Woodland foods project identifies need for community cooperatives

By Sheilla Jones

Developing a viable wild foods business in southern Manitoba will depend on addressing the gap between producers and consumers, according to producers who are currently harvesting wild foods.

Mike James took a ride on Chris Federowich's combine in November so they could discuss the challenges Chris faces growing and harvesting seabuckthorn of the headland of his farm at Ashville, near Dauphin.

Mike James took a ride on Chris Federowich’s combine in November so they could discuss the challenges Chris faces growing and harvesting seabuckthorn of the headland of his farm at Ashville, near Dauphin.

“The message from producers is plain,” said Mike James, Woodland Farm Foods researcher and expert in non-timber forest products. “People are not interested in a large co-operative but rather small collectives where they can be directly involved in decision making.”

James interviewed a number of wild food producers in Dauphin, Swan River, The Pas and other central Manitoba communities as part of Phase I of the Woodland Farm Food Project (WFF) undertaken by WAM. Some of them participated in the program on non-timber forest products run by Keewatin Community College in The Pas from 2001-2006.

“Producers want small centres,” said James, “where they can get training, collect materials and share equipment, with the assistance of a coordinator, marketing people and perhaps a broker.”

The problem with the northern program, said James, is that when funding for the northern development centre ended, so did the resources for producers.

“The program trained a lot of people in First Nations communities, but once the centre shut down, there was nowhere they could take their harvested materials.”

Some of the earlier efforts on non-timber forest products are still bearing fruit. Brenda Gaudry runs Creative Spirits in Barrows, just north of the Porcupine Provincial Forest, selling wild hyssop, wild mint and labrador teas, along with other non-timber forest products.

“Brenda Gaudry has make this work for her,” said James, “by selling a wide variety of products on consignment to stores and on-line. She would like to see a small community centre where harvesters and sellers could work together.”

An important focus of the Woodland Farm Food Program is how the harvest and marketing of wild foods in the north can be adapted and improved for southern Manitoba where the majority of privately owned wooded lands exist.

Norm Halden, who owns a woodlot south of Arborg, is also the Dean of the Clayton H. Riddell Faculty of Environment, Earth, and Resources at the University of Manitoba. He sees the importance of connecting natural foods in rural areas with urban markets.

“In our department,” said Halden, “people are interested in food sovereignty, food security and natural foods. More and more, the urban environment is going to dictate what foods are being developed, which is likely to mean less and less of conventional farming.”

The problem, he noted, is that there is still a large gap between natural food and wild food producers and urban markets.

“There is strong interest in food security and utilizing local products. But how do we get there? There are issues around economy of scale and marketing that need working out.”

James and Ken Fosty, who is working with James on the woodland foods project, presented the results of Phase I of the WFF project to WAM members on December 2, 2014 in Selkirk.

The Manitoba Woodlot, Issue 107, December 2014