“I just love making soil,” says Leonard Peters Jr., looking back at a daunting hill of organic material that had just been dropped off at Sea to Sky Soils, where he works.
A dedicated ground labourer with a passion for producing high-quality compost from organic materials for farms across the Sea to Sky, Peters has worked at the organic waste processing facility just south of Pemberton for more than 10 years.
With a keen eye, he picks out metal and plastic embedded in the organic materials that won’t break down. It’s a difficult, physical job—and “one of the most important ones” to the operation, says Jaye-Jay Berggren, a founder and former director of Sea to Sky Soils.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is getting plastic in the compost,” Scott Kerr, the company’s GM adds. “People still have a disconnect from the composting process, and some can get lackadaisical about what goes where.”
Peters, along with the majority of the Sea to Sky Soils crew, are members of the Lil’wat Nation. The company sits on unceded, traditional Lil’wat land that was returned to the Nation during the 2010 Winter Olympics. The Lil’wat Business Group leases it to Sea to Sky Soils through a formal agreement that includes employment opportunities for Nation members.
“I give the credit to the leadership at Lil’wat,” says Berggren, who first pitched the idea to the Nation, when speaking of the business’ success. “We worked with people who had the long-term vision and values and who were community-minded and caring. Without them, this would have been impossible.”
This mutual commitment has shaped Sea to Sky Soils from the beginning to put community first and to respect Lil’wat cultural values and priorities, such as seasonal traditions like fishing that affect staffing levels.
“Putting your money where your mouth is as a business is important,” says Kerr.
For Lil’wat Nation Political Chief Skalúlmecw Dean Nelson, this reciprocal partnership that centres on the land is an example of the community asserting its rights. “There’s a lot of industry that has interrupted our land and now we have the opportunity to look at it ourselves,” he says. “We’re finding the balance of not taking too much while looking out for the people.
Akin to the Nation’s forestry business, which is run directly by the Lil’wat Business Group, Nelson sees these land-based ventures as a way for Lil’wat7úl to “have a voice.”
“There’s so many different parts to [the loss of rights]. This is just one little piece of putting it back together,” he says.
Today, the majority of compost and soil amendments that so many farms in the region have come to rely on are being produced on Lil’wat land almost exclusively by Lil’wat7úl like Peters. After 10 years doing this work, there aren’t many farms in the Sea to Sky that haven’t received compost that has passed through his careful hands.
As Berggren explains, Peters’ diligence upholds a critical pillar of the circular, agricultural economy in the corridor—a pillar that wasn’t always present locally.
“Together, we’ve made that full circle happen,” Berggren says. “It starts at the farm where the food is growing, and then it goes through the chain to the consumer, then the recycler of organics, and then back to the farmer. Every pillar is equally important.”
This local, sustainable system complements a core Lil’wat belief, says Nelson: that the people and the land are one. “It means taking care of what takes care of you,” he shares. “Whether you’re looking after the salmon or looking after your crops. Looking after the water … and the soil, too.”
For Peters, who embodies this belief in his day-to-day work, it’s all about creating really good soil. “I’m out here all day and I do a lot of walking. I love it. They really miss me if I miss one or two days,” he shares, beaming, as a crow circles noisily overhead.
“The crows are always around. Sometimes they help, sometimes they don’t,” he adds, laughing.
‘It starts at the farm’
Some of the compost that leaves Sea to Sky Soils end up at Qwal’ímak Nlep’cálten, with Ryan McMillan, a dedicated farm worker and Lil’wat member.
A market farm located on traditional Lil’wat Nation land, Qwal’ímak Nlep’cálten employs Lil’wat members and aims to provide affordable, fresh food for the community.
McMillan first got involved after a friend asked if he was interested in taking on a job four years ago. With a background in landscaping, he decided to give it a shot. Since then, McMillan has become an integral part of the Qwal’ímak Nlep’cálten team. He’s gained a lot of knowledge about growing food and agriculture, which brought him closer to the work, he says.
