Learning by Doing

The Comox Valley 4-H Club sets kids up for success both in the show ring, and in life.

The Eurocentric chronicles most of us learned in school told us ‘history began’ when the first white settlers came to our various regions.  In that context, viagra 60mg the Comox Valley as a community ‘began’ somewhere about 1861, medical when Governor James Douglas encouraged the establishment of farms in the region.

Such a view is, of course, untrue and—fortunately for future generations—there has been an attempt in recent years to present a much broader and more inclusive picture that doesn’t just tell the saga of the ‘white guys’.  Not that the pioneering saga is in any way unimportant, but it is only part of the overall picture.

To get the real kick-off date of our region, it’s more realistic to go back in time for at least a millennium, and arguably even earlier.  For the tale of aboriginal culture in the area of Comox Bay goes back at least 1,000 years, according to Nancy Greene and her husband, David McGee.  And they now have proof of that larger picture.

For them an intense involvement with what we once were began with a few walks on the mudflats off Millard Creek, just south of the popular Courtenay Airpark Walk.  Estuary country it is, with the flats originating from the volume of silt that has been deposited by the Courtenay River over the centuries.

It’s a lush spot ecologically and in the days when the river was much more ‘alive’ and environmentally uncompromised than it has been in recent years, a veritable bounty of marine life, either in transit or resident, called it home.

“Some of these stakes, which look like nothing at first glance, have been here for 10 centuries or more,” says Nancy Greene, above at the Royston site of the ancient fish traps with her husband Dave McGee. “Underneath the surface they’re perfectly intact, preserved by the mud. It’s amazing.”

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

For Greene her change in perspective came about in 2002.  At that time she had returned to school as a mature student and was working toward a degree in anthropology.  Inspired, she wanted to get her scholastic quest wrapped around something original.  Quite frankly, she found it, and she found it essentially in her own back yard.  And what she found is something that has thrown conventional views of the Comox Valley’s history and pre-history asunder.

Now, eight years later, a tremendous amount of painstaking research is coming to fruition.  Research that has involved intensively scrutinizing what to the average stroller might be seen as a bunch of prosaic sticks in the mud.  What Greene has come to realize is that those sticks have opened up a panoramic tale of a people who toiled and thrived in the Comox Valley long before it was a blip on the radar of the outer world.

Living in the Comox Valley area, the duo had noticed the sticks before (you can see a lot of stakes when driving along the Dyke Road) and had paid them little heed.  But then the moment-of-truth struck.  These were not just random bits of wood, but they followed a pattern in a vast array, spreading out from the shore in parallel lines well into the flats.

Parallel lines are not random—those sticks had been put there for a purpose.

“At that point of revelation, I realized there were stakes everywhere, arranged in vast patterns that had to have a purpose,” she says.  “Probing around them we realized that beneath the surface they were perfectly preserved. They were so extensive they could only suggest some highly significant purpose.”

The irrefutable conclusion is that the stakes were part of what appears to be the most extensive and sophisticated pre-historic fishing operation to be found in Canada to date.

While the traps are long gone, the stakes—to the tune of 150,000 or more— bear testament to the extensive nature of the site.  How many more stakes is pure conjecture since, as they attest, siltification over the centuries may have covered over further layers of stakes well beneath the surface.

A walk on the tidal flats, once the patterns are pointed out is, in a word, dazzling.  A huge sweeping pattern encompassing a sizeable expanse immediately indicates the extent.  Once that reality was realized, the archeology student realized her true quest was before her, and she attests the revelation was a powerful one for her.

“It’s amazing,” Greene says.  “Some of these stakes, which look like nothing at first glance, have been here for 10 centuries or more.  Underneath the surface they’re perfectly intact, preserved by the mud.”

And the traps themselves in their days of use were not some sort of primitive or rudimentary constructions.  They were obviously designed to harness the tidal movements of the estuary in order to apprehend the fish—be those either salmon or herring, both of which there was a plenitude of in the days before the river underwent the challenges of dyking and dredging.

As of March of this year locations of approximately 200 trap feature sites, each representing as many as a thousand upright wood stakes, have been recorded on the tideflat.  To precisely map the trap features, coordinates of nearly 14,000 individual stakes were recorded at 19 of the sites, Greene noted in a report published this past spring.

The tidal traps, as illustrated, were amazingly sophisticated and cast an entirely new light on our preconceptions of this earlier culture.  Extensively distributed on the tideflat, the traps show a network of fish apprehension that was likely “industrial size in capacity,” McGee says.

