Food for Thought

Fresh from the Farm

The Comox Valley Farmers’ Market celebrates 20 years of feeding community spirit.

What’s your idea of paradise?  We all have a different perspective of a place we’d deem perfection, viagra
but for many of us, mind
paradise would include a place in the wilderness.  Unfortunately, medical
for a good number of BC citizens, the wilderness is not accessible.  A person with a disability can only see the trail winding into the trees, but they can’t explore it.  Fortunately, this is changing.  There are groups working hard to create wilderness accessible trails for everybody and every body, no matter their level of ability.

The first sub-alpine accessible trail in a BC Provincial park, the Centennial Loop Trail, officially opened last summer.  The two kilometre trail, located in the Paradise Meadows area of Mount Washington, is a combination of hard packed earth and long stretches of boardwalk.  The trail winds through the unique sub-alpine terrain, over streams and across meadows.  In the summer the area is ablaze with wildflowers and the small lakes that dot the landscape reflect the clouds and blue sky.  Most importantly, whether you walk, run, or roll, the new trail is accessible to everyone.

Since its completion, the Centennial Loop Trail has had thousands of visitors, but it took 14 years of volunteer time and effort to make it happen.  Though many individuals worked to make the trail a reality, Judy Norbury, a disabled but abled person, was instrumental in its creation.

Stricken with polio at age four, Norbury has lived most of her life as a disabled individual—but she doesn’t see herself that way.  “My parents never treated me as disabled,” she says.  Her mother was fiercely protective of her, though not in the way you might imagine.  Instead, her mother protected Norbury from being treated differently because of her wheelchair.  For example, the word ‘crippled’ was never allowed in the household.  “All in all, I had a great childhood,” Norbury remembers, “and I have no regrets about my disability as it has actually enabled me to experience amazing things.”

Though it hasn’t always been easy, Norbury has never allowed her disability to keep her from experiencing life.  She’s built a cabin on Pender Island, lived off the grid on the Sunshine Coast, and has travelled across India.  Though she usually gets around via her own steam there have been instances when she’s needed help.  She’s been carried, piggybacked and pushed, but she’s always made a way.  Even so, she realizes that not everyone has their own personal Sherpa to carry them around, and not everyone wants that.  There’s something to be said for being able to get somewhere or do something without the help of another person.

When asked about the level of accessibility in the Comox Valley, Norbury says it’s quite good here.  “There aren’t many places I can’t get to,” she says.  She’s a spunky lady though, and as you’d imagine, she’s not afraid to ask for help on occasion.  For example, if there are stairs in her way she just asks a nearby person to give her a bit of help.  But sometimes too many barriers can be downright annoying.   For example, years ago she visited the old Paradise Meadows trail, before it was renovated, and found stairs throughout.   “I could see that the stairs didn’t really need to be there,” she says.  “The trail just hadn’t been built with accessibility in mind.”

Throughout the following years, Norbury and organizations like the Strathcona Wilderness Institute discussed the lack of accessible trails in the Comox Valley, and worked toward making the necessary changes to existing trails so they would be open for all.

The Accessible Wilderness Society (AWS) is another local organization that works toward facilitating wilderness experiences for disabled individuals.  Dan Bauer, the president and founder of AWS, feels that creating more trails like the Centennial Loop Trail should be a priority to all of us.   “We’re all getting older,” Bauer says.  “Few of us leave this world in the same shape we are in today.  It’s in our best interest to take steps to ensure these opportunities are available for all in the future.”

Bauer is a paraplegic who was injured in a car accident in 1985.  Though it must have been unimaginably difficult to realize he wouldn’t walk again, it didn’t take long for Bauer to see that he could work to improve his situation and the situation of those like him.

Specifically, he recalls a time soon after his injury when he was sitting in a hospital room with other patients who had spinal cord injuries.  On the other side of the room was a man surrounded by his wife and children.  The man was crying and telling his kids that he wouldn’t be able to take them fishing anymore.  Bauer remembers the tears of the children as they listened to their father and saw his grief.  The scene deeply affected him, and he wondered why it had to be that way.  Why couldn’t that man take his children fishing despite his disability?  Way back then, so soon after Bauer’s own injury, the seeds for the Accessible Wilderness Society were sown.

