“What’s this milky stuff on the tomatoes?” I ask Jesse Johnston-Hill as she walks the elongated lane of her 60-foot homemade greenhouse. “Milk,” she answers matter-of-factly. She’s been dipping her clippers in a powdered solution to prune her plants, a technique to help stave off disease. She and her partner—both in life and on this farm—Chris Rubens, lost their entire early-season crop of tomatoes to a virus. It’s an ironic twist given that another virus is the reason they’re growing crops to begin with.
Based in Revelstoke, B.C., Rubens was at the apex of a decorated career in professional skiing when the pandemic arrived, making his job acutely non-essential. Photos and videos of skiing quickly became one of the least important things in the world, even to him.
“When coronavirus hit, my thoughts weren’t, ‘What’s going to happen to my job?’ Or, ‘My investments are screwed.’ It was, ‘Where am I going to get food from?’” he says.
Rubens, along with all Revelstoke residents, already understand a special sense of fragility when it comes to the supply chain. In winter, when the highway regularly closes because of avalanches, the grocery store empties out in a couple of days. For Johnston-Hill, who holds a degree in environmental science and has long been involved in Revelstoke’s Local Food Initiative (LFI), her understanding of the situation caused by the COVID-19 virus runs even deeper.
According to B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture, only about 5 percent of the mountainous province’s land base is suitable for farming to begin with, and only about 50 percent of that is actually being used for farms. Closer to home, Revelstoke’s 2014 Food Security Strategy revealed that only 5.4 percent of the town’s food comes from within 155 miles. To boot, Canada—a cold country—is the sixth-largest food importer in the world.
“Revelstoke used to be a farming community,” Johnston-Hill explains, “there used to be 200 farms from the airport south.”
All that was lost in the ’60s when most of the arable land in the Columbia River Basin was flooded to make hydroelectric reservoirs, pinching valley shores against precipitous mountainsides. This is in fact true for most of the best places to ski in the Kootenay region of Interior B.C. The abundance of water—which stokes snowy, broody microclimates—makes for a dearth of pasture.
Today, there are only 153 hectares of suitable farmland in Revelstoke, which means under ideal circumstances it could only feed roughly twice that many people in a year—about 307 people. The population, meanwhile, is 7,547, and roughly twice that in the winter, according to cell phone data the city has collected.
All to say, the things that make Revelstoke and so many other places great to ski also make them food insecure. It’s an issue made of two parts: the incapacity to produce food, and the inability for all people to access whatever supply of food there is. The latter is tied to all the insidious complexities of poverty, but when the former rears its head, everybody has to deal. When coronavirus gave this entire town a literal taste of that, Rubens and Johnston-Hill were among the first to react.
“We had other plans this summer,” Rubens says, “we were going to go surfing and sailing.”
While farming was something they had been thinking about for some years (paralleling Johnston-Hill’s work with Revelstoke’s LFI and Rubens’s well-documented growing green consciousness in his ski adventures) the pandemic motivated them to switch gears in a hurry. Along with a number of people in town, including Johnston-Hill’s older brother, eco-warrior, and professional ski mountaineer Greg Hill. When things got weird, his first reaction was to empty the hardware store of dirt, filling his little electric car to the brim.
“Greg was the hoarder that took all the topsoil,” Rubens says laughing. “He didn’t go for the toilet paper at all.”
“I woke up to a text and was like, ‘Oh my god, Greg’s losing it.’” Johnston-Hill adds. “Then I was like, ‘Oh my god, he put that on Instagram!’”
Hill, it turned out, used all the soil to start seeds, and then gave away hundreds of veggie plant starts. Next, when Revelstoke ran short of industrial deposits of topsoil, he fronted $9,000 to bring 300 new cubic yards into town, then spent 30 hours helping people load their trucks so they could start gardens.
“Historically, when society has a problem, food security becomes very much important,” he says. “Just looking at my kids, I thought I should definitely grow some more food. This whole town, we have no food security whatsoever.”
