Business booming in B.C.’s Comox Valley

CUMBERLAND, B.C. — Christina Willard-Stepan does the heavy lifting and leg work at Seeds Natural Food Market so that her customers don’t have to.

The owner of the seven-year-old boutique-style natural food market in Cumberland describes her customers as buyers particular about what they eat.

“They prefer knowing about their groceries and knowing the farmer it came from,” she said.

Willard-Stepan focuses on buying local and organic as much as is practical and widens out her buying to include stock items that customers need.

The self-professed fan of farmers markets has visited with farmers and researched the agricultural community in the Comox Valley.

“I do a lot of reconnaissance,” she said.

Her stock ranges from cheese and produce to soap and tea.

Each item is marked with icons such as a bike, truck and plane to indicate the distance that it travelled to get to Willard-Stepan’s store and whether it is from the region, the province, the country or beyond.

She feeds her family of four from the store to help ensure she stocks a good variety of grocery items.

“That’s one way we will be well stocked with items,” she said.

“There is a little bit of everything.”

She also hires employees who are well versed in cooking and can offer tips or suggestions for substitutions in recipes.

Willard-Stepan is surprised by those who will pay higher prices for such assurances and information and impressed that they care enough about their food to do so.

She said the local business community works together to promote one another, and all benefit from the tourism that brings visitors to this town of 3,400 to enjoy bike trails, dine in eclectic cafes and soak up a little bit of Vancouver Island’s early history through an historic main street.

The Comox Valley has enjoyed tremendous growth and innovation in the agrifood sector, said Lara Greasley of Comox Valley Economic Development and Tourism.

She said 445 farms produced $26.6 million worth of food in 2001, but marketing and promotion of the Comox Valley as an agri-food destination has resulted in 34 percent growth and a significant increase in product diversity, which includes wineries, shellfish, ranching and distilleries.

“Investors are increasingly recognizing the untapped potential of the agrifood industry in the Comox Valley, and there are some incredible business stories unfolding here,” Greasley said in an email.

For more than 10 years, the Comox Valley’s regional governments have prioritized food and beverage processing as the region’s top economic goals as detailed in the Comox Valley Regional Economic Development Strategic Plan and annual Comox Valley Economic Development Society Work Plans.

Goals include helping existing producers with business expansion while supporting the attraction of new, innovative agri-investment entrepreneurs and investors.

Comox Valley Economic Development, the agricultural sector, the Comox Valley Farmers Institute, the Comox Valley Farmers Market and producers have undertaken a number of strategies around a number of business retention and expansion programs and investment attraction initiatives.

They include research, data collection, marketing, export development workshops, agricultural-culinary tours and events, the annual Island Agriculture Show, videos to showcase producers and resources for existing producers and potential investors.

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