Robyn Peel

Did you know that approximately 9% of the world’s population is severely food insecure and one-in-four are moderately food insecure? This increased substantially during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in food security becoming of increasing importance for individual households, community organizations and all levels of government. Just look at the gardens in our community that were created a few years ago and now flourish!  

We are so fortunate in Fernie to have Local, a social enterprise working hard to provide food security, year-round. So, just how did it begin? I sat with Robyn Peel to learn more. 

Robyn is originally from New Zealand. “Auckland, not proudly,” she tells me. “It just wasn’t me, the big city!”

Robyn studied pharmacology and psychology, admitting she did not know what she was going to do with it but was following her interests. Her first position after graduating was reviewing clinical trials for pharmaceuticals, she then moved to the Ministry of Health, and eventually managed Alzheimer’s New Zealand. 

“On my 30th birthday, we moved to the UK,” she says. “My partner had never travelled, and we had only been together for 18 months, but we’re still together 18 years later so it was worth the risk.”

Again, she had a lot of jobs while there… a business manager for a funding agency, project management in health care, and “the last job I had was as a career coach at the University of London. That was my favourite, and the only reason I left was because we came here!”

According to Robyn, her partner Andrew is “addicted to snow” so they spent a ski season at Tignes in France. They decided to do something in North America, and originally thought Whistler but online it seemed like more of a party town. Andrew went onto some snowboard forums and asked where they should go not being party people, and someone recommended Fernie. 

They spent a season here, then went back to London and had to find a way back. 

“So, Andrew did the MAST program so he could get a student visa, and I got a work visa and worked for Mark Ormandy at FAR. They helped me go through the provincial nomination program, and now I’m a citizen. I think that really says something about this town,” Robyn says. 

During COVID, Robyn decided to ‘do a retirement’ – her way of saying she needs to take some time off to figure out what she wanted to do. It was during this time that she discovered Wildsight’s intentions of beginning a social enterprise food store and she said, “any help you want I’m there!” For six months, she supported their efforts with her vast experience on boards of social enterprises in London. She is now on the Local Advisory Committee, the Wildsight Elk Valley Board, and is a Community Economic Development Coordinator with Community Futures East Kootenay. “It felt like I was going back to my non-profit roots, working on community development, connections and partnerships,” she tells me.  

Local opened in December of 2020. Dawn Deydey, who has run the Mountain Market for 20 years, wanted to provide access to local food 12 months of the year while also providing an opportunity for vendors to access customers. Local now has 80 vendors and went from completely volunteer-run to having one full time and one part time staff members. 

“It took a bit of belief, and a board that could take the risk. I wrote the business plan, and we didn’t know what it would look like. We keep iterating, iterating, iterating. Hopefully it will be around for a lot longer,” Robyn says.  

They are also working on how to make this model replicable so other areas can do it. “The model is for the money to go back to farmers and food producers and keeping it as local as possible. It provides food producers a place to drop off, encourages locals to know about and produce more food, and helps them have thriving businesses.” 

Robyn says another next step is to work on Local being financially sustainable on its own as they still rely on grants and donations. They are very excited about the container farm starting soon at the Ecogarden, providing hydroponic greens growing year-round. 

“It’s a way to grow food security in our area so we are robust and caring for what we have and the people in it, and it’s a commercial venture,” she says. “We can sell to local restaurants and give fresh food away through schools and food banks. The long-term goal is to provide people who can’t afford local food access.”    

Since being involved with the Wildsight Elk Valley board, Robyn has become even more inspired to help non-profit organizations shift to a business mindset to help them make an even greater impact. “That’s my passion,” she tells me. “And it ensures they’ll still be here in 10-20 years.”

Energized from our chat, I ask the big question: is Fernie home?

“We don’t do commitment – but we bought a house, so Fernie is home for the foreseeable future. We are wandering souls but it’s a pretty amazing place to call home.” 

I think we’ve got her, and I for one am definitely keen to see what she does next! 

1. When did you first arrive in Fernie and what brought you here?
Halloween, 2013 for a ski season. 

2. Who do you remember first meeting?
We met Abby Cousins and Matt Green dressed up for Halloween at the Raging Elk, and they are still friends. 

3. Do you remember your first general impression of the Valley?
Yes, because we pulled in and were staying above the Tipsy Gipsy which is now Coal Town… it was quite quiet and oh so beautiful. 

4. What keeps you here?
The people, the mountains and the way of life. 

5. Do you have a favourite pastime?
Anything outside in nature, but especially time in my garden. 

6. What time of the year do you love most and why?
I love the four distinct seasons and how they all feel so different. Spring for the vibrant greens and the daffodil and 
tulip bulbs pushing through the ground. Summer for the long days in the garden. Fall for winding down and getting ready to hibernate and then Winter for the falling snow and to make Spring, Summer and Fall feel even more special! 

7. Where do you see or hope to see the Kootenays in five years?
Sustainable growth that is equitable and allows people from all backgrounds to be here and survive and thrive. Diverse and equitable. 

8. How do you start your day or what is one of your daily rituals?
I’m not a routine person so it can be Masters Swimming, or the Fernie Strength Collective or a little morning yoga or perhaps straight into the spare room to start the working day.

9. Tell us something people might be surprised to learn about you.
I teach the flute! 

10. Quote to live by: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.  ~ Margaret Mead