By Laura Keil, Publisher/Editor
I attended a meeting in Dunster last weekend about the issue of concentrated land ownership in Dunster and its effect on the community. Some residents had concerns about one company in particular buying up large tracts of land—a group owning over a dozen parcels of agricultural land in Dunster’s fertile valley bottom.
On the face of it, there is nothing wrong or illegal about a company buying agricultural land. What has some people concerned are the unintended consequences.
The meeting’s format was a talking circle, where only the person holding the talking stick was allowed to speak while everyone else listened, a format originating from Indigenous people. The format allowed each person to “speak their truth,” uninterrupted. Each person had several minutes to elaborate on their feelings, thoughts and ideas on the subject.
What I learned was just how many different ways of looking at the world can exist in one small room. Each person had a specific way of looking at the issue. For some it was symptomatic of a global phenomenon of corporations buying up land, a new form of colonization; for others it was a sign of growing inequality of wealth, pricing out regular people from the ability to grow food; for some it was a slap in the face of community to see No Trespassing signs and security cameras on these company-owned lands; and for most it was desire to bring more farming families to the area to keep Dunster vibrant with a new generation by keeping land prices affordable.
Out of those perspectives came multiple solutions—and more solutions may be on the way.
But the thing each person had in common was a big one—they were in the room. Including several representatives from the land-holding corporation in question. And that, truly, is a beacon of hope. Because they were present despite insinuations of blame, despite being in a room that threw occasionally hostile barbs in their direction.
I noticed the mood soften after a woman who’d moved to Dunster just a few years ago stood up and spoke about how she was looking at her own land. How she realized just how big it was for her and her husband. How it could accommodate more people. More families. And she encouraged others to do the same, to think about what was in their own direct control.
In my opinion, a dozen new families could be a game changer. And 12 isn’t that big of a number. Is it possible to get 12 new families to Dunster using the creative chutzpah of just the people in that group?
As they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
When I first arrived in the Robson Valley 11 years ago, one of the first stories I covered was the permanent closure of the Dunster Fine Arts School. The community fought so hard to keep that school open. Even when the community bought the building, the district refused to provide a teacher. With fewer than 30 students, they didn’t see the point. But the point, as any rural person knows, goes beyond a school bus ride. It’s about the ability to attract new families and retain the ones they’ve got.
So how does Dunster attract new families? New farmers?
Finding common ground and common goals are truly the first steps. If there’s one group of people not to underestimate it’s the community that bought their school. But I hope the creativity and resources of all people in that room—including the corporate reps—can be harnessed in the solution.
With both parties sitting in the same room, innovation isn’t such a pipe dream. This problem isn’t unique to Dunster—but perhaps Dunster has a unique solution.
As the meeting organizer asked the group near the end of the meeting: can Dunster become a model emulated by farming communities all around the world?
I certainly felt a tingle of magic.
In an upcoming feature story, I’ll delve into some of the specific issues and opportunities arising from agricultural land ownership in the Robson Valley.