A GROWING MOVEMENT - SPEAKING WITH CHRIS RUBENS, THE FREESKIING FARMER
Presented by Yeti
Photos by Bruno Long
You might know Chris Rubens from one of his many ski films, effortlessly carving beautiful lines down big terrain. But these days you might be more likely to find Chris harvesting fresh produce than fresh powder.
In 2020, Chris and his partner Jesse Johnston-Hill started First Light Farm, a small farm producing organic fruits and vegetables for their community of Revelstoke, BC.
Like all Revelstoke locals, Chris and Jesse are no strangers to food insecurity. Whether it’s avalanches cutting off highway access in the winter or flooding in the summer, it’s not uncommon for the community’s grocery stores to have empty shelves. Particularly when it comes to fresh fruits and veggies. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it spurred Chris and Jesse into action, creating a way to support the community they love, while playing a small part in addressing the environmental impact of our food systems.
Inspired by initiatives from our brand partner Yeti, we recently caught up with Chris to talk about food, farming, community resilience and teachings from a life on snow.
POW Canada (POWC):
First off, what was it that made you decide to start the farm?
My partner Jesse and I have a shared view of climate change and what we could do about it. It was definitely more her original dream of starting a farm, it’s been her dream for a long time and as I explored my carbon footprint and learned about areas we could make a difference, farming drew me in. I like being outside and working with my hands, and just seeing that there was a pretty large problem with the farming system at scale, it seemed like something we could do.
But what totally spearheaded the farm was the pandemic. In the early days we really didn’t know what was happening with the pandemic, and we were both like ‘we’ve been talking about farming for so long. Why are we not doing this?’
If that hit again today, I would feel like I was in a better position, just knowing how to grow food, and having better infrastructure to do it. We see these supply chains and how fragile they are.
Do you feel that our North American food production systems are set up for long term success, in terms of these supply chains and other factors?
No. I mean, the farms are getting bigger and bigger and owned by fewer and fewer people. I just don’t think that’s the way we want to be. You want to have a lot of little farms all over the place, which is how it works in most places in the world, other than North America. Whereas here it’s much bigger and they have these big crazy machines that pump out an incredible amount of vegetables at crazy cheap costs. They use a lot of sprays, pesticides, and herbicides. And we all know the consequences of that - not just on the environment but on your body.
What advice would you give people that similarly feel our food systems are broken, but aren’t sure what they can do about it?
Support local wherever you can. It makes such a big difference.
It’s easy to go down to your grocery store and just pick produce off the shelf, but a lot of grocery stores will tell you right on the produce where it’s coming from. And once you start eating organic, locally grown vegetables your palate will change. It’s like, if I’m in the grocery store in the middle of winter now, I feel guilty if I buy a cucumber and I know it’s not coming from anywhere close. And then I taste it and it doesn’t really have much of a taste, and I’m like ‘what’s the point?’
And I wasn’t trying to do this, but I’ve also started to eat more seasonally because you realize just how good the food is when it’s fresh out of the field.
What methods do you think small scale farming can use to improve the environmental impact of our food production systems?
The interesting thing is, a lot of the tooling that we use is from the 40’s, 50’s and earlier. All that technology and know-how is coming back.
It’s interesting to see that we’re kind of just stepping back in time. There’s nothing new going on, if anything it’s old. Which I find is interesting on the climate change side of things. We have a lot of solutions without trying to come up with new technologies. The methods are already invented, we just need to start using them again.
That’s actually the idea behind ‘Protected Nature’ - a focus area that POW Canada works in. It’s that exact sentiment; we don’t need new and unpredictable geo-engineering projects to address climate change. We have all these existing solutions, we just need to think about them in a different way.
It’s all about what we prioritize. I think there are a lot of people who think there’s a Holy Grail coming down from the sky, where we can continue living the way we live and not make any changes. Maybe there will be at some point, but it’s not coming anytime soon and it’s not coming quick enough. So if we’re going to make a difference, we need to just start making real, tangible changes on the ground level.
Do any of your experiences or learnings as a pro athlete translate into farming?
All of them. Farming is so similar to backcountry skiing.
You’re in the ebbs and flows of nature. You’re kind of at her mercy. You really have to listen to her when she’s pushing back, or when it’s time to go. There’s a ton of gray area that you live in, and that’s one thing I’ve excelled at in my ski career. Hanging out in those gray, somewhat difficult areas, just being okay with not knowing, trying to live symbiotically with nature and at the same time achieving your goals.
It’s kind of shocking to me how similar it all is. And similarly with the tight-knit mountain community that we all love, the farming community is even stronger.
Community resilience is an important issue to both Yeti and POW. And it seems like community is a huge component of First Light Farm. What does community mean to you?
The community in Revelstoke is crazy supportive of anything local, but in particular food. It’s all good if you’re trying to grow food, but if you’re trying to make a living doing it, you need to sell it. The community here is just amazing and they really go out of their way to support local food. We’re super appreciative of that.
But then we’re also very cognizant of the fact that high-priced organic food isn’t available to the most vulnerable in our community. So, we do a community GoFundMe campaign, and we take that value of produce to the local food bank every week. The work the food bank does is amazing, but the quality of the produce is generally not great. So being able to put beautiful, organic produce in front of the most vulnerable in our community every week is super rewarding.
Do you have any major projects on the horizon, as a skier or a farmer?
Yeah, I’m just starting a new film project. It’s kind of the story of my life, trying to cut down carbon emissions and starting the farm. As well as exploring a couple backcountry zones I’ve been wanting to go to for a really long time, getting there on my own two feet. It’s a project I’ve been dreaming about for a while, so I’m excited to see that.