Bauer explains that although accessibility in the urban centres has been the main focus for many years, it was time for inclusion to go beyond the pavement.  To Bauer, Norbury and the rest of the volunteers at AWS, the great outdoors offer something that, like a vitamin, is essential to all of us.  Bauer describes the invigorating and restorative power of nature when he states, “There is something that touches me deep inside when I’m in nature, and that’s something I want for everyone.”

Although Bauer is in a wheelchair, he considers himself quite fit and able.  “I’m a bit like Rick Hansen,” he says with a laugh.  His fitness makes it easier for him to access some trails that other disabled people could not.  He notes that there have been many times he’s pushed himself along a difficult trail, only to feel sad when he got to the viewpoint.  “It breaks me up when I get to these beautiful places and know that many people can’t see it too.”

In fact, Bauer says the biggest challenge of AWS has been recognizing the different levels of disability that exist.  For example, what would be possible on a normal wheelchair may be impossible for someone with a motorized chair.  Or a scooter may be able to use a trail, while a person using a walker would find it too difficult.  Because of these challenges, AWS is publishing a new and improved guide that will differentiate trails according to the level of accessibility.

Disabilities don’t always mean problems with locomotion.  For example, vision impaired people also desire access into the wilderness.  Bauer admits that, initially, this fact was not recognized by AWS.  He tells the story of a vision-impaired man who mentioned the problems of a particular trail.  When Bauer told him he believed the trail was quite good—in fact he’d just been on the trail with his wheelchair—the man asked Bauer if he had noticed all the low hanging branches.  Bauer hadn’t.  “I’m only four feet tall when I’m in my chair!” he says with a laugh.  “But getting bonked on the head by branches as you walk along a trail is not what I’d call accessible.”

From then on Bauer and the rest of the AWS crew viewed the trails from an even wider perspective.

Viewing our trails through a larger lens is something we can all do.  There are many trails throughout the Comox Valley that only need small changes to make them available to a wider audience.  Bauer mentions that some people worry that making a trail accessible means changing it so much it’s unrecognizable, but that’s not the case.  Normally a trail just needs to be widened a bit, or a gravel section needs to be amended.  Oftentimes the necessary changes aren’t even expensive.

He tells the story of one trail that was just wonderful until he came to a bridge that had two steps leading to it.  “That entire trail would have been perfect if they had just installed a $300 ramp,” he says.  “It was so frustrating to see that beautiful and beckoning trial on the other side of the bridge winding away from me, knowing I was hindered by just two steps.”  But step by step, things are changing here in BC.

Right now Vancouver Island has close to 40 parks and trails that are completely accessible, but there are many more trails Bauer would like to see improved.  In fact, he sees a future where British Columbia is celebrated for its accessibility—where tourists purposely come to our province in order to experience nature like they’ve never been able.

According to Bauer, 14.3 per cent of Canadians list themselves as having a disability, and you can multiply that number by 10 if you include folks from the United States. “That’s an impressive number,” says Bauer, “and it’s growing even more as our population ages.”

Bauer sees those numbers as an opportunity, and he promises, “If we provide the accessible trails for people, they will come.”And why not?  British Columbia can already boast the longest completely accessible trail in the world—the 12 kilometre Inland Lake Trail near Powell River.  This amazing trail even has charging stations along the way for power wheelchairs.

But Vancouver Island will soon scoop the world record, since Bauer and his society plan to build a completely accessible trail around Robert’s Lake, near Campbell River.  This new trail will be 13.5 kilometres long. Bauer and the Accessible Wilderness Society aren’t doing these things on their own anymore.  In fact, they have some friends in high places.  For example, the Honourable Pat Bell, the Provincial Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation, loves the idea of opening up the wilderness for citizens and tourists with disabilities.  Though the Accessible Wilderness Guide is only found in information centres on Vancouver Island, Minister Bell wants to help Bauer and his society publish their guide province-wide.

