Before June 30, 1896, agricultural commodities imported to the Kootenays came from the United States. However, within three years this trade was completely won by prairie people and by 1904, the Kootenay was the chief market for a city as far distant as Edmonton.
In 1896 the development of agriculture in and around the mines themselves was negligible for two reasons: first, the mines were situated in low-precipitation areas; second, the demand for labour at the mines and smelter precluded the establishment of farms, but power development and a widening market did much to establish the Okanagan and Boundary districts as agricultural centres. The Okanagan Valley began to supply the Kootenay with hay, potatoes and other essentials at an early date.
During the early days of Rossland, the Chinese were allowed to live on the sunny slopes of lower Rossland. Scores of them purchased little lots in this area that came to be known as the Chinese Gardens. They lived in small sod huts and raised vegetables that fed the whole of Rossland. Day-after-day the Chinese vendor would climb the hill from lower Rossland burdened with two heavy baskets swung from a pole across his shoulders, going door-to-door to sell his vegetables. Each vendor delivering door-to-door had his own neighbourhood and did not infringe on anyone else’s territory.
Billy Esling, the journalist who bought the Rossland Miner in 1905 encouraged Rosslanders toward food sufficiency:
That apples, plums, pears, cherries, prunes and peaches, as well as the smaller fruits, can be grown in and about this city in large quantities and of superior quality has been demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt. This assertion is proven by the results already attained by those who have small orchards in and around the city … There is just enough cold weather here in winter to give fruit a suitable flavour, while the summers are so warm and bright that it ripens to perfection … Those who desire to found comfortable self-supporting homes should immediately avail themselves of the opportunities that now exist for acquiring tracts of mountain land before it increases in value … Ten or twenty acres properly planted with fruit trees will give a man a competence within a few years.
Rosslanders did raise much of their own food, but the growing season was short and preservation methods primitive; thus they also depended heavily on jobs at the mines. With the approaching depletion of ore, Rossland’s population had dropped from 6000 to less than 3000 by 1909. Yet those who could afford to stay often did – Rossland’s fruit trees, gardens and dairies were productive.
Rosslanders were encouraged toward food self-sufficiency. Many families kept chickens, pigs and milking cows on their 30’ x 100’ lot. People had the advantage of fresh, homegrown food, but there were problems with some local products. Milk in particular was produced under unhygienic conditions, with no form of testing to ensure the health of cows or handlers. It was delivered to the consumer in lard pails and glass fruit jars, or measured out at the door from five-gallon containers with minimal attention given to sanitation. By 1919 a new law prohibited families from keeping more than one hog within city limits.
During the 1930’s, with the lack of cash, citizens’ bartered labour, vegetables or whatever they had. More than a dozen families, among them the Drakes, Veteres, Watsons, Urquharts, Evans, Bowens, Springs, Smiths, Dougans, Frenches, Mellets and Roaches, sold milk door-to-door. Several others raised raspberries commercially.
Rosslanders continued to have fruit trees in almost every yard, often vegetable gardens as well and an abundance of flowers. Lots were open and not fenced, alleys between the houses were filled with alpine wildflowers.