It’s hot outside and the car doesn’t have air conditioning. I am adamant about stopping at the next small town. The kids are hungry, too, whining audibly about wanting ice cream. We’re coasting down the windy Highway 3 south into Christina Lake, the popular B.C. vacation spot. Our eyes search for any signage that says, “Kool Treat.” A cousin promised the store has the best ice cream in the sleepy lakeside town and we’re dead set on double-scoop waffle cones. A long road trip is saved when you can have ice cream every day, right?

Turns out Kool Treat is hard to miss. The clean white exterior, red awnings, and picnic tables, complete with umbrellas, scream “Best Drive-in Around!”—but that might just be because it’s the only one in sight. The hand-painted ice cream sign, air-conditioned interior, and local teens with striped hats calling orders on a vintage sound system are more than just a throwback or hipster-restaurant design scheme: this is unpretentiously how it is. We order food, ice cream first. I’m cranky, so I settle on a full order of the Special Coleslaw. First, I ask the kid behind the mic what makes it “special,” and he says, “It just is.” So I do it, and then I enjoy every mustard-laden vinegary bite.

Normally I would have held out knowing that more fancy food could be on the horizon, but after a tour of rural B.C., I learned that many promising food businesses quickly become a thing of the past. Just like restaurants in the city, businesses in rural communities experience high turnover, failure, and decisions to close or move without much notice. By the next time you make it out on that lonely stretch of highway, the taco truck might be a restaurant, the brewery may have stopped doing growler fills, and the small grocery store you’ve come to love might just have closed for good. At Kool Treat, I didn’t want to miss my chance to eat the Special Coleslaw, just in case the menu changed or I didn’t make it back to Christina Lake in time to try their family recipe.

They Paved Paradise to Put up a Parking Lot
British Columbia’s legendary agricultural regions are the obvious destination when embarking on a food-focused road trip. Whether you travel on Highway 97 through the Okanagan, Highway 3 through southern B.C., or Highway 1 through the Shuswap, countless fruit stands, farm stands, and farmers’ markets dot the roadside.

While these stands are great spots to get boxes of fruit and those sweet, flavoured honey sticks, more of them are becoming reliable markets with a variety of products from area producers and growers. Whether you need espresso, hard ice cream, local cheeses and locally cured sausages, or grocery items like jams, kombucha, and crackers, rural B.C. farm stands are more likely to have it than ever before.

If you’re heading west of Salmon Arm along Highway 1, keep your eyes peeled for the large, hand-painted signs that decorate the Golden Ears Fruit Stand on unceded Secwepemc territory. Butted up against a steep mountainside, the bright red building offers up Grass Roots Dairies cheeses, locally raised and cured meats, Shuswap produce, Hardbite Potato Chips, Dutchmen Dairy hard ice cream, Summerland Sweets jams and syrups, as well Golden Ears’ famous pies.

The Golden Ears Fruit Stand is a long-time project of Don Cavers, who ran it as the retail arm of his Golden Ears Farm in Chase. Cavers brought his son Tristan on board to manage the farm and fruit stand about 12 years ago. The farm has always provided produce to the fruit stand, but as it grew, the two decided to divide responsibilities.

Don stuck with the fruit stand while Tristan and his partner Michelle Tsutsumi took over the farm. The split meant more time for both projects. “The fruit stand began to diversify to other producers and products from the area, including milks and meats, and the farm began to grow, too,” says Tsutsumi.

Born and raised in Calgary, Tsutsumi lived in Edmonton and Tokyo before moving to the Vernon area to connect with nature and start organic farming. “I love how living by the clock isn’t necessary when you’re working with the land,” says Tsutsumi, who has stepped into a leadership role in the Young Agrarians, a network for new and young ecological and organic farmers in Canada

On Golden Ears Farm, she and Tristan have joined forces with other farmers to grow the business in stewardship with the land. To be a food and community hub for more local people, they offer scheduled farm-gate visits, a market garden (which supplies the fruit stand and both the Chase and Kamloops farmers’ markets), and a Community Supported Agriculture program that serves the Kamloops area.

They’ve also become known for their on-farm events like folk music concerts and annual corn roast, which has been running for more than 30 years. “We have a beautiful studio and we’ve had some amazing musicians stop here,” says Tsutsumi. “We’ve also been offering seminars and workshops, like a timber framing workshop, a natural home building one, and beekeeping seminars.”

This shift is bittersweet, though, as this will be the Golden Ears Fruit Stand’s last year. Plans to twin or widen much of Highway 1 in the Shuswap area will eliminate a number of existing fruit stands, including Golden Ears. It’s the end of an era in the community, but the change offers Don the chance to retire and Tristan and Michelle a renewed interest in growing their on-farm operations.

While customers worry about the upcoming changes—and whether they’ll still get to eat those pies—Tsutsumi says the shifting landscape may be an opportunity for other farms. “Word on the street is that there might be a couple of fruit stands that emerge because of this highway expansion,” she says, “which is cool because folks in this area are keen to keep that spirit alive.”

Small Groceries Galore
In search of a more relaxed way of life, Kimberley and Jay Mulla moved north from Vancouver to settle in Telkwa, a beautiful village in northern B.C. on the ancestral, unceded lands of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. Set beside the Bulkley River rapids with snowy mountain peaks on all sides, Telkwa quickly became the home that the Mullas always wanted.