“Not only was the fishery extensive, one conclusion we can reach from the carbon dating was that it lasted for a very long time.”

From a conservation perspective, Greene says, they realized the traps were not environmentally negative.  The aboriginal fishers appreciated the virtues of conservation of the species, be they salmon or herring.

What was found—and this was long before such considerations became serious concerns—was what appears to have been a sustainable way of fishing.  As the traps depended on the tides to catch fish, they only operated 50 per cent of the time.  They only caught fish on a falling tide.  For salmon, that assured that a lot of fish could swim past the traps on a rising tide and continue on up the river to spawn.

“The way that the traps functioned to catch fish indicates that early First Nations had a detailed knowledge of nature,” she says.

Considering that the traps are located close to salmon bearing streams, the realization that the traps weren’t used exclusively for salmon also came as a revelation to Greene and McGee.

“Some native fishermen believe that they were actually used more for herring than salmon,” McGee says.  “Midden sites indicate masses of herring bones, and as we know Comox Bay has been a big herring spawning area historically, so it makes sense.”

So, what actually caught the fish?  These were times well before the use of modern fishnets.  Greene says archeologists have found remnants of lattice panels buried in the mud at other intertidal sites along the Northwest Coast. The panels were built by weaving long pieces of split wood together—much as is used in basketry—which would be strung between the stakes.  Water could pass through the openings in the panels, but not the fish.  As for the stakes themselves, the majority are either hemlock or Douglas fir, both of which grow in abundance in the Comox Valley.

Mud flats friends.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

McGee points out that First Nations culture was a “wood culture” and that virtually everything used was gleaned from the abundant forests of the day.

As for the woven panels that were likely used in the traps, both Greene and McGee expect that it is just a matter of time before they are found buried in the mud.  “Wood is generally well preserved when buried in waterlogged sediments, and we wouldn’t be surprised to find not only lattice panels, but basketry, and maybe even a canoe someday.”

Meanwhile, getting the actual project underway was no small undertaking, Greene says.  “Working independently, I didn’t have the financial and institutional support that I would have had if I was in academia.”

So, the task ahead of her wasn’t one for the faint-of-heart.  Fortunately for the entire community, aboriginal and otherwise, Greene is not a person to shrink from what would seem like a daunting task.  After all, there was no research funding, no equipment, and she wasn’t in a position at the time to be deemed a full-fledged archeologist.  That considered, she just went ahead and did it.

What she did have, however, was a community at her disposal, many members of whom were excited by what she was attempting.  “People were really excited to come out on the tideflat and help with the mapping.

“When the time came that we had data, it was then we really began to attract attention,” says Greene.  “What was initially a personal project invited huge community involvement where people came out to offer their expertise.  That helped us immeasurably.  There was a kind of synchronicity when we connected with groups like Project Watershed.  It tied in so well with some of the projects they were working on.”

One connection that was arguably the most significant of all, since the project involved early aboriginal peoples, was the vital tie in with the Kíomoks Band.  Early on, First Nations recognized the value of what had been found and they provided funding for the first Carbon-14 dating, a very costly process.  What it meant to them is that they, as a peoples, situated on the edge of the traps are a continuation of a society at least a millennium old, and likely older than that.

Are there other equivalent fish trap sites in our coastal areas?  “Possibly,” Greene says.  “Archaeologists are looking for other sites right now along the coast, but I haven’t heard that anything has been found yet that rivals the extensive distribution and sophistication of the prehistoric fishery at Comox Bay.

“As far as we know nothing like this has been found anywhere in North America.  We have some distinct advantages over other areas.  In many locales on Vancouver Island there was extensive logging and that process has messed up estuaries and destroyed whatever stakes might have existed.  That hasn’t happened as much here.  The booming grounds and loading areas were toward Royston, to the south of the flats.”

The process of mapping, says Greene and McGee, was a grueling one that involved accounting for “every single stake.”   Community involvement was an invaluable help and a team of volunteers joined them in slogging along the flats at low tide and marking the spots.

“In one respect it was good the flats only show at low tide,” she says.  “So, at high tide we were both able to document the day’s findings and also relax a bit.”

Greene says it’s important for contemporary Valley residents to realize that the estuary was considerably different during the centuries in question.  What has brought about the change is dredging and dyking of the Courtenay River channel.  While dredging has declined in recent years due to the shutting down of the sawmill, it was a regular feature in the river for decades so that tugs and barges could ply the lower reaches of the Courtenay River.