Even Prime Minister Steven Harper was made aware of BC’s highest accessible trail.  Bauer tells the story of the opening ceremony for the Centennial Loop Trail, when Steven Fletcher, Canada’s Minister of State for Transportation—who just happens to be in a wheelchair—took a detour on his travel itinerary to take part.

Apparently, Fletcher was so happy with the trail he kept asking his aid to take pictures.  “He’d see a good shot and say, ‘Send that one to Steven.’  Then he’d go around the next corner, remark on the beautiful view and ask his aid to get another photo, saying, ‘Send that one to Steven too.’  When asked who ‘Steven’ was, Mr. Fletcher said it was the Prime Minister.”   Bauer laughs when he says, “Mr. Harper was sent an annoying amount of pictures that day of Minister Fletcher enjoying the Centennial Loop trail!”

Well, maybe it was annoying for our Prime Minister, but the actions of the people volunteering their time to make our trails more accessible to everyone are far from bothersome.  We are blessed in the Comox Valley with nature in abundance, and that abundance should be served up in generous portions to each and every citizen—which is just what Bauer and Norbury and many others aim to do.

The Accessible Wilderness Society is always looking for volunteers.  You can visit their site and learn about their exciting future projects by going to

For information specific to the Centennial Loop Trail visit:

The dew lays heavy on the grass and morning birdsong fills the air when Brenda Mee—better known as ‘The Jam Lady’—arrives at the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds on Headquarters Road in Courtenay.  It is shortly before 7:00 am on a Saturday in June and she is the first to arrive to set up for the weekly Farmers’ Market.  She smiles as she steps from her car and raises a hand to wave ‘Hello’ as other vehicles start to pull into the parking lot.  For Mee, the weekly ritual of attending the Market is not just about having a venue to sell product.  It is about family… and community.

“Brenda Mee has been participating in the Farmers’ Market for all of our 20-year history,” says Vickie Brown, manager of the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market Association (CVFMA), which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.  “During the peak of the growing season we will have about 60 vendors—and Brenda is always one of them.  In 20 years of operation she has only missed about a half dozen Saturdays in the summer time.”

“I’ll never forget that first Saturday in August 1992,” says Mee, who grew up on Denman Island and has been a life-long resident of the Comox Valley. “I had a truck load of sweet corn to sell and—along with the other vendors—was wondering if anyone would show up to buy our products.  I was thrilled when I sold out within an hour!  Before long, in addition to vegetables, I was also bringing homemade jams, jellies, butter tarts, old-fashioned cake donuts and other baked goods made from scratch… just like your Grandma used to make.  Whatever the weather, I do my best to come every Saturday. It can be pouring rain and our tents can be flapping in high winds, yet we all still make the trip to the market.  We are a stubborn and hardy bunch!”

Farmers’ Market Manager Vickey Brown (left) and Stasia Hasumi deliver a load of fresh fare from the Market to the live band performing on a sunny Saturday in May.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

For Mee, who was widowed at a young age, the Saturday morning market soon became a highlight of her week.  “The vendors all know and care about each other,” explains Mee. “It is not uncommon for us to pass a hat around to take up a collection for someone in our ‘family’ who has faced tragedy.”

This sense of belonging and kinship is a common thread that connects all market vendors together.  Barbara and Bryne Odegard operate Ironwood Farm and they have also been part of the Farmers’ Market since its early days. The Odegards grow more than 100 varieties of plants and vegetables, and raise chickens on their 11.5-acre certified organic farm in Fanny Bay.  In addition to growing food, Ironwood Farm is a Worldwide Opportunities for Organic Farms Association (WOOF) host farm and works in cooperation with several agricultural-based apprenticeship programs.  Over the years, more than 700 people from around the globe have come to the Comox Valley to gain valuable experience at Ironwood Farm.  Sometimes this includes helping at the weekly Market.

