food · ingredient · local business · Salt Spring Island

Far Away Food: The Challenges of Growing a Food Business on the Gulf Islands

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Twenty minutes of climbing and I am gasping for breath, initially from the hike, then from the unexpected beauty of the view. Sapphire sky fills the horizon, cotton ball clouds hang lazily in the sky and jagged islands rise from the Salish Sea. Laying out my blanket on a moss covered rocky patch, I unpack my picnic lunch and sit down for a feast under the dappled shade of a gnarled arbutus tree.  The crust of my baguette crumbles everywhere, revealing the soft bread inside; the perfect vehicle for my creamy goat cheese, topped with a deceptively sweet preserved lemon, and a heaping dose of blood red raspberry habanero jam. My bottle of hibiscus kombucha hisses as I open the top and take a long drink of its bubbly, fermented contents.  People dedicated to their island community and passionate about food have crafted everything in my basket. Although far from the larger marketplace and convenience of a city, this island is an ideal place to create.  Each of these dedicated artisans has faced, and still faces, challenges unique to creating and growing a viable wide-ranging business on an island.

Producing on an island means you are impacted by ferry service. For David Wood, owner of Salt Spring Island Goat Cheese, this means transporting goat milk to Salt Spring and the resulting cheese to market. Using the ferries six to eight times per week adds 20% to the cost of the cheese, but there is nowhere that David would rather be.  The country village feel of the compound on the “Cheese Farm”, complete with tasting room, viewing windows into the production facility and a café showcasing their cheese is a staple for visitors to Salt Spring, welcoming thousands of visitors per year. “Being on an Island generates opportunities for the business that would not present themselves on the Mainland” says David.

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Saltspring Kombucha, Lemon Goat Cheese, Raspberry Habanero Jam, freshly baked baguette and Carciofino make up this picnic basket.

Soft, white and tangy, David’s goat cheese pairs well with any of the jams from Salt Spring Kitchen Company. Melanie Mulherin recently signed a lease to move into a 1300-square foot commercial space from her current 400-square foot location, where the stacks of jam jar filled boxes double as countertops.  On an island of 10,000 residents, commercial space is limited and rents can soar. “Finding affordable space with a loading dock, warehouse space, sufficient water and appropriate zoning is a challenge,” says Melanie, but “increased demand from larger retailers” prompts her to persist and she says her expansion is exciting and invigorating.

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Wild rose petals, lavender, hibiscus, and other concoctions bubble away in a sea of glass carboys surrounding a small outbuilding on an organic farm overlooking the fertile Fulford Valley. Reflections of the nearby forest dance across the surface of the vessels holding the fermenting beverage.  This is where Lea Weir of Saltspring Island Kombucha Company undertakes a 3,000 year old process.  “People are starting to understand the importance of probiotics in the diet and kombucha is such an enjoyable way to get them.  Kombucha is part of the movement back to a diet made of real food,” says Lea, whose fermented teas can be found at several retail locations as well as on tap at the Empress Hotel in Victoria. Growing her business to satisfy demand is very much on her mind, though access to year round clean water will be her biggest challenge.

All of these producers, and many more scattered around the Gulf Islands, thrive despite the obstacles.  Their passion is evident in their attitudes and their products.  Luckily for me, and others who enjoy these foods and beverages, the special pull of island life means a continued stream of high quality, small batch artisanal products to tantalize palates for a long time to come.

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