K’omoks elder Mary Everson told me that her Granny, Mary Moon, told her that at low tide before they dredged, the river was shallow enough to walk through,” says Greene.  “Dredging and dyking changed the dynamics of the river and the estuary.  Sediments and nutrients used to spread out across the tideflat, but now everything is being dumped in the deep water due to the greater velocity of the river.  The increased flow also means the stakes are more exposed, and when they’re exposed, they deteriorate.  It’s fair to say that at an earlier time there was a nursery aspect to the estuary, but dredging and dyking have seriously altered the ecosystems.”

The bonus in recent years has been, therefore, that the cessation of dredging has meant there can be a renewed focus on the estuary.  “The new interest in this site has been phenomenal,” Greene says, noting this has been very helpful in their quest.  “There are a lot of people moving to the area who offer a lot of expertise to support the protection and the restoration of the estuary that once was so abundant.  It is now recognized that it is a highly significant pre-historic site that is unique to this community, and all this interest is helping us get some financial support to finish up our work.  That’s very gratifying.”

Currently Greene and McGee, along with Comox Valley Regional District Area B director Jim Gillis and retired University of Toronto biology professor emeritus Paul Horgen (who are strong supporters of the project) have been making the rounds of municipal councils in hopes of gaining funding.  In that regard the ‘Stick in the Mud Club’ was born.  Far from finding the frivolous reference offensive, Greene and McGee find it amusing and one that might capture the imagination of the community.  So far they have attracted some welcome response.

The reference, Greene says, reflects a sense of humor about what really amounts to a whole lot of sticks in the mud.  Nobody wants to be a stick in the mud, but if you support the research, you get the title of being an official ‘Stick in the Mud’, something with a certain amount of oddball prestige attached to it.

Recently Gillis, in a presentation to Courtenay Council, said the most urgent need was to have organizations or individuals offer $500 to pay for the carbon dating of 40 to 50 stakes.  The stakes to be dated, he said, would be selected from different parts of the estuary to get a clearer picture of the age of the traps.  In return, the donors would become members of the ‘Club’.

In return for the contribution each member of the Club will get a certificate designed by First Nations artist Andy Everson, commemorating their participation.  The certificate will include the sponsor’s name and information about the particular stake the member has chosen to sponsor, including its age, species of wood, type of fish trap it was used for and the GPS location in the estuary from which the stake was excavated.

“We’ve had an enthusiastic response from the community, including support from local government, businesses and citizens,” Greene says.  “We have 18 stakes remaining for sponsorship if anyone is interested in supporting this important heritage resource for our community.  Sponsors will also receive a charitable tax receipt for their donation, issued by the Comox Valley Project Watershed Society.”

It’s all a costly process, as Greene explains.  “Our costs for getting the stakes out of the ground, preparing samples, shipping and lab analysis are around $500 per sample,” she says.  “In total we have sampled 46 stakes for radiocarbon dating.  In 2004 we dated 11 stakes to get a glimpse of the ages of the fish traps and found the oldest stake, a Douglas fir, was used in the construction of a trap about 800 AD.  The youngest stake, a western hemlock, was pounded into the tideflat in the early 1800s.”

Greene says that the analyses of the additional 46 stakes will broaden her understanding of the age and size of the fishery and how the traps functioned.

Ultimately Greene’s full report will be submitted to the provincial government and she will publish the results of the research in a peer-reviewed archeological journal.  And finally, if there is enough community support, the hope is that Comox Bay will be designated a national historic site.

For more information email Nancy Greene at: [email protected]
This summer Island Gourmet Trails launched the Comox Valley’s first culinary tour operation.  Designed to “immerse the participant in the local culture and reveal the Island’s true spirit, health ” the custom-made tours will take you to visit a wide variety of local food and beverage producers.  The business is the creation of Gaetane Palardy, sale
a Montreal-born chef and educator who moved to the Comox Valley in June, mind

According to Palardy, your tour might start with a stroll through a bustling farmer’s market, then visit a world-renowned cheese factory. Maybe you will roll up your sleeves to create traditional artisan pasta.

You might wander over to an oyster or scallop farm, head down to the docks to meet the fishermen coming in with the day’s catch or have a gourmet picnic. Later, you might choose to meander through an organic berry or vegetable patch.  One thing’s for sure, you will experience the taste of Vancouver Island.

