Every summer residents of the Peace River region flock to the Peace River Valley with their grocery bags to stock up on locally grown vegetables. Luckily Hip Peace Produce has stepped up to ensure locals have quality food grown close to home and they’ve gone one step further providing opportunities for community members to come and spend time in the garden connecting to their food.
Hip Peace Farm is a seven-acre chemical-free market garden operated by Bess Legault, Michael Vanzandwyk and Emmalea Davis on Bear Flats just outside of Fort St. John.
According to Vanzandwyk, “One of our main goals is to promote awareness of what can be grown and show the diversity and the ability we have up here to provide for ourselves and feed ourselves.”
Both Vanzandwyk and Legault were excited to explain the wide varieties of crops they were growing ranging from purple peas and potatoes to an array of heritage melons and cherry tomatoes.
“We grow some pretty strange things; being hip that’s where our name comes from, it is the hip unique varieties we bring to the table,” explained Legault.
Both Vanzandwyk and Legault confessed they enjoy having the opportunity to introduce people to new varieties of vegetables even though they do get the occasional confused look from a customer.
All three of Hip Peace’s operators have worked on various farms across the country prior to starting their own operation on Bear Flats. After receiving the opportunity to rent a piece of land in the Peace Valley, the Hip Peace team was eager to bring what they’d learned from other farms and regions to the region.
Legault was quick to point out that “it’s been nice to bring something a little different to the north east, just to get the conversation going, which has been really successful. But it’s not just about the food we are growing it’s the relationships we are building and the community we are getting to know.”
Hip Peace Produce has recently started a ‘pick your own’ operation on their farm which allows community members to come with their families to choose the vegetables they want for their dinner table straight from the field. Living as far north as Fort St. John many people assume that gardening is severely limited and a focus of Hip Peace Produce is to give community members knowledge and confidence that they can grow food in their own back yard.
Legault was thrilled with the community response at the Farmers’ Market, You Picks and various other events on the farm. It thrilled her to see so many different people fostering a deep connection with the farm and the land. Legault explained that prior to connecting with farmers in the valley she never could have imagined what could be grown in the valley.
“We’ve eaten locally everywhere we’ve travelled and everywhere we’ve gone, so when we moved up here we met this large family that rented the land we now grow on. We were blown away that they could grow watermelon up here in Fort St. John. The fact that there was someone crazy enough to try it but also had confidence in the growing conditions to try it and to successfully produce melons. It’s such a privilege to be able to continue doing that and we hope to continue to do that for many years to come,” explained Legault.
Despite the enthusiasm and determination of Legault, Vanzandwyk and Davis, the future of Hip Peace Produce is currently uncertain. Hip Peace Produce is seated on a flat owned by Ken and Arlene Boon that is set to be flooded by the Site C Dam.
Even with the dam looming, Legault explained they are determined to demonstrate the value of the valley and to provide a space where people can ask questions and enjoy the valley.
Vanzandwyk went onto say “I feel like there are a lot of people talking about Site C and what we stand to lose to flooding but there were very few people demonstrating it so I thought it was essential to show the community what we are going to lose if this project keeps moving forward. Because in the end this valley is the key to food security in the area and I don’t think people will realize that if they aren’t eating local.”
Legault was quick to make her optimism clear when it came to the future of local food.
“Local is a natural thing people naturally want to support it. Some people are to distracted by what is going on in life to really wake up and see the richness and the opportunities that are around them but with those who have, it’s contagious and it’s only a mater of time before more of Fort St. John gets tapped into the richness that we have going on down here.”
While Legault, Vanzandwyk and Davis continue to develop their farm and the growing community, Ken Boon couldn’t be happier to see a group of young farmers running such a successful operation on his land.
“I’d love nothing better than to see a whole bunch of small operations like theirs using that whole bottom flat to produce fruits and veggies. It’s just so ideally situated, the micro-climate, the waters there and you can irrigate the soil with out harming it.”
Looking towards the future Boon was optimistic that the community would eagerly support other producers in the valley.
Boon claimed, “people like to see where their food is coming from, they make a special trip out of town to buy produce where they can see it grown they know it’s not pumped full of chemicals, they just love it, and for some that’s their way of supporting local. There’s lots of room for growth when it comes to producing food in the Peace River Valley.”