“I am involved in taking care of the soil,” says McMillan. “I add amendments like phosphorus and nitrogen that really help grow everything. We practise organic measures, though it’s not certified.”
While McMillan is also responsible for harvesting or taking care of what is in the field by weeding or watering, his work with the soil is never done.
“We have Class 1 agricultural soil here, it’s top notch,” explains Shannon Didier, a Red River Métis woman who serves as the agricultural manager of Qwal’ímak Nlep’cálten. “We supplement [our soil] with compost from Sea to Sky Soils and organic fertilizers because whenever you’re planting something, you’re taking nutrients out of the ground. We also have started playing with cover crops to try some regenerative practices,” she says.
Testing these regenerative practices for the soil is a constant subject of conversation not only among the Qwal’ímak Nlep’cálten team but also amongst the strong network of vegetable farmers in the Lil’wat and Pemberton area.
Qwal’ímak Nlep’cálten has built a particularly strong bond with Laughing Crow Organics, located on Pemberton Meadows Road.
“We aspire to reach Laughing Crow Organics’s level in the future,” says Didier about the relationship. “We’ve gone to see what they’re doing. They’ve helped us with working with weeds. They help inspire the staff. It’s all a good thing.”
Laughing Crow’s Andrew Budgell, better known as Budgie, says it was only natural to build a connection and share mutual learnings with each other. “We’re supporting each other. We’re having really similar experiences. It’s really back and forth,” he says, something common with vegetable farmers in the area.
Budgell and his team have helped introduce the concept of using a Tilmor weeder to Lil’wat’s farm operations, a task McMillan has taken up with gusto. Tilmor helps mechanically weed the earth without causing damage to the soil.
“Taking care of the weeds with your hands takes so long,” says McMillan. “With the Tilmor, it’s done in a couple of hours. It’s my favourite thing to do. I could go all day, but I run out of fields,” he jokes.
McMillan proudly keeps before-and-after photos of his pristine work in his phone.
“I’ve wandered through their farm and have been inspired by their setup,” Budgie says, explaining the reciprocal nature between the two farms.
But the biggest learning of all, for Budgie, is the First Nation’s approach to farming.
“Prior to learning about [Qwal’ímak Nlep’cálten], I had never heard of a community that wants to set up a farm to feed themselves as the whole goal. That’s the unique thing I get out of it—what a cool and incredibly important goal this farm has. And what a bunch of hard workers.”
Taking only what you need
“Growing food that the community can access is becoming more and more important with climate change,” says Didier, as the thick smell of smoke sits on the air and the sound of planes rumbles in the background. It’s a poignant setting—and frankly, distracting to both of us—as we speak about soil and farming on a hot, hazy day.
“This farm is growing conventional food to get into bellies,” she explains. “The community has lost access to their lands to collect food and wild medicines, and when traditional food does come in, it’s highly seasonal and takes time to process. So, the farm allows access to organic food at reasonable prices.”
Qwal’ímak Nlep’cálten is a contemporary solution to myriad challenges, many of which are tied to the loss of unceded lands, the Indian Act, residential schools and the reserve system.
Prior to contact with European settlers, the Lil’wat7úl were migratory people, and their traditional territory encompasses close to 800,000 hectares that includes vastly different ecological zones. Food harvesting was dependent on the season. They moved throughout their territory to hunt, fish or to harvest mushrooms and berries. Food preservation was relied upon to get through the winter.
In time, British Columbia systematically stripped Lil’wat7úl of their lands, rights and resources. Eventually, people were restricted to 10 tiny reserves totalling 00.4 per cent of their original traditional territory.
“Farming was adopted once we became stationary,” Nelson says.
Unable to feed themselves as they had in the past, during the switch to agriculture, the community was led by the same Indigenous laws that had always guided them in their relationship to the land, he explains.