“This project is combining my experience in food and tourism and education.  It is kind of a mix of all my previous experience and my love for discovering things, including discovering back roads,” says Palardy, noting that the roots of her interest in food began at home.

“I have always been interested in food,” she says.  “Going back to my earliest memories, I remember watching my mother cook, bake, preserve and entertain.  These experiences, along with helping my family grow and harvest our own food, inspired me.”

“This project is combining my experience in food and tourism and education,” says Gaetane Palardy, leading her group for a tour of Beaufort Vineyard and Estate Winery. “I have always been interested in food.”

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Her formal entry into the food world began with her professional cooking certificate from Institut de Tourisme et d’Hôtellerie du Québec (Quebec Tourism and Hotel Institute), one of Canada’s leading chef training facilities.  Her resume includes work in the kitchens of many fine hotels, including the ultra-luxurious Mandarin Hotel in Vancouver.

Palardy moved to Vancouver to work as part of the team being assembled for the Hotel Vancouver’s Roof Restaurant during Expo ‘86.  This contract, which she expected to last six months and help her to improve her English, turned out to be a permanent move to British Columbia and a pivotal point that would later lead her to the Comox Valley.

At the Roof Restaurant Palardy worked with chef Ronald St. Pierre and became friends with him and his then new girlfriend, Tricia.   Once Tricia and Ronald settled in the Comox Valley, Palardy visited often, sowing the seeds for her eventual decision to move here.   The three long-time friends have worked together to develop the business idea of a Comox Valley culinary tour operation.  The St. Pierres’ restaurant, Locals, is a certified BC Culinary Tourism Association destination.  The Courtenay restaurant opened in 2008 and specializes in providing a unique dining experience utilizing “Food from the Heart of the Valley”.

In addition to the restaurant industry, Palardy has also spent a number of years working in education.  She had returned to work at the Hotel Vancouver in 1989 but, as she explains, over the next 10 years she found her focus was shifting.  “I wanted to go into teaching because in my job as a sous chef at the hotel I was doing a lot of work with the apprentices and training.  So I took some education courses and got my provincial adult education instructor diploma.”  That diploma led her to move to Prince George, where she taught culinary arts at the College of New Caledonia for eight years.

Combined with her work skills Palardy adds her own experience as a traveller to her creation of a tourism product on Vancouver Island.  “When I travel, I enjoy visiting local food markets, from going to the fish auction in Sydney, Australia, visiting the spice souk of Dubai, the date market in Abu Dhabi or taking a Cajun cooking class in New Orleans. Food always gives the tone to my trips.”

Palardy elaborates on one particular experience that made her think about providing a similar tour back home:  “When I went to Australia, there is the Victoria Market in Melbourne and there was a guided tour of the market.  And I thought ‘Gee, that’s a neat idea.  We should have that in BC.’  I lived in Vancouver at the time and I was thinking of Granville Island and thinking maybe one day I’ll do that.”

Thus it is no surprise that the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market is featured in Island Gourmet Trails’ tours.  The Saturday morning market is the launching point for the half day Taste of the Comox Valley tour.  After breakfast, coffee and a guided tour of the market, where you’ll meet the vendors, the tour takes you to the Beaufort Vineyard and Estate Winery and the Blue Moon Estate Winery to meet the owners and sample their products.

Custom-made tours running on Wednesday are very likely to stop at the afternoon Farmers’ Market.  The range of options for the custom tours is extensive as the Valley has hundreds of farms and a growing list of interesting food and beverage producers.  In addition to land-based farms, tours can include oyster and scallop producers, bakeries, cheese and chocolate makers, coffee roasters, cafes and restaurants.

Culinary tourism is a new but growing concept and thus, in mid-July, Island Gourmet Trails, in collaboration with Locals Restaurant, provided an opportunity for local media and tourism operators to experience a day-long culinary tour.  From the moment I read the itinerary my curiosity and taste buds were stimulated.

Our day began at Rhodos Coffee Roasting Company in Courtenay; we then boarded a van to visit Surgenor Brewing and Aquatec Seafood in Comox, then were on to Nature’s Way Farm north of Courtenay, which also encompasses Blue Moon Estate Fruit Winery and Tria Culinary Studio.  After a lovely picnic lunch of local foods we travelled south to Island View Lavender in Union Bay and Royston’s Innisfree Farm and Royston Roasting Company.  We concluded our excursion with an exquisite dinner at Locals Restaurant in Courtenay.

