Today’s Guest Post is by Joe Borsato, Eco-curator and Project Alchemist at the Potato House in Williams Lake, British Columbia, Canada
The past has many lessons for a sustainable future
Over the past decade at the Potato House in Williams Lake, BC, a handful of volunteer organizers have crafted an organization which delivers services with both public history and environmental sustainability mandates. But this melding of two often-separate mandates has in fact strengthened the organization’s capacity to inform the public.
From conserving the history of Canada’s only single-family Second World War heritage house, designing Canada’s only drive-by composting centre, creating a space for community arts and culture, and developing a community heritage register, the Potato House has been a leader for environmental and historical learning in the community.
The origins of the Potato House are rooted in the land.
The site of the Potato House is located in the territory of T’exelc, the Williams Lake First Nation, whose village sites occupied the area now known as downtown Williams Lake before colonization in the nineteenth century. To this day, Indigenous plants and knowledge are central to our soil systems.
After the municipality of Williams Lake was established in 1929 following the coming of the Pacific Great Eastern (PGE) Railway, the Borkowski family came to settle in the community. In 1941, on a small quarter acre lot, they built the family house which was later to be known as the Potato House. In the 1950s they sold the house to wife and husband Alcina and Manuel Quintela who had recently immigrated from Portugal. Manuel worked on the PGE as a foreman and Alcina worked in the local hospitality sector. Together, they turned all of their yards into a sizable potato garden. Manuel earned himself the nickname “the Potato Man” for the large potato garden (and possibly also for his body structure according to some story-tellers). The house then became known as “the Potato Man’s house.” Over time, the site simply became known as “the Potato House.” In 2011, the Quintelas sold the house to the Potato House Sustainable Community Society which took over management of the property with the intent of creating a sustainability centre in downtown Williams Lake, which they did. More on the project here.
At the centre of the Potato House Project is the need for creating healthy soil to sustain healthy communities and bolster local food security while preserving a rich community heritage, all of which will be critical in the years going forward as we continue to experience the climate crisis.
Composting at a Heritage House
Since 2014, with Executive Director Mary Forbes in the drivers’ seat, the Potato House has developed Canada’s only drive-by composting centre to divert food waste from the landfill, foster healthy soil, and reduce local GHG contributions.
Like most of the work at the Potato House, this program initially ran entirely on volunteer labour, but thanks to grant funding it now has a part time permanent staff member. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, food waste has three times the methane production potential as biosolids .
Reducing food waste is essential to reducing a community’s carbon footprint.Joe Borsato
Additionally, food waste does not decompose in a landfill, thus the carbon and nitrogen cannot be returned to the soil unless it is properly composted. In the past twelve months alone, thanks to Composteur extraordinaire Oliver Berger, the program has diverted over 12 metric tonnes of food waste from the landfill and produced several tonnes of compost which fertilize local community gardens and grow healthy soil.
A central guiding principle at the Potato House is to increase the community’s food security, which has become all the more important in the era of COVID-19 and the climate crisis.
Since 2011, the Potato House has hosted community garden boxes in the vein of the Second World War Victory Gardens and communal garden areas for local residents to use to grow their own food. In July 2017 Williams Lake was evacuated due to nearby wildfires, which were made more extreme by the effects of climate change. In the periods before the evacuation and following the community’s return, supply chains to grocery stores were restricted, demonstrating the need for community-grown food sources.
This problem resurfaced in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic when many other grocery items were limited in supply. The need for community-grown food using locally sourced organic fertilizer is greater than ever. Hence it is no surprise that the Potato House has a long wait list for its community garden boxes. The Potato House also hosts bees, who are kept by one of the organization’s many volunteers, tending to the pollination of the gardens.
Historical and Sustainability Education
The heritage house provides a venue for local arts and culture activities and learning about sustainability in a time before mass capitalistic consumption.
Many families during the Second World War had to live with limited access to certain foods, grew much of their own food, and repaired their homes using whatever materials they could access. By engaging with and caring for a few hundred artifacts and archives relating to the property, the Potato House is a testament to that era. It provides visitors with the opportunity to not only imagine but also see a world before refrigeration, electricity, or gas heating.
Students and teachers regularly praise the educational programming for its ability to engage students.
The students have developed as highly engaged learners … have broadened their vocabulary, have been attentive to small detail, [and] developed a greater awareness of their surroundings.Principal at Marie Sharpe Elementary, Williams Lake, BC
By connecting educational content with both heritage and science curricula, students are better able to understand how humans and nature are inter-dependent and self-reinforcing at an early age.
The Potato House also created the heritage register for Williams Lake which was a valuable experience that showed how non-profits can collaborate with government bodies to advocate for heritage.
By forming a heritage committee with the support and partnership of the City of Williams Lake in the early 2010s, the Potato House helped to recognize and document the history of various heritage buildings in downtown Williams Lake. This resulted in the creation of a heritage register which recognized a number of buildings in downtown Williams Lake such as the Potato House, the Station House, and the Elks Hall.
This activity was significant to shaping municipal policy and preserving local arts and culture, providing valuable lessons for sector advocacy in the future. Although the municipality no longer maintains it, the heritage steering committee was essential to developing collective knowledge about the community’s history and sense of space.
Small Steps for a Big Difference
The Potato House’s many inter-related mandates might seem daunting to many, but these many activities have been able to thrive over the past several years in large part because of the commitment of local volunteers and staff.
Their determination to see a sustainability and heritage initiative in the downtown has enabled the project to succeed. The organization regularly receives rave reviews; many letters of support from local government, businesses, and non-profits; and since September 2019 has been able to raise over $89,000.00 in development grants. While this work is not without challenges, such as fundraising for the site’s mortgage, the Potato House has shown that even a few volunteers with a small organization can make a big difference on a local level to advancing environmental and historical consciousness.
Born and raised in Williams Lake, BC, Joe Borsato has a background in History from the University of Calgary (BA) and the University of Alberta (MA). From 2017 to 2019 he served as the Museum Coordinator at the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin before joining the Potato House in late 2019 as its Eco-curator and Project Alchemist, which is a fun way of saying “the guy who turns stuff into gold.” He is also currently a PhD student at Queen’s University where he is researching environmental and Indigenous histories.