Gallant (second from left) and Crosson (far right) own Bulkley Canyon Ranch and Hazelton Hops, located just outside of New Hazelton. (Laurie Gallant photo)

What shaving a llama taught me about food and resource security in the age of COVID-19

The Interior News’ Trevor Hewitt was in Hazelton earlier this month to learn about food security

Saying llamas spit is kind of an understatement. Llamas don’t spit — they hurl the yellowish-green bile-like contents of their stomach at you in a misty barrage of furor.

I recently had the privilege of helping a friend in Hazelton shear not one, but four of the 150-odd-kilogram animals. Let me just say, there’s nothing quite like wrangling an animal that wants nothing more than to get away from you, securing it into a harness and proceeding to shear off two-plus years of growth, all while dodging back kicks and lukewarm saliva, to make you appreciate just what goes into food and resource security and self-sustainability.

In the age of COVID-19 the importance of supply chains, both local and international, has been highlighted in a way that simply did not resonate with the average consumer prior to the pandemic.

Last month in a series of interviews, the B.C. Fruit Growers Association highlighted the significant impact COVID-19 has had on local industry, including a survey in which over two-thirds of farmers said they have had to reduce crop production due to the unpredictable climate created by the virus in the context of food security.

Likewise, Laurie Gallant, who owns Bulkley Canyon Ranch and Hazelton Hops — the farm at which I was helping give these animals their much-needed haircuts — along with Bill Crosson, told the Interior News that she herself has noticed a significant increase in the number of people in the area interested in both buying local and learning about self-sustainability, even if it isn’t pertaining to 100 per cent of what they consume.

I’m noticing it too.

Take llama wool (OK, technically it is a fiber, but for clarity’s sake I will refer to it as wool): It has significant moisture-wicking properties, can dry without the aid of external heat (and retain warmth when wet) and, due to its lack of lanolin — wax commonly secreted by the sebaceous glands of wool-clad animals — is hypoallergenic to all but those with the most sensitive skin.

In other words, it creates an incredible fabric with a wide range of properties and uses that doesn’t require petroleum or hydrocarbons to produce (sustainable).

Likewise, as we sat down for our lunch during the first of two shearing sessions — a spread of some incredible smoked salmon and a salad consisting of a combination of leafy greens and naturally-occurring wild edibles which happen to grow on Gallant and Crosson’s property (again, both sustainable, provided you understand about how fish stocks work) — I had a revelation: we don’t need to rely on the government for our food.

That in itself might not sound like too controversial a statement, but really consider what it means.

If you are like me, when you want to make yourself a nice fancy dinner what do you do? Again, if we’re similar your answer is probably head to the grocery store, grab your food for the day/night/week, go home, prepare it and eat. Maybe if you’re extra fancy you hit up the butcher.

But what is really going on here? Yes, you are cooking a meal, but at its core you are paying a ridiculously-high premium for food that — at least to some degree — you can probably grow (or butcher/hunt) yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, making the jump from buying t-bones every weekend to butchering your own cows or downing that deer that keeps eating your tulips isn’t easy. It takes years of knowledge and (at least) thousands of dollars. But when we rely solely on the supermarket for our food what we are really doing is putting our faith in (as COVID-19 has proven) supply chains that are much more fragile than I think many of us thought prior to this whole pandemic.

I am the first to admit that prior to COVID-19 the notion that, under capitalism, I would not be able to walk into a supermarket and simply buy as much meat/toilet paper/hand sanitizer/yeast as I wanted (because ‘Murica, or whatever the Canadian equivalent to that saying is — ‘Anada?) was laughable at best to me and at worst something I would only ponder while doing my semi-annual end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it self-preparedness update.

That all changed the first time I was unable to buy my standard two-ply.

And while I’ve joked a lot in the past about the great TP crisis of 2020, the inferences one can glean from this happening are anything but funny.

COVID-19 has shown us that, in no uncertain terms, when panic hits and people stockpile there simply isn’t enough, even within the free market, to handle the uptick in demand. This is without mentioning, in the example of toilet paper, that we (Canada) are already one of the largest producers of the product due to our massive reserves of the kinds of wood required to make it.

When disaster hits, there just simply isn’t enough to go around.

I discussed this at length with Gallant and Crosson, the former of whom has quite elegantly put it to me that “opting out” of many social conventions such as relying on a supermarket for 100 per cent of your sustenance really is the way to go in the context of food security.

Likewise, I believe anyone who has had to hunt their own food gains an immense respect that cannot be articulated (it has to be experienced first-hand) with regard to an appreciation for the life cycle of their food and what it means to provide for yourself.

Because, to go back to that example of the supermarket in the context of food security, it really is that simple. There is nothing that scares the government more than a population that is self-sustainable and prepared. Every time you go to the supermarket (read: rely on the supermarket as a means of sustenance) what you’re really doing is relying on the state to provide a life-or-death service to you. Without food we all die.

On the flip side, one of the saddest things we have seen this year is the amount of waste we produce, especially when supply chains are flipped on their sides and sanitary restrictions force various farmers (regardless whether they are dealing with meat, dairy, fruit or vegetables) to throw out or otherwise waste massive amounts of product in the name of rules and regulations.

It shouldn’t be this way, and another thing I’ve discussed at length with Gallant is the importance of local bartering and self-sustainability within smaller communities. I find it hard to believe that all of these farmers having to throw out tonnes of whatever could not have found a way to give away most, if not all of their waste, to local people. The more people who are around you the easier it would be.

In this sense, perhaps the issue is we need a paradigm shift: there are simply too many rules in place regarding what you can do with the food you produce and we’ve internalized capitalism to such a degree that setting up 200 boxes of free apples on the side of the road doesn’t seem like a feasible alternative to people.

But again, it’s all in our perspective and attitude. If everyone did this, think about how much easier those weeks to months of perilous grocery store shopping would have been. Likewise, think about the community spirit we would create through this feeling of knowing you could rely on your neighbours to help you out, and you them (this is especially true in a place like the Bulkley Valley where so many people own livestock or gardens producing surplus).

One more note: many of us have heard that old adage about how we don’t need a small amount of people doing zero-waste perfectly, but rather a large amount of people doing it imperfectly.

Food sustainability is the same: we don’t need everyone starting their own zero-waste homesteads like Gallant and Crosson have done (although that would be awesome and I hope I can live in a mini-village like theirs one day). I myself am only about 25 per cent self-sustainable, and even then that’s only with vegetable produce (getting my hunting license ASAP though).

What is important is that we look to people like this as a template to follow and as inspiration that when one puts their mind to it they can wean themselves off the state in a way that is both empowering and beneficial to the environment on both a micro and macro level.

Last, but definitely not least, make damn sure if you’re ever wrestling llamas you stay away from their back legs, because those crazy guys (and gals) kick something fierce.

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