It was a superb introduction to culinary touring that included interesting conversations with the various company’s owners and staff and generous samplings of their products.  Palardy was a knowledgeable and entertaining guide who thoughtfully provided us with everything we needed—from background information, to water, sun screen and an umbrella for shade.  Tricia St. Pierre took care of the driving so Palardy could concentrate on providing commentary.

We learned a tremendous amount about each place; the following are simply some of my highlights: Discovering that Rhodos Coffee Roasting Company not only serves great organic Fair Trade coffee but also makes their own gelato.  One popular flavor is created using Island View Lavender.  Bob Surgenor’s sense of humor made for a wonderful visit filled with laughter.  Surgenor Brewery makes great beer and their newest, In Seine Pale Ale, is delicious.  Aquatec Seafood is a 35-year old family-run business that provides visitors and locals with a custom fish processing and shipping service.  We happily sampled their various award-winning smoked salmon products at the Hooked on Seafood retail store.

Marla Limousin describes their combined operations as “food, farm and wine under one roof.”  Limousin runs Natures’ Way Farm, her husband George Ehrler takes care of operations at the Blue Moon Estate Winery, and chef Kathy Jerritt offers cooking classes, catering and private dinners in the Tria Culinary Studio.  The studio is a very inviting kitchen and dining area adjacent to the wine shop/farm gate store.  It was with great sadness that we learned that the monthly Full Moon Feasts are already sold out for 2010.  Our sadness was soon turned to joy as we toured the fields and Marla invited us to eat as many tay berries—a cross between a raspberry and a blackberry—as we liked.

I think it is safe to say that Innisfree Farm dispelled any stereotypes that we may have had about farms.  Thierry Vrain and his partner Chanchal Cabrera bought the property about five years ago and they are well on the way to transforming it into a must see culinary/agri-tourism destination.  They are combining vegetable, fruit, nut and Christmas tree cultivation with horticultural therapy, medicinal herb production, apprenticeship and seed saver programs, and one of BC’s largest labyrinths planted in Blue Fescue grasses.

The afternoon got even more relaxing when we stopped at Island View Lavender in Union Bay.  Owner Kathleen Kinasewich began by telling us about her house, the oldest home in Union Bay.  She then walked us through the A to Z of lavender species, 22 of which she grows.  Kathleen also offers a unique living mandala workshop, where participants create succulent wreaths.  We all left happy with a lovely bouquet of fresh picked lavender.

Gary and Dyan Spink were wrapping up a very busy day greeting people partaking in the 30 Day Food Challenge, but they happily put on a new pot of coffee and gave us a tour of their facilities.  The Royston Roasting Company makes four types of coffee and specializes in custom labeling orders for businesses or personal gift giving.  Their elegant Ozturk roaster imported from Turkey gives the small facility an aura of serious coffee buzz.

Chef Ronald St. Pierre has been working in the Comox Valley for 20 years but Locals Restaurant is his first solo venture.   In two short years it has gained a reputation for excellence that is now being discovered across the country—they were recently featured in Where to Eat in Canada.  This notoriety comes as no surprise to our group, who was treated to a fantastic three course meal featuring local fish, produce, pasta and fruit.

Palardy explains why Locals is a natural fit with her tours:  “I like to take my visitors to their restaurant because they commit themselves to showcase local producers, the same ones where I take my visitors,” she says.  “There’s nothing better than trying a scallop dish when we visited the Island Scallops in the afternoon, or finishing the meal with a lavender gelato using the lavender of Island View Lavender Farm.”

One thing stood out for all of us—the Island Gourmet Trails culinary tours would suit both visitors and locals wishing to be tourists in their own region.

“It’s opened my eyes,” says Sarah Nicholson from Tourism Mount Washington.  “I think we are all very blasé at times and living in an area and not experiencing it, but we have some incredible hidden gems in the Valley.  I would strongly recommend anybody doing this tour.  It’s ideal for all ages, there is something for everybody, and the really great aspect is they can be custom designed.”

Al Morton, a volunteer with the Comox Valley Visitor Centre, particularly enjoyed hearing people’s stories.  “I guess the biggest thing is the interesting people that I met.  I mean we’ve really run into a lot of very interesting people, in many cases it seems to be a secondary career or third thing they’ve done.  They all have these interesting backgrounds.”

