Island Food: The Challenges of Growing a Food Business on the Gulf Islands

Twenty minutes of climbing and I am gasping for breath, initially from the hike, then from the unexpected beauty of the view. Sapphire sky fills the horizon, cotton ball clouds hang lazily in the sky and jagged islands rise from the Salish Sea. Laying out my blanket on a moss covered rocky patch, I unpack my picnic lunch and sit down for a feast under the dappled shade of a gnarled arbutus tree. My baguette is the perfect vehicle for my creamy goat cheese, topped with a deceptively sweet preserved lemon, and a heaping dose of blood red raspberry habanero jam. My bottle of hibiscus kombucha hisses as I open the top and take a long drink of its bubbly, fermented contents. Everything in my basket was created by artisans of Salt Spring Island. While it’s an ideal place to create, each business has faced, and still faces, challenges unique to creating and growing a viable wide-ranging business on an island.

For David Wood, owner of Salt Spring Island Goat Cheese, this means transporting goat milk to Salt Spring and the resulting cheese to market. Using the ferries six to eight times per week adds twenty percent to the cost of the cheese, but there is nowhere that David would rather be. The country village feel of the compound on the “Cheese Farm”, complete with tasting room, viewing windows into the production facility and a café showcasing their cheese is a staple for visitors to Salt Spring, welcoming thousands of visitors per year. “Being on an Island generates opportunities for the business that would not present themselves on the Mainland,” says David.

Soft, white and tangy, David’s goat cheese pairs well with any of the jams from Salt Spring Kitchen Company. Melanie Mulherin recently signed a lease to move into a 1300-square foot commercial space from her current 400-square foot location, where the stacks of jam jar filled boxes double as countertops. Commercial space is limited here and rents can soar. “Finding affordable space with a loading dock, warehouse space, sufficient water and appropriate zoning is a challenge,” says Melanie, but “increased demand from larger retailers” prompts her to persist and she says her expansion is exciting and invigorating.

Wild rose petals, lavender, hibiscus, and other concoctions bubble away in a sea of glass carboys surrounding a small outbuilding on an organic farm overlooking the fertile Fulford Valley. This is where Lea Weir of Saltspring Island Kombucha Company creates, using a 3,000 year old process. “People are starting to understand the importance of probiotics in the diet and kombucha is such an enjoyable way to get them. Kombucha is part of the movement back to a diet made of real food,” says Lea, whose fermented teas can be found at several retail locations as well as on tap at the Empress Hotel in Victoria. Growing her business to satisfy demand is very much on her mind, though access to year-round clean water will be her biggest challenge.

With it’s Mediterranean climate bringing hot summers, water sources on Salt Spring Island can become scarce in late summer, wells run dry and lake levels drop to critical levels. With changes to the seasonal temperatures, a reliable, clean water source can make or break an Island business.

All of these producers, and many more scattered around the Gulf Islands, persist and thrive despite the obstacles. Their passion is evident in their attitudes and their products. Luckily for me, and others who enjoy these foods and beverages, the special pull of island life means a continued stream of high quality, small batch artisanal products to tantalize palates for a long time to come.



The Salt Spring Picnic Basket Box

Fresh Baguette

Salt Spring Island Goat Cheese (soft or brie):

Salt Spring Kitchen Co Jam:

Carciofino from Salt Spring Island Picnic Company:

Saltspring Island Kombucha:


All of the above can be purchased at Country Grocer in Ganges, SSI, along with local, organic fruit and vegetables.

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