Barbara Odegard says since they first started selling at the Farmers’ Market in 1996, they have watched their customers’ children be born and raised; now these kids are young adults, some with children of their own, and they are still show up to buy veggies on Saturdays.  “There is no doubt that the Farmers’ Market has become an integral part of the community and I can’t imagine it not being here,” she says. “The Farmers’ Market and its farmers have become the public face of food, playing an important role in the most positive way, pulling people together for a common cause and what can be more common than food?

“Markets present an opportunity for the public to get back in touch with what food is all about and how it is grown,” adds Odegard.  “We hear the same questions from people thousands of times but we don’t mind answering them over and over again.  The Market provides a welcome opportunity to teach and gives people information about food, soil and plants. It has opened an opportunity for the public to get reconnected. It is a really important role.  I also believe that farmers’ markets are one of the happiest places you can go to.  The shopping experience is uplifting and enjoyable.  It is a safe place, where children can run around and dogs—on short leashes—are welcome.  It is such a positive place to be.”

The Comox Valley Farmers’ Market Association was founded in 1992 by Dick McGinnis, Gail Beaucage and Dave Bernard, with support from then Comox Valley Regional District director Harold Macy, and guidance from then district agriculturalist Gary Rolston.  Today, the CVFMA has approximately100 members. About 50 of these vendors are ‘regulars’ and the rest come and go, as their particular products are ready for sale.

Vendors sell everything from fresh produce, plants and home-baked goods to wild seafood, bison meat, cheese, pet treats and skin care.  In addition, the Farmers’ Market offers live music featuring local musicians, so you can shop, eat, drink and be merry!

Brenda Mee—­better known as ‘The Jam Lady’—has been a familiar face at the Saturday Market since it began 20 years ago.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

While Mee and the Odegards are recognized as some of the most experienced market vendors, Megan Halstead and Chris Hancock from Halstead Farm are relative newcomers to the weekly ritual. Halstead Farm has been in Megan’s family since 1958, however, life circumstances had resulted in the farm being rented for many years.  Still, she had fond memories of growing up there.  She went on to earn a degree in agroecology (a science related to agricultural sustainability) from the University of British Columbia and always planned to return to the Comox Valley. Her husband, Chris Hancock, a mechanic, grew up in a farming community in the Ottawa Valley so he was fully supportive of his wife’s desire to take over operation of the family farm in 2008.  It didn’t take them long to get into the swing of things.  They joined the CVFMA soon after, worked hard to secure organic farm certification through the Island Organic Producers Association by 2010, and Chris volunteered to serve on the CVFMA’s Board of Directors in 2011.

Today, Halstead Farm is a growing concern with three generations of one family working together to bring fresh organic meat to the weekly market.  Megan’s mother, Ann Halstead and stepfather Jim Hunter help Megan and Chris raise organic chickens, sheep and hogs—and their nine month old son, Sam.

“Although we are doing well, I still feel like we are very much in a growth and set-up stage,” reports Halstead. “Some days I feel a mixture of being overwhelmed by the work we face today and in awe of how much work my father used to accomplish on his own.  As a child, you don’t really notice all of the work that happens on a family farm.  As an adult, you understand!”

Halstead adds that the Farmers’ Market has a spirit of collaboration and sense of community, not competition.  “We appreciate that the older farmers are eager to give us advice and it is fun to trade produce with the other vendors,” says Halstead.  “Attending the weekly market has been a really fun and rewarding experience.  Without it, we would have a tough time selling our products.  Marketing is the biggest challenge that farmers face and the weekly Farmers’ Market makes it easier for everyone.”

In the past few weeks, the strength of the Farmers’ Market family bond has been put to the test because Ann Halstead was diagnosed with a serious illness.  She faces weeks of treatment and recovery and her immediate family is obviously very worried about her.  The Farmers’ Market family is too.  Megan says that their friends from the Market have shown their true colours by stepping forward to help.  They have attended work parties, brought over food and are helping care for the animals. In doing so, they are also caring for her family.  “It has been amazing to get this kind of unsolicited support,” says Megan.