Linda Oprica, a business and executive coach, was on the tour representing the Comox Valley Airport Commission.  She was enthusiastic about the contribution Island Gourmet Trails could make to the Comox Valley:  “The concept that she has put together is really phenomenal,” she says.  “It is a wonderful event for two people to a bus full of people; it’s great for locals.  I think it will actually revitalize tourism in the Valley because it really is all about tourism in the Valley—agriculture and culture and different communities in the Valley, so I think it will revitalize it.  I think it is outstanding.”

Palardy is constantly enlarging her network of destinations.  She has also partnered with three other companies to offer a package that includes a vacation rental on Comox Bay, sailing trips and training, a guided nature walk and a culinary tour.  This package, as with all her tours, is provided in either English or French.

For more information visit:

It is a hot summer evening in mid-July. While most kids and teenagers might be flaked out on the couch playing a Wii game, oncologist
Hope Lewis, Sarah Gunter, Emily Vossler and a half dozen other kids are leaning over the rails of a corral fence.  They watch intently as Hope’s father, John Lewis, demonstrates how to properly lead and ‘square up’ a 1,000-pound Hereford cow for a showmanship competition.

“You need to hold its head up, like this,” says Lewis as he pulls on the lead rope and raises the animal’s head, which is the size of a giant watermelon.  For the life of me, I simply cannot image little Sarah, age 11, handling such a large animal in a show ring.  I am, however, quickly assured that there are always plenty of adults in the ring alongside the pint-sized handlers, ready and able to leap into action and assist should any of the animals get out of control.

“Always keep your calf’s head up to present it to the judge and to maintain control,” continues Lewis. “Remember, in the showmanship class, the judge is looking to see how well you interact with your animal and whether or not you know how to position it for inspection.”

Lewis stops walking the cow, then taps one of its hooves with a pole.  Obediently, the cow moves her leg back until suitably ‘square’ and then stands patiently for inspection.

Learning to show beef and dairy cattle is serious business for these young people, all of whom are members of the Comox Valley 4-H Calf Club.  The two demonstration heifers, Daisy and Clover, and a steer named Frank, are just three of the 4-H Calf Club’s ‘projects’ that have been entered into various exhibitions this August, including the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) in Vancouver and the Comox Valley Fall Fair.

“4-H is a lot of fun,” says Hope Lewis, centre, with cousins Jenna Van Velzen (left) and Rhyan Lewis. The girls are part of the local 4-H Calf Club, and will be showing their project animals at the PNE in August.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

This will be 11-year-old Hope Lewis’ second time at the PNE—she will be showing both a steer and a heifer at the event.   She will be joined by her cousins Jenna Van Velzen, 14, with her steer, Frederickton, and Rhyan Lewis, 10, and her heifer, Clover.  Because Hope and Rhyan have chosen heifers (young females), rather than steers (young castrated males), as their project animals, they will be able to bring Daisy and Clover home to the family farm when the four-day event is over.  Next year, Hope plans to enter both Daisy and her calf in the competition.

For Hope’s steer, Pez, and 12-year-old Blair Schmelz’s steer, Frank, as well as two others who are making the journey from the Island to the PNE, however, this will be their final destination.  At 18 months of age and weighing in at around 1,200 pounds, the Hereford steers are ready to be sold for meat.

“I knew from the start that Frank would be sold at the PNE,” explains Schmelz. “I have tried not to get emotionally attached to him… I understand that cattle are raised for food.  It is just a fact. I expect to get about $2,000 for him and, after I pay back my dad for the cost of feed, I plan to save that money to buy a car when I am older.”

That said, Schmelz turns away and becomes focused once again on what Lewis is teaching.  One gets the feeling that what might appear to some to be ‘aloofness’ is more a coping mechanism, and young Schmelz has mixed emotions with respect to selling Frank.

As if in defense of her fellow 4-H club member, Sarah Gunter, looks at me with solemn eyes and adds with serious conviction, “You have to focus on the fact that the animals have had a good life—a better life than many other animals.  They get lots love and special attention in their lives.”

On the topic of raising and selling livestock, Comox Valley District 4-H Leader Elizabeth Legault says she had lost track of how many times she has stood at the PNE with a young person crying on her shoulder.

“You can’t take the emotion out of raising livestock and the kids never really get ‘hardened’ to it,” says Legault. “For this reason, we try to discourage the really young children from going to the PNE with the intention of selling their project animal. With time, the 4-H kids [like all farm families] come to realize that some animals represent a source of income and food.  But on every farm there are still the favorites that are kept until they get old and die naturally—no different than our dogs and cats.”

