Some days, Kathy Parsons would prefer to spend her time playing with dirt, worms and plants.
It’s what led the 52-year-old to getting involved with ReThink Red Deer, a local group focused on sustainability.
It’s a little hard to determine her favourite passion. “Only one?” she responds when asked just what her passion is, and then she laughs heartily.
Probably a local sustainable and ethical food program would top the list.
That’s when she’s not focusing on the countless other things in her life that keep her busy — everything from her job for the past seven years as executive director of Central Alberta Community Legal Clinic, to her role as president of Rethink, or as president of the John Howard Society board. She was board chair of the Lifelong Learning Council of Red Deer but she stepped back and is now a member only.
“I’ve always been a very passionate and committed volunteer.”
The mother of two grown sons, Parsons was actively involved in Beavers, Cubs, the local playschool and school council when they were young, and living in Drumheller.
Parsons was self-employed for 19 years before she arrived in Red Deer in 2005.
She uses her background in business and a diploma in advertising and public relations a lot in the non-profits that she gets involved in. “I happen to be really good at that,” she says without a hint of egotism.
Parsons says her father, who worked in the oilpatch, “had a fairly entrepreneurial spirit, as the guys in the oilpatch did way back when.” Some of it rubbed off.
At age 15, she was working with family importing spinning wheels and fleeces from New Zealand. As a kid, she lived on a farm between Sundre and Cremona where sheep were among the animals they raised. Later, she had a quilt and fabric store in Drumheller. Some of the quilt artwork she has made, including dying the fabric herself, hangs in her office.
It wasn’t enough for her mother to just sew fabric on the farm, said Parsons.
“Let’s go figure out how to make it.” Her mother and sister went on to become master spinners through Olds College.
When she married and moved to Drumheller, Parsons grew a lot of her own food in her large garden and also supported local producers. “It was all great, until it wasn’t.”
When her marriage ended, she said she had to accept the fact that being a business owner and a single parent was not enough for her children. “Both of my kids are gifted.” She didn’t feel their education needs were going to be met in the smaller community.
After touring Edmonton for work, and realizing all the time needed to travel by bus and so on, she decided the big city wasn’t for them. She had always been only a few minutes from home and her children.
“I had no job and no money and we moved to Red Deer. Sometimes you just got to take a leap of faith.
“I thought we had a better chance here. Red Deer wouldn’t be so overwhelming.
“It turned out to be a wonderful decision.”
While she was fully immersed in the community in numerous ways, she also thought ReThink Red Deer, with its focus on sustainability, was an organization where she could just get her hands dirty as a volunteer without being involved in the executive.
“Then they became more organized and wanted to go after grants … I reluctantly took on the role as board chair, but when it became obvious that the organization could stall. … You know what — give them what they need, and then go play in the dirt!
“We’re building a local food movement.”
Parsons points to this year’s California drought. A lot of food comes to Alberta by way of California. “We can’t necessarily count on California to give us what we need.
“What are we going to do about that?”
Parsons said she spends maybe $100 a month at local grocery stores. What sorts of things does she buy at grocery stores? “Toilet paper.”
Her food comes from farmers who raise beef or pork naturally, the Red Deer Public Market and other local producers who grow food organically. When she first came to Red Deer, she began to develop a network to buy direct from farmers, like she did in Drumheller. As well, she grew food in containers and rented a garden plot.
Parsons is thrilled that she recently purchased a small home in the city where she can have a vegetable garden and food forest. The food forest will include things like red currents, haskaps and blueberries, and apple, pear, apricot and plum trees. She also has her own urban chickens. She makes her own yogurt and cheese. And there are some organic apples presently staring at her at home that she is contemplating making apple cider with.
”We’re perfectly capable of growing food here.”
There’s no comparison, said Parsons, to the quality and flavour of food people grow themselves.
The organic and local food movement is growing, said Parsons, adding that most Canadians now purchase at least some organic food.
And here in Red Deer, “It’s coming,” noting the growing aisles of organic food in stores.
She has an idea to grow gourmet mushrooms in her garage, if it’s sustainable, with her entrepreneurial side thinking about selling them as a way for her to develop different income streams down the road.
Parsons’ idea of a holiday this year was the “Epic Alberta Farm Tour” as she calls it, where she travelled with a friend to various farms to meet the people who grow the food she eats.
“Know where your food comes from. Understand what it takes to grow food because food shouldn’t be cheap. … Good quality food requires somebody who’s knowledgeable and willing to spend the time to grow it.
“And they should be duly paid just like I expect to be duly paid to sit in my chair and do what I do.”
Just recently, she was one of a handful of people connected globally to launch the Ethical Omnivore Movement website www.ethicalomnivore.org.
“There need be no shame in the use of animal-based products … just in the cruel, wasteful, careless, irreverent attainment of them,” the website states.
“We’re (humans) not biological omnivores. We’re not vegan,” says Parsons.
“I tried to be vegetarian for a couple of years and it just about killed me.”
“I call myself an urban farmer,” she says, which is followed by another hearty laugh.