As such, he went on the radio and encouraged everyone to start growing, and launched a Facebook page called Revelstoke Growing Community. It rapidly gained over 1,300 members. In the weeks that followed, new garden boxes popped up all over,
along with a few new greenhouses. Hill and Rubens built a jig for making greenhouse frames, and let anybody use it.
“Who knows if my call to action had anything to do with it,” Hill says about the surge in gardens. “But all of a sudden that one avenue [pro skiing] that I’d been working diligently for years kind of got pulled out from under my feet. But at the same time, I still had a voice. I’m still in a position to use that voice to inspire people to do good things.”
Meanwhile, Rubens and Johnston-Hill couldn’t find suitable land to start their own farm. This turns out to be another giant roadblock when it comes to food security: ski towns have ridiculously high land prices.
A 2020 report by Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems states that “rising real estate prices [in B.C.] have pushed some of the best quality agricultural land far beyond what is affordable for farming.”
That situation is exacerbated in desirable destinations like Revelstoke, where real estate development is far more profitable than food production. It’s a distortion of values Melissa Hemphill, Revelstoke’s food security coordinator, says is very dangerous.
“In Revelstoke, production is very limited because of geography, and because of flooding. But also because of speculative land prices and making the farmland that we have south of town in the million-dollar range. That’s not viable for farming; to pull an income from. It leaves us very vulnerable and dependent on provincial, national, and international food supply. And we felt that through COVID-19.”
Provincial zoning loopholes introduced in 2014 that let people use Agricultural Land Reserve areas (land put aside for present and future farming) instead for residential development and other non-farming purposes—most notably oil and gas development—are also partly to blame. The current provincial government reversed this in 2018, but land prices have nonetheless soared since then.
“There’s a real challenge around the idea of who should be making money from land,” Hemphill says. “There are three major barriers to local food systems: access to land, access to capital, and access to knowledge. Chris and Jesse have been through an amazing exercise this spring trying to find land.”
Part of that exercise has included launching a committee within the Revelstoke LFI to start a community farm. Hill is on that committee, too, and it’s been really close to finding partners, but has fallen short so far. In the meantime, Rubens and Johnston-Hill struck a deal to work some large chunks of residential property where the homeowners, in return, get farming tax credits. But there’s not a lot of security in that either. It’s an incredible investment in time and money to prep land and amend soil you may not get for more than a season on. It’s why they’re still pushing for a community farm; it will help young people like them get a foot into an industry where the average age of farmers in Canada is now 55.
“If you can make community versions of these small-scale facilities, many users can access them,” Johnston-Hill says. “You bring new farmers in, they have a set period of time—for eight years—on this plot. They have communal tools and a community of knowledge around them where they can launch their business, figure out their projections, and then they can move on. They have to move on after that set period of time is up. So it could really reinvigorate and restart that farming community that used to be here and bring us back to a local food system. Even though we have seasonal challenges, there’s technology to overcome that now. But it’s a heavy financial burden for one person to undertake to get into it.”
Still, to Rubens, farming feels comfortable and familiar, even though it’s new. He likes hard work, using his body, and being outside. And he likes being subject to Mother Nature’s diktats.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things the mountain community has,” he explains, “is the ability to pivot. Because if you can’t pivot in the mountains you’ll die pretty quick.”
As I watch him work the dirt, his clothes are stained and he hasn’t had a day off since the beginning of the pandemic, but he’s smiling brightly.
“Skiing’s not as important as farming,” he tells me, “but it’s given me a voice, and I still have 50,000 followers on Instagram. I’ve been looking to do more than skiing, but this has also given me lots of time to reflect on how there’s more in skiing I still want to do. I don’t want it to end. Being a pro skier is the best job in the world, but I have the ability to [farm], and if this turns out to be all I can do, then fine. It’s a good lifestyle, it’s fun.”