“We have laws that say, ‘Take only what you need,’” Nelson says. “You have a family and you only take enough salmon for them. So, for small farmers, that’s all they do. They grow food for their family. It’s preserved for the year. It’s the same mentality we’ve always had if you were drying meat or salmon and putting things away for winter. It’s an adaptation of being here on the land.”
Over time, Lil’wat7úl became skilled ranchers and farmers, leading to many multi-generational agricultural families who became experts in soil, growing produce, and raising food to feed the community. It hasn’t been without its challenges, though. Between climate change, wildfire, a lack of effective dyking, and the flooding risk from the reserve being wedged into the bottom of the valley, there’s a lot to manage.
“For many people this type of farm might seem progressive,” says Didier, looking over at the Qwal’ímak Nlep’cálten farm crew as they prepare their produce for the Whistler Farmers Market that Sunday.
“But in Indigenous communities, this is just infusing the traditional approach, which is taking care of your community, with agriculture. Indigenous communities in general have a better connection to their food sources and you observe that in people’s daily and seasonal practices. There is agricultural knowledge here, along with a really deep connection to the land.”
In addition to a focus on farming, the community is also reclaiming access to its traditional, wild foods. “We still have salmon, mushrooms and berries,” Nelson says. “But we don’t have access to them. Recreation has taken over cultural trails.”
This ongoing challenge has undoubtedly informed the recent closure of Joffre Lakes Provincial Park by Lil’wat and N’Quatqua First Nations to harvest and gather resources from their unceded territories.
The future of Lil’wat farming
Nelson himself hails from an agricultural family. Today, he has fruit trees at home and loves to garden. Those roots are behind his passion for the farming work taking place at Qwal’ímak Nlep’cálten, which, he says, has a two-pronged goal: “I want to grow pride and nutrition for the benefit of the Nation,” he says.
When you speak to McMillan, and his colleague Atom Nelson, also of Lil’wat Nation, it’s clear the Chief’s hope for Qwal’ímak Nlep’cálten is coming true.
Not only is the farm producing high-quality food for the community, humble pride radiates from the two young men when speaking about where the passion for their work comes from.
For Atom, his interest in farming started in childhood. “When I was really small, my dad had a garden and we’d spend all day in it with him. We’d be pulling carrots and corn and everything. We’d come in for lunch and we’d already be full from eating vegetables from the garden,” he recalls.
Atom’s dad had learned gardening skills from his own parents, who once had a big farm on the reserve. “They grew food to feed themselves,” he shares, thinking back to his childhood. “They had a big orchard with cherry trees and berries. And they were always growing a lot of food that we grow here [at Qwal’ímak Nlep’cálten], like carrots and potatoes.”
Coming from a multi-generation farming family, Atom is putting that legacy to work at Qwal’ímak Nlep’cálten, where he is known for having the most patience for tedious farm duties—and being able to withstand the scorching daytime heat.
For Atom, the reason for caring for the soil is simple. “I always think it’s important to take care of the land. It’s where we live. Why would you want to destroy the land that you live on?” he asks. “I guess people do it for money. But money isn’t as important as your kids and the future generations that are still going to be living here.”
Atom knows the work he’s doing at Qwal’ímak Nlep’cálten goes beyond just the healthy food they harvest each season. “It’s about food security,” he says, “by giving more people in the community more knowledge to grow food, once they see we can do it. I have cousins that are growing their own vegetables now. Hopefully we can inspire more people to do that as well.”
“What we hope for is succession,” says Nelson, of the future of Qwal’ímak Nlep’cálten and the team of workers. “Will the next generation accept that responsibility? We are strengthening our youth and children to look for their place in the Nation. If that’s what they want.”
Like any good farmer, Atom is thinking about future seasons, too. “If we ever have kids or grandkids, they will still be working this land and growing things,” he says. “This is for the whole community. Not just for my family, but for everyone.”