Monday, July 28, 2008

The Island as Sustainable Community

In many ways, an island is the perfect environment to examine issues of local sustainability. Not only are the boundaries clearly defined, but the costs and consequences of relying on food, goods and jobs from beyond those boundaries are considerably amplified and therefore particularly visible.

I just got back from a week-long trip visiting my sister on Salt Spring Island, BC, so I thought it might be useful to examine how a place like that functions and just how sustainable and resilient it really is.

The Island

Salt Spring Island is located off the east coast of Vancouver Island, directly north of Victoria, and is the largest of the Southern Gulf Islands. The population consists of about 10,000 permanent residents, but summer brings large numbers of tourists to the island. The largest town is Ganges, and there are two smaller towns, Fulford and Vesuvius Bay, which also serve as boarding points for ferry service to other islands and the mainland. The terrain is mountainous, but there are large areas of good farmland in the valleys and at the north end of the island.


Salt Spring is becoming famous for its local wines and cheeses. Many of the farms on the island grow organic produce and other crops, and there is some livestock as well - notably lamb and dairy cows. The grocery stores all carry a good selection of local foods, and there is a very well attended weekly farmers' market in Ganges.

The problem is, the abundance of local food available on Salt Spring is largely an illusion. According to a study conducted in 2005 examining produce farming on the island, only about 5% of the food consumed on Salt Spring is actually produced there. The rest, about four million pounds a year, is ferried in.

The reasons cited for this surprisingly low percentage were varied: the low percentage of active farmland engaged in commercial produce (about 6%); reliance on manual labour rather than appropriate mechanization; lack of farm labourers and lack of affordable rental housing for labourers; lack of larger scale processing and storage facilities, etc.

The study found that producers are, for the most part, selling all of their crops. And, at this volume at least, most prefer to sell retail rather than wholesaling. At the same time, retail grocers and some restaurants reported that they are not able to source an adequate supply of quality Salt Spring produce to meet their requirements. At present Salt Spring produce represents only about 5% of all the produce being transported onto the island.

Clearly, the island is not even close to growing enough produce to feed the population. Changing this situation would mean significantly increasing production. The study found that there are a number of commercial farmers interested in doing this. If this is to happen, however, many obstacles will have to be addressed including: improving the efficiency of farm work through appropriate mechanization; business planning to ensure financial sustainability; and engaging the community in supporting local food security with their food dollars.

One thing I noticed that was not mentioned in the study was that much of the food production on Salt Spring is geared towards the tourist and export markets, with highly specialized and expensive items like artisanal cheeses and wines dominating. While this type of food production is vital to the local economy, it isn't going to feed 10,000 people.

Map of Salt Spring Island showing
Agricultural Land Reserve

For more information, read the 'Plan to Farm' document, which addresses all of these issues and proposes concrete solutions. The plan was prepared for Salt Spring Island but the ideas are also applicable to other rural communities such as Milton.


Most energy used on Salt Spring Island is electrical, even for home heating, although low and high efficiency wood stoves are also fairly common. Electricity is supplied from Vancouver Island via undersea cables; as far as I am aware, none is generated on the island. An energy strategy study from 2005 suggested an investigation of local power generation on a scale of about 5% through wind, solar and micro-hydro, but so far nothing seems to have been done.


Aside from a few small privately owned boats, access to the island is entirely through BC Ferry service. A return trip for one person in a car ranges from about $40 to Vancouver Island to over $100 to the mainland. Trucks pay more.

As far as local transportation goes, while the towns themselves are very compact and walkable, getting there from the rural areas or from other towns still generally requires the use of a car. Cycling even moderate distances is difficult for all but the most hardened athletes due to the terrain, and even for them it's a hazardous undertaking because the roads are narrow and twisting with no shoulder, and the drivers all take them at full speed.

One common and rather unique form of local transportation is hitchhiking. Driving the main Fulford-Ganges Road it is not unusual to spot three or four people by the road with their thumbs out, and they rarely have to wait long for a ride. While in most parts of the country hitching a ride can be a rather dangerous proposition for both rider and driver, on Salt Spring the community is so small and tightly knit that it's considered a safe and efficient form of ride sharing.

Salt Spring recently instituted a public transit system, but so far it is somewhat underused.

Economy, Employment and Housing

Ferry costs make commuting off the island for work pretty much out of the question for most, and bringing in outside workers for summer jobs or farm work is made even more difficult by high housing costs and lack of available rental units.

The economy on Salt Spring is largely tourism-related, with a high percentage of residents who run their own crafts or other businesses, or who are employed in the service sector.

A large artist and artisan community sells its wares principally through the '100% Local' Saturday Market in Ganges, which draws thousands of people every week from the island and beyond. However, with a worsening economy and high fuel prices now resulting in a new surcharge on ferry rates, there is concern that those tourist dollars might be at risk and that the community might need to become even more self-sustaining economically.


While Salt Spring Island is in many ways a model of local sustainability, and the people there take great pride in their local foods, wines and crafts, it is clear that the island still has a long way to go towards becoming truly sustainable and self-sufficient. But the potential certainly exists for Salt Spring Island to feed, power and employ itself. It has done so in the past and could easily do so again.

Happily, enthusiasm for and understanding of sustainability issues is extremely high among island residents, and many practical solutions have already been worked out in detail. So it's really only a matter of time before those solutions begin to be put into place on a broad scale.

Now we just need something like that for Milton.


cls said...

You may want to take a look at the BC community of Nelson's efforts to be more self-sustainable. I think it was in the Globe and Mail within the past couple of months that I read an article about how folks in Nelson were trying to adapt to the 100 mile diet. This involved, in part, liaising with farmers who switched to growing wheat, I think, when local supplies were found lacking.

Jennifer Smith said...

I did a quick check and couldn't find a link to the article. Let me know if you remember more about it.

That's interesting about the wheat. I'm in the middle of reading 'The End of Food' right now, and he talks about how industrial agriculture demands that only the most optimal climate and soil for any given crop should be used for that crop in order to maximize profit. So if Saskatchewan is best for wheat, only they should grow wheat. And only wheat.

It's going to be very interesting to see what peak oil fuel costs do to this particular agricultural model.