Because of Telkwa’s proximity to wild foods and farmland, residents have abundant opportunities to grow, forage, and buy locally grown food. “We have more space and grow as much of our own food as possible and we are also able to purchase most of our food locally,” says Kimberley.

But the Mullas quickly learned that subsistence living in northern B.C. can be difficult if you want local, fresh food all year round. Because the primary place to get food is a grocery store, and many rural B.C. grocery stores are major chains, local food selection is often poor. In less populated regions, cool, urban-inspired fare like fermented foods, organic dairy, or artisan, smoked meats are almost impossible to find.

Seeing this as an opportunity, Kimberley opened her artisanal sweets company, Kimberley’s Kitchen, in 2010. Hand cutting homemade marshmallows and assembling cellophane bags of her candies and chocolate, Kimberley grew her presence in the local food community. I met Kimberley through a friend and was inspired by her ability to see a problem in her community and her dedication to solve it.

While Kimberley and other residents can grow food or buy from the farm gate, the village lacked essential food-businesses like a restaurant and grocery store. Telkwa’s main street is Highway 16, with historic buildings and businesses mere feet from high-speed traffic. Neighbouring town Smithers, a 15-minute drive away, hosts many restaurants, big-box grocery stores, and the region’s farmers’ market. In Telkwa, though, your best bet for dinner or groceries, whether you’re a local or a tourist, is the gas station.

Tired of driving to Smithers for dinner, the Mullas opened Telkwa Takeout out of their home in 2015. Relying on friends and family, the Mullas built a home-based commercial kitchen, serving hearty home-cooked meals to order. Focusing on comfort food like pulled pork, garden bowls, and soups made with local vegetables, Telkwa Takeout was an immediate success and signalled an opportunity to grow their business.

I visited Telkwa this summer and couldn’t wait to step foot into Kimberley’s newest project, Telkwa General Store & Cafe. Combining the success of Telkwa Takeout and the demand for a local grocer, the Mullas opened the store in the main floor of the historic Cointé River Inn. For Kimberley, featuring local producers and wholesome, handmade food was a priority.

“We have partnered with eight farms so far, and several local artisans to bring fresh, local food to Telkwa,” she says. “We bake all of our breads and baked goods, and we also carry a line of our own fresh and frozen meals, condiments, ice cream, and baking mixes.”

With fresh produce, take-out, store-made ice cream, and road snacks, Telkwa General Store & Cafe is a great example of small food business opportunities in rural B.C. So far, the store has surpassed the Mullas’ expectations. “We really enjoy that we now employ six people, buy from 10 local farms, and have the opportunity to truly connect with people,” says Kimberley. “We also love all of the new connections the store has created in our community, and I quite enjoy having a place that has become a social hub for Telkwa.”

The Table to Farm Experience
With no road signs or arrows for turnoffs, finding Left Fields Farm isn’t easy. Heading east from Kamloops, the farm is just off the Trans-Canada, right before you drive into blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Sorrento. Drive too far and you’ll be in Salmon Arm, eating cheese and wondering how you got there so fast.

Established in 1999 on unceded Secwepemc territory, Left Fields Farm is home to Brian MacIsaac and Rebecca Kneen of Crannóg Ales. As brewers and organic farmers, MacIsaac and Kneen led the hops revival in B.C. They now mentor other brewers and farmers who knock on their door to learn skills and business practices through on-farm apprenticeships.

This year, chef David Colombe and his family moved to Left Fields to help grow a co-operative business on the farm while learning to live a more ecological and socially just life. “I used to vacation in places like where I live now. It’s great to be able to choose to go live in a place that you love,” says Colombe. “While I’ve definitely adapted to breathing fresh air and not fighting traffic, certainly the unavailability of food stuff has been a challenge. It would be really nice to get a plate of Thai food or a burrito, but it’s just not possible here.”

Combining his deep interest in local, organic ingredients with his kitchen skills, Colombe developed Left Fields Handmade Fruit Soda, crafting low-sugar fruit sodas and syrups out of berries and stone fruits from Left Fields and neighbouring farms.

Colombe quickly sells out of his product at local farmers’ markets without the pressure to bottle and expand his operations. “It’s cool because the soda adds to the handcrafted aesthetic people are interested in,” he says, noting that market buyers are eager to use the syrups at home.

By living and working as an apprentice of Left Fields Farms, Colombe and his family can grow their skills and contribute to a variety of projects on the farm itself. These include scheduled tours of the organic farm and brewery, on-site workshops and events (like their annual 100’ Feast), or operating the market garden and bakery with other apprentices.

“Our brand here on the farm is something people should keep track of because we’re going to do some pretty cool stuff up here,” says Colombe. “The workshops we’re going to host, the food we’re going to grow, and the cool stuff we do is all us. We are out here having a lot of fun promoting local food and encouraging our visitors to live a more sustainable life.”

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore
Across rural B.C., locals are revitalizing the rural food scene by taking over existing businesses, starting their own enterprises, or putting their heads together to grow sustainable food communities. The next time you head out on any of B.C.’s highways, the threat of an oily A&W breakfast sandwich with a side of weak coffee and that cold hash brown puck does not have to be your first choice.

As the desire to support local businesses and food tourism seeps into the rural B.C. foodscape, slim pickings like the drive-thrus of yore are slowly becoming a thing of the past. Along the road, you can get artisanal, handmade ice cream, all-day breakfasts with locally grown ingredients, and handmade grass-fed beef patties on brioche buns, with a nary any chipotle mayo in sight.

-Diandra Oliver

Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe here!