as well as integrate with a cutting-edge agrivoltaics plan. 

Dobie characterized the overarching structure at the community farm — and indeed across Salt Spring — as a “beautiful array of organizations and individuals and businesses” all dedicated to the notion of local food security. 

“When we look at land acquisitions, farmers contributing to school food programs, getting procurement arrangements going on with our senior centres and our hospitals, having all that integrated with our local food systems, that’s when we start looking at food security in a holistic way,” said Dobie. “And that requires people, and energy, and coordination.” 

“And funding,” chuckled Holman.

And Singh agreed. Indeed, his visit came right before a press release was issued from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, heralding a $170,000 provincial grant under the CleanBC Organics Infrastructure and Collection Program.  

That press release was, not unexpectedly, aspirational — the composter is neither ready nor legally permitted to produce more than 100 tonnes of compost annually just today, for example. And it’s not clear enough where the majority of compostable material will come from, or how much uptake there will be. 

That will come, however. Regulatory issues surrounding what “waste” material from the abattoir and other sources will be used at the composter is expected to be sorted out soon. And any opportunity, Singh said, to burn a little less diesel — and be less reliant on “lettuce from California, where they’re running out of water” — was a step in the right direction. 

“Salt Spring is the place to do it,” said Singh. “The quality of volunteers that you have, and the dedication of people to the environment and the earth, it’s amazing.” 

As for the “black gold” itself — the soil-enriching compost — it will at first only be available for use at the community farm site. 

“The land is currently ALR, and because of the way the Islands Trust regulations are on that zoning, we cannot currently sell a commercial product to the community at large,” said Macey. “It can only be used on this property, until we go through the process of changing that. We’re taking one step at a time.” 

And there may not be much left over at first, even from such a large composter. The 65 acres is well-used now, and demand is only expected to increase. According to the Farmland Trust, there are four larger local growers and dozens of families utilizing the 90 available plots for food production.  

“There’s a lot of people farming here, and a lot of the ground needs amending,” said Dobie. 

That scarcity may eventually help drive demand for the local compost, much as Salt Spring’s produce and meat products command a premium from off-island buyers for their quality and ethical production. And the elegance — to say nothing of environmental benefit — of growing crops using island-sourced compost, instead of trucking it in on a ferry, is inarguable.  

For now, the short-term goals of project volunteers remain modest. With help from elected officials, charitable organizations and the broader community, there’s a lot more within reach. To join them, contact the Abattoir Society through their website, saltspringabattoir.ca, and the Farmland Trust at ssifarmlandtrust.org


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