Unfortunately, the average urbanite usually only sees the end result of the 4-H association—by watching kids and their hogs, sheep, goats, cattle or other types of animals at regional fairs.  It is important to understand that this is only a small part of 4-H program.

Kids sign up for various 4-H programs in January and don’t even start raising their project animals until spring.  Meanwhile, there are monthly meetings where they learn about animal husbandry and farm safety.  They do a little fund raising and take field trips.  In January, each 4-H member chooses a topic, researches it, and then creates a three-sided education board to be worked on at home.  The range of topics covered is vast and could include everything from farm safety, first aid, technology, or something as simple as how to build a birdhouse.

The education boards are entered into various district, regional and provincial competitions where they are judged according to age-appropriate criteria.  For some people, this would be even more daunting that trying to wrangle that 1,000-pound steer.  The 4-H kids, however, have fun creating and showing off these important projects.

Trina Gunter, adult leader for the 4-H Calf Club, has spent many years involved with the program.  It is her job to oversee the business aspects of its operation and she does this with a firm hand and a gentle heart. It is obvious the kids adore her.  Her role is vast, covering everything from ensuring that proper meeting protocol is followed, that the Treasurer’s Report is accurate, that entry forms for the fairs are submitted and so much more.  Gunter sticks with it, she says, not because she has six children that need to be kept busy, but because it is a great way to teach young people responsibility and valuable social skills.

“4-H kids really do learn by doing,” she says.  “They do everything from muck stalls to practicing how to speak with confidence and poise when asked a question by a member of the general public… and they have a lot of fun while they learn.”

The 4-H clubs also work with community groups, such as Toastmasters, to help club members develop excellent communication and presentation skills.  This helps them with the education board competitions and when showing their animals at various exhibitions, where they answer questions from the general public with confidence, poise and professionalism.

In the spring, the children work with their parents and leaders to choose a lamb, piglet, calf, or other type of animal. They are expected to spend about an hour a day looking after their livestock and must keep record books to log the animals’ progress and the cost of feed.  Activity and commitment increases in July, when the animals have to be groomed and trained for upcoming shows.

The 4-H Comox Valley Calf Club, from left: leader Trina Gunter, club president Emily Vossler, Blair Schmelz, club vice-president Megan Gunter, Noah Gunter, Jenna Van Velzen, Hope Lewis, Rhyan Lewis and Sarah Gunter.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

All of the skills the 4-H kids acquire and the experiences they have meeting new people, public speaking, traveling, making new friends and generally becoming well-rounded citizens will serve them well later in life, as they become young adults and go away to school or get their first jobs.

The skills offered by 4-H are not new—in fact, the club is more than a century old.  Programs to enlighten youth about new farming practices and technology date back to about 1890.  Even then, the lure of the big cities was considered to be a threat to the future of the family farm.  Creation of the 4-H program, as we know it today, has been credited to an Ohio man named A.B. Graham. His program was established in 1902.  The now familiar 4-H symbol—a distinctive cloverleaf emblem emblazoned with four letter H’s that represent head, heart, hands and health—was developed a few years later.

As times changed, so did the 4-H curriculum, but the core of the program today is still a commitment to provide youth with an opportunity to learn how to become productive, self-assured adults who can make their community and country a good place in which to live. The philosophy of 4-H, as explained in their motto, is as relevant today as it was when written many decades ago: Learn to do by doing.

The 4-H movement started in British Columbia in 1914, when more than 200 young people were involved in a potato-growing project sponsored by the Department of Agriculture. (It was initially called the Boys and Girls Clubs and was re-named ‘4-H’ in 1952, in order to represent the head, hands, heart and health motto.)  Over the past 96 years, 4-H has grown and now has more than 2,350 youth and hundreds of leaders province-wide.

The BC 4-H program has four age categories: Cloverbuds is for kids ages six-to-eight, Junior for those ages nine-to-12, and Senior for 13-to-19-year olds.  Young adults, ages 20-to-21, can become 4-H Ambassadors and travel to various clubs in other regions to share their knowledge and expertise with others. While the kids are responsible for managing their individual projects and running their respective clubs, adult volunteer leaders oversee all activities.

4-H Clubs on Vancouver Island are divided into several Regional Districts—South Malahat, Cowichan, Cedar, Parksville-Qualicum, Powell River, Port Alberni and the Comox Valley.