Hubert Gravouseille from Little Orca Bakery is the CVFMA’s current president. A baker who hails from France, Gravouseille has been selling his popular baked goods at the local Farmers’ Market since 1997.

Hubert Gravouseille, Little Orca Bakery, is the CVFMA’s current president.  A baker who hails from France, Gravouseille has been selling his baked goods at the Market since 1997.  He says that he too has embraced and been embraced by the Farmers’ Market family—adding that this includes both vendors and customers alike.

“Farmers’ markets have been in place in most European cities for 100 years or more,” says Gravouseille.  “In Europe they are more a part of the everyday background economy, as opposed to being a novelty and source of entertainment.  In my travels, I have found that the sense of community [created at a Farmers’ Market] depends on the size of the community.  Markets in small towns will draw in more of the general population but in the big cities they [may be considered nothing but] a source for fresh produce and are taken for granted.  People generally are pretty busy and don’t have time to chat at the markets in larger cities.  Fortunately for us vendors, people in the Comox Valley fit in the small town category.”

Twins Ariel and Jaida sample something sweet at the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Brown agrees wholeheartedly but adds that she feels farmers’ markets also play an important role in educating the public about where our food comes from.  Small farmers, she believes, are core to this community and the Market provides a much-needed venue for them to sell their products.  Many local farmers are not big enough to supply food to restaurants or grocery stores, but they can still play an integral role in feeding local families, educating consumers and building a sense of community pride.

From a nostalgic point-of-view it is great to look back on the history of the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market Association, but Brown, the Board of Directors and the Market vendors all feel it is equally important to look to the future.

“Our primary objective over the next five years is to secure a permanent location with a building that could house the market 12 months of the year,” says Brown.  “There is land on the Old Island Highway, where we hold the Wednesday markets, that is under consideration.  How the funding will be secured and how this operation will be managed is still a work in progress.  Our vision as an organization is to have a building that will not only have the capacity to house the vendors for weekly markets, but one that will also have an educational component dealing with the economics of agriculture and importance of food security.  We have dreams of having space available for an office, workshops, storage facilities, perhaps a commercial kitchen and greenhouses.  Also, because of this location’s proximity to the surrounding farmer’s fields and Ducks Unlimited land, we would incorporate a wildlife awareness component into the plan too.”

“It is essential that we keep the agricultural economy and the farmland productive in the Comox Valley,” maintains Gravouseille.  “After all, we live on an island and if a natural disaster occurred we could be cut off from the mainland.

“There is a trickle down effect when supporting local vendors of all sorts.  We tend to buy from each other and keep the monetary assets here instead of supporting big corporations thousands of miles away.  The 20th anniversary represents a strong commitment on behalf of the community here to shop locally.  We greatly appreciate the strides we have made and the growth of the CVFMA.  We look forward to whatever the future may bring.”

Brown agrees.  “Our little market has grown thanks to the support of the people of our community,” she says.  “Our goal is to repay that support with our hard work and dedication to bringing you the freshness and the flavors of our lovely Valley home.  We love what we do and are committed to create through our Market, and in concert with local agricultural agencies, a ‘place for agriculture’ right here in the Valley.  We know we can count on the support of the community as we work toward that goal.”

The outdoor Saturday market is held at the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds on Headquarters Road. It traditionally starts up in early April and runs weekly until mid-October.  It is open from 9:00 am until noon every Saturday, including long weekends.  In the winter the Market moves indoors to the Native Sons Hall in Courtenay.

A few years ago, a mid-week market day was set up, to ensure farmers are able to harvest and distribute fresh produce during the peak growing season. The Wednesday market traditionally starts in early June and is held from 9 am to1 pm on Wednesdays, at the Comox Bay Farm on the North Island Highway. (Across from Island Honda on Comox Road.)   

For more information visit