Fields Forward: Creating change for Creston Valley orchard workers

Fields Forward co-ordinator Paris Marshall Smith highlights generosity of community toward orchard workers...

Orchard workers protested working conditions with a march downtown on Sunday afternoon.

Orchard workers protested working conditions with a march downtown on Sunday afternoon.

There have been wonderful things happening in our region over these last weeks, acts of generosity, impromptu gatherings, spontaneous gifts, people coming together to make music, hundreds sharing food and people donating money, bikes, groceries, tents and time. In addition, members of the community have contributed thousands of hours of work knowing that through their individual efforts, they can create change.

One of those people is Deborah Nelius who, along with the Canyon Community Association, has taken on the challenge of maintaining a safe and healthy environment under the Canyon Bridge for the last six summers. With time, money and heart, Deb has done much to try and ease the growing tension between orchard workers who stay under the bridge and the community surrounding Canyon. She has built relationships with those camping under the bridge and done endless garbage runs, while simultaneously being a strong advocate for improved working conditions and dynamics between community and orchard workers.

Another example are Gida and Wayne King, who had two unused bikes in the garage. They made the effort to fix them up and then donate them to the orchard workers support group for distribution.

Further, the orchard workers support group led by Linda Fox and Carol Hack has in the last two weeks served nearly 2,000 free meals. Carol and Linda, along with a strong team, responded to an opportunity and contributed hundreds of hours and dollars to feeding those who were hungry in the community. When searching for an appropriate site, Father Sylvester and the Holy Cross Catholic Church quickly agreed, and the parking lot became an important meeting and connecting space. In addition to French and English, one could hear Japanese and Spanish while moving through the line. On Saturday, the Erickson Covenant Church will once again host hundreds of people at its now annual luncheon and celebration. It will mark the end of two weeks of a discrete intervention that started quickly and easily and ended in the same way.

This ability to ebb and flow, expand and contract, find balance between informal and formal action is the structure Fields Forward wants to support in our region. The launch in January put out a bold call to action and the community responded with working groups addressing key food and agricultural issues in the region. Some of these responses have resulted in concrete action. Others, like the members of the Fields Forward labour group, have opened up and examined important questions such as, how do we attract world class workers to our valley and how do we improve dynamics between workers and community? These questions are complex and have encouraged this group and now others to explore and experiment, learning with each step.

The culture of call and response is alive and well in Creston. How can we continue to transform the way we work and share community responsibility? The Fields Forward working groups are designed to enable individuals and groups to come forward with their ideas and curiosities, explore them within the space of the group and see how the network can respond collectively. How do we collaboratively share the complexity of work? How do we develop a culture of learning that fosters trial and error, making multiple attempts to find the right fit and is willing to fail to grow?

The example of the orchard workers support group taking initiative and allowing itself to be shaped by the needs of community is encouraging. The core team has been invited to join an enlarged Fields Forward labour working group to explore the future potential of their work. Where else do we need to extend the call or strengthen the response?

The Fields Forward labour working group has devoted much time and effort trying to understand how to lift the standard of practice for orchard workers in our region. The members have courageously stepped out to find creative and collective solutions. The group made several attempts to set up a temporary campground, looked at holding events to celebrate and welcome orchard workers, and tried to find ways to better understand the concerns that have been heard around poor accommodation and labour standards. The group has brought forward its concerns and shared its desire for improved conditions and industry standards. In late August, there will be an opportunity for the group and others to come together and debrief the season: What happened? What has changed? What will we plan for next year?

Most recently, the labour group has hired an orchard worker liaison, Jesse Willicome, to conduct a survey. With concrete information to clarify rumour versus fact, the hope is to build a better relationship between orchard workers and orchardists. Because industry practices are not well defined, it feels important to first get clear on what kind of accommodation is being offered and to what standard.

Jesse will be meeting with orchard workers and orchardists to get a better understanding of the situation. By asking how can we help to set a new higher industry standard for worker accommodation in the valley, the goal is to support a healthy and productive work environment for all.

When community members become involved in making change for the betterment of all, incredible advancements can be realized. This season, many orchard workers have expressed appreciation to Creston for the efforts make them feel welcome and valued. This is great news because we know how important they are for our local economy. Let’s continue to reach out, take risks and explore new ways. We are learning from one another — young and old, new and longtime residents with different backgrounds and cultures — sharing our diversity to strengthen how we live and work together.

In addition to participating in any of the existing working groups, there are also two new Fields Forward new working groups starting up. There is a group forming to bring art and agriculture to celebrate Canada’s 150th and there is group coming together to look at working on food policy for Creston and district. Members are welcome, please be in touch if you would like to get involved.

Paris Marshall Smith is the co-ordinator of Fields Forward. To learn more, contact her at or 1 855 660 5432 ext. 423.



Creston Valley Advance

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