This morning, I sat between a 12 foot tall banana tree, a row of fruiting grapefruit trees, and a Bougainvillea still in bloom. The sun broke through the clouds, and suddenly, it was a balmy spring day―except that I was in a tropical oasis in November here on Salt Spring Island.
Some people may know this place as The Garden. It’s a 6000 square foot greenhouse where Jane Squier has been growing food commercially since 1994. Although she’s best known for her living lettuce and succulent basil leaves, half of the greenhouse is now dedicated to growing fruits such as lemons, oranges, grapefruits, and avocados.
Jane put a freshly picked kumquat in my hand: “It’s like eating sunshine.” And it was! The rind was sweet, and the flesh burst with a lively tang. She grows three varieties of kumquat. Along with lemons and limes, she can eat these fresh year round.
Jane picked a kaffir lime and encouraged me to rub its gnarled rind. Within seconds, an aromatic oil had spread across my palm. She sells the plant’s leaves, an essential herb in Thai cuisine, at Country Grocer. Other tasty surprises include fruiting passion flower, pineapple guava, a few varieties of Mandarin oranges, loquat, pawpaw, lemongrass, jujube, cardamom, ginger, and turmeric.
Currently, these aren’t money-making crops for Jane. They’re part of an overall experiment that includes using sustainable energy and closing nutrient cycles. Her biggest interest is looking at the inputs and outputs to make the systems more efficient. Very few inputs are required to keep her entire operation going.
For 7 months of the year, Jane focuses on the basil and butter lettuce, more than on the tropical plants, as they are how she makes her living. In the 22 years that she’s been selling to Country Grocer, she has been able to keep up with its demand, with an occasional shortfall. She says, “They’re fabulous to work with. They’re reasonable, and they know what they’re doing.”
Although Country Grocer has always worked with local farmers, in the last 4 years, it has increased its commitment. Rob Holmes, the produce manager at Country Grocer, says, “Locals care about what they’re growing, which makes for a better product. For the price difference, it always makes sense to step up for local produce.”
He also said that in the first week in November, local farmers brought him garlic, leeks, kale, carrots, and even tomatoes, and Soya Nova brought in tofu. Knoth Farm, which is certified organic, has been supplying the store with the only organic leeks it has carried for the last 4 months. Country Grocer also sells 100 pounds of the farm’s potatoes weekly. Salt Spring Sprouts sells a wide variety of sprouts in the store. And another main supplier is Bon Acres Farm; Rob raves about its sweet carrots.
Country Grocer buys from several other island farmers and sometimes from Vancouver Island farms. For example, the long English cucumbers come from near Fuller Lake.
When you’re in Country Grocer, look for the “Extremely Local Produce” signs: bright green for veggies; red for fruit. And look up! Photos of the people growing your food hang over the produce section.