August 16, 2011
Access: Pemberton lies 153 kilometres north of Vancouver via Highway 99. For details on Slow Food Cycle Sunday, visit www.slowfoodcyclesunday.com/.
Spud Valley ain’t what it used to be.
For almost two centuries, nutrient-rich volcanic soil in the Pemberton Valley north of Whistler has yielded annual crops of potatoes.
First came ladyfinger potatoes acquired in the 1830s by local Lilwat First Nations traders from the newly established Hudson Bay Company post in Fort Langley, followed by a host of white, red, and yellow varieties cultivated by European immigrants.
More recently, spurred on by a rising demand for niche market produce, valley farmers have diversified into a spectrum of garden goodies to complement Pemberton’s staple crop.
All it takes is a day trip along Pemberton Meadows Road to witness the shift firsthand, particularly during Slow Food Cycle Sunday (August 21), a pedal-powered tour of local growers.
Anna Helmer of Helmer’s Organic Farm pinpointed the month of May, 2005, as pivotal to a new sense of purpose for local growers.
On a break from field work, Helmer, whose great-grandparents homesteaded in the Pemberton Valley in the early 1900s, explained that she and freelance writer Lisa Richardson attended an information session hosted by Vancouver-based railway tour operator Rocky Mountaineer.
They talked about potential opportunities for small communities like ours to interact with passengers during the train’s daily layovers in Whistler.
“That planted the seed that Pemberton wasn’s giving people a reason to come visit despite our proximity to the resort.”
Together, Helmer and Richardson agreed that a signature event could be a bike ride through the valley with up to a dozen select farms open for tours.
“We figured that would foster an insight into not only our tasty produce but also soil science, the rationale for crop rotation, and the value of preserving family farms to promote food security.”
Since relocating from Vancouver with her parents to the family farm in the 1980s, Helmer increasingly noticed that as property values in Whistler exploded, the Pemberton Valley began attracting urbanites in search of rural recreational getaways.
The meadow’s road is level, paved, and much of the fallow land looks like it’s not being cultivated, thus open to redevelopment.
“It was beginning to feel a little daunting up here. We needed all the help we could get. A secure food system needs experienced farmers, and we need to keep them happy.”
Within months, the duo had organized the Lower Mainland’s original Slow Food Cycle Sunday.
To their amazement, 400 attended, something Richardson characterized on the phone as “mind-blowing”.
Helmer credited Richardson for the turnout.
“Lisa’s such a good marketer, we were almost too successful, especially the second year, when more than twice as many showed up. That caught everyone off-guard.”
Not that the steep-sided Pemberton Valley hadn’t previously been a destination for bike riders, especially the 25-kilometre stretch between the hamlet and the north end of the upper meadows, where mountains and the Lillooet River converge, a route detailed in our Whistler Book.
The serendipitous timing of the inaugural Slow Food Cycle Sunday with the popularity of The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, by Vancouver authors J. B. MacKinnon and Alisa Smith, drew far greater numbers of pedalheads than ever previously seen on one day.
That trend progressed geometrically.
Last year’s ride, in which the Christies participated, attracted a record 2,159 registrants; officials estimated they probably missed another 300 who slipped by. Although sign-up for the free event takes place in the heart of the village, riders may just as easily join up anywhere along the route.
“The favourite part of the event for me, besides the beer garden, is seeing the happiness on the faces of the riders who’ve done the entire 50-kilometre round trip. For them, it’s like completing a marathon,” Helmer said.
For most riders, Slow Food Cycle Sunday more closely resembles a peloton of pleasure seekers.
Picture a world in which bicycles rule the road, where fresh air is a given, where refreshment waits at every turn, and where adults play with the innocence of tykes on push bikes.
That image neatly defines the spirit of the volunteer event, one that Richardson defined as “a mini-farmer’s market at each stop, coupled with entertainment. Visitors discover the network of relationships that have blossomed between our growers and chefs from Whistler’s restaurants.”
Although there will be plenty of prepared food and produce for sale, Helmer cautioned that, in the spirit of self-reliance, participants should pack along a bike tool kit, backup food, and plenty of liquids, especially because valley temperatures typically soar to higher heights than on the coast.
Along the route (50 kilometres/30 miles return, for the whole trip), water pistols deliver welcome shots of cool refreshment, as do eclectically designed shower fountains crafted from garden hoses and bike wheels by local sculptor Martin Dahinden.
Hang a basket from your handlebars.
You won’t leave empty-handed, guaranteed.
Text CR Jack Christie