The Comox Valley 4-H Club currently has about 75 members and 15 leaders active in five divisions: a Calf Club, which includes both beef and dairy cattle; the Tsolum 4-H Sheep Club, Comox Valley 4-H Swine Club, Comox Valley 4-H Horse Tails and the Gumbooters.

Gumbooters is the branch of the District 4-H Club that includes ‘odd stock’—the animals and activities that don’t fit into any of other the other divisions.  This currently includes poultry and other fowl, rabbits, cavies (Guinea pigs), goats, donkeys and dogs, as well as food and crafts. The list of animals and activities changes each year, as long as enough adults step forward to assist.  In previous years, for example, chinchillas, sugar gliders, sewing and small engines have also been included in the mix.

“We established the Odd Stock section in 1995 because the community club had grown to a point where it became too large,” explains Legault.  “This provided an opportunity to add other animals not included in the other clubs. When Shamrock Veterinary Clinic came on as a sponsor, the group was named the Shamrock Gumbooters, and was later changed to Shamrock Odd Stock and Crafts. Over time, it reverted back to simply be Gumbooters.  Shamrock Vet, however, remains our sponsor and we are grateful for their support.”

Other current community sponsors include Lloydshaven Farms, who supply the dairy cows for the Calf Club, as well as the  Comox Valley Exhibition Association, Dodge City Video, Black Creek Farm and Feed, the Comox Valley Farmers Institute, Comox Valley Dodge, Co-op, Casawood Farms and several other individuals and families.

Fundraising is a part of the 4-H program and the Gumbooters kids, for example, raise money to support their activities by setting up petting farms at various local events.  With a menagerie of chickens, goats, rabbits and other small animals, the petting farm helps the 4-H kids raise cash.  It also provides them with an opportunity to practice those all-important public speaking skills while sharing their knowledge of animal husbandry and handling.

“The great thing about Gumbooters 4-H Club is that it enables kids who do not live on farms or have a farming background to participate in 4-H,” says Gumbooters leader, Janet Martyn.

The cost for kids to join 4-H is $60 per year and financial assistance is available to families with several children or those who may not be able to afford the full dues.  But the number of kids that can be enrolled each year really depends on the commitment of adults in the community to come forward as volunteer leaders—more are always needed!  Prospective new leaders can be a young or old, new to agriculture or experienced.

“When I started in the 4-H program many years ago I was a city girl whose children wanted sheep,” explains Legault. “I knew nothing about raising sheep and learned along with my children. Many parents start out this way.”

After an initial interview and a police check, prospective leaders must participate in the provincial 4-H training programs, which cover the gamut from learning the 4-H Code of Ethics, to new developments in agriculture, recognizing signs of child abuse, how to deliver the program, and more.

“Being a 4-H leader is surprisingly very fun,” says Martyn.  “Even though I no longer have kids in 4-H, I continue to be involved because I love to watch them learn and grow.  My children, who are now young adults and have aged out of the program, liked 4-H so much that they still come back to the club to help out.  I also enjoy the friendships that I make with the children, their parents and the other leaders.  Our club is fairly small and, for me, it is like an extended family.”

For John Lewis, his daughter Hope and nieces Jenna and Rhyan, cattle and 4-H is also a family affair.  “Being in 4-H teaches the kids responsibility and they also learn important skills,” says Lewis, 44, whose family runs Courtenay Herefords.  “Our family has been raising beef cattle for 45 years, and dairy before that.  I was in 4-H for 12 years as a kid and it taught me a lot—teamwork, responsibility and a lot of other skills that apply in everyday life.  I want the girls to have the same opportunities that I had, especially in today’s world when everyone is sitting in front of TVs and computers.  It keeps the kids active and gives them a positive focus.”

Emily Vossler, age 15, has been in 4-H for six years and, like her fellow members, has many fond memories of going to the PNE and other fairs, attending 4-H camps and getting involved with the community.

“Some of my school friends just hang out all summer,” explains Vossler, part of the 4-H Calf Club. “But my 4-H friends and I get to be around animals and keep busy doing some really amazing things.  It is a lot of fun going to the fairs and connecting with club members from other regions.  I love it!”

For more about 4-H check out or call Elizabeth Legault at 250.338.1479.  See the local 4-H kids in action at the Comox Valley Exhibition Fall Fair, August 27-29 at the Courtenay Fairgrounds.