The EATEN PATH: Starting a food revolution in Chilliwack

Dan and Helen Oostenbrink of The Local Harvest Market want to change the food landscape of Chilliwack. - Paul J. Henderson
Dan and Helen Oostenbrink of The Local Harvest Market want to change the food landscape of Chilliwack.
— image credit: Paul J. Henderson

From growing food at home to the politics of the ALR, The Eaten Path is a new, ongoing feature that looks at what we eat, how it is produced and the path our food takes to our table.

Dan Oostenbrink wants to talk to you about vegetables.

He wants to convert you to his food revolution.

“If I can convince one person at a time then I’ll have succeeded,” he tells me during a tour this week of The Local Harvest in Chilliwack.

“Even if it’s just one person a day that is going to benefit then we’ll have succeeded. They’ll tell their friends and they’ll tell their friends and it won’t be long until everybody in our city is thinking of it. Who knows, we might just be the first city worldwide that is completely food sustainable, food secure. I don’t know, I would love to see it.”

Oostenbrink and his wife Helen run The Local Harvest, a 30-acre farm and market at the corner of Lickman and Yale Road West roads.

And the Oostenbrinks don’t only want people to come to their business, they want the entire community to get turned on to food grown right here in Chilliwack, harvested fresh each day.

The Local Harvest opened late last summer with some limited vegetable production, and again this April 14 officially for the 2014 season. With an emphasis on all things seasonal, selling and eating what is fresh when it is fresh, they have some hurdles to overcome when it comes to acceptance.

The Oostenbrinks may have a family background in growing—Dan says his grandfather was a vegetable farmer—but the move to the dirt is a bit of an unusual one. Dan was a teacher for many years and, most recently, principal of Mt. Cheam Christian school.

He likes to say that we live in a food desert in Chilliwack. It sounds like an odd comment given that the Fraser Valley is one of the most productive growing regions on the planet.

But how much food do Chilliwack residents buy that actually comes from Chilliwack?

“If there would be any kind of natural disaster or economic devastation like oil prices double or triple and we are not able to bring food in, what are we going to do then?” he asks. “Then we will be looking for farms to start up.”

Chilliwack should be feeding itself. But that’s just the start. You want to hear ambition? Oostenbrink estimates that at least 50 people can be fed on a whole food, plant-based, mostly vegetarian diet on one acre of Chilliwack land. With about 40,000 acres of farmland in Chilliwack the math is simple. He figures could feed two million people from Chilliwack farms.

“Once we get good at vegetable production and animal production, Chilliwack could potentially feed three million or four million, maybe even all of B.C.”

Converted yet?

Oostenbrink is a businessman sitting on 30 acres of expensive farmland paying, for now, 10 full-time employees “an above average wage” to hand-weed and till the soil to grow garlic, carrots, onions and more. He’s doing something that no one else in Chilliwack is doing and he says he has no model anywhere else in B.C. that he is copying.

Oostenbrink is relying on a cultural change that shifts our food logic away from processed crap, away from vegetables that are shipped from California and Mexico, to one where we simply grow food in of the most fertile places on the planet.

He says he has no model to copy, but if what he’s doing works, he wants others to copy him. To think otherwise, to oppose “local” competition, would be hypocritical.

“My idea of a food revolution is we have farm markets sprouting up every 10 to 15 kilometres of each other, like McDonalds does except we’ll do it with healthy food, good food, food that will benefit everyone.”

The Oostenbrinks are doing things aligned with organic growing principles, but they are not certified. And they have a good reason.

“I believe there needs to be much more connection between the farmer and the consumer and there needs to be a relationship of trust between the two and if people question how we grow then they ought to come and visit our farm and that will be evidence enough.”

They are focused on a plant-based diet, but they do have chickens for eggs and they may one day get ducks and/or geese which will help by eating weeds and slugs around berry bushes, serve as an agritourism draw for the kids, and end up as meat at the end of the season.

Speaking to the agritourism angle, Oostenbrink has his “barrel train” for the kids as well as a alpacas and a donkey to visit with.

Sure, these things are partly to add some financial sustainability but Oostenbrink says it’s more about getting kids interested in agriculture.

“If we are going to change the way we think about food in this city and this country it needs to start with the young people.”

While the Oostenbrinks and I talk about the future of food and farming in Chilliwack, local mother Tai Weatherhead walks over to the field with her six-year-old daughter Leah and her two-year-old son Evan.

“I love this place,” she says to Dan. “And I love your Facebook posts.”

But she didn’t come for an autograph, she came to ask where the alpacas were so little Leah could see them.

In rural Chilliwack, this was—on a Monday no less—a suburban (Promontory) family reconnecting with the farm as a place to access local, fresh produce and see some animals.

One convert at a time, and this one came to him.

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