Sunday, 13 March 2011

Here's a Promise Easily Broken

Canadians who listen to the Current on CBC Radio are well aware of "the voice",  deep, modulated words that pour out of the radio at the beginning of the show, usually funny, often cynical. A classic for me was the day after something wonderful had happened. The voice celebrated the event, and at the end said "Now back to our regular programming, telling you what's wrong with the world." I promised myself that if I were ever in charge of a program I'd insist that there had to be a little balance with good stuff too. I remember one day when our lead story on Compass was a complaint from someone that their road wasn't being properly plowed. Everyone in the newsroom felt shame that this was the best we could come up with. A viewer called to say that if that's the worst thing that happened, Islanders had a pretty good day. And given what's going on in the world right now..... enough said.

So a promise that  this little blog will regularly look at the positive too. And if I don't, let me know.

Farmers markets:
There's no more direct, positive, constructive relationship between farmers and consumers than at a farmers market. Yes they're a social event, and the coffee brewers probably do better than anyone else, but the trust and loyalty between producers and consumers is magical.  The farmers work extremely hard (I know I used to do it, and I'm full of admiration). For many of the producers it's as much, if not more, a lifestyle choice as an economic one. I wish the market gardeners I know weren't always one truck breakdown away from insolvency. A suggestion to consumers: pay your trusted farmer a little extra. Farmers are the worst for undervaluing what they do, and not charging enough.  You'll make their day,  maybe keep then at it a little longer.  We all benefit from what they do.

Local Food Movement:
You want to know a good explanation of the word paradox: try local food, and PEI agriculture. It's the best and worst thing that's ever happened to PEI farmers.

I plan on writing a lot about the critical role that empowered, knowledgeable consumers can play in the food system here, and it starts with the local food movement.  Taking that first step to think about where the food you're buying comes from can be instructive, even liberating. Asking the produce or meat manager in the big retail stores: Where's the Maritime beef?  Why are you bringing  in U.S. pork ( there's a lot of that going on with the high Canadian dollar)?   Where are the locally-grown onions?  is what will really bring about food security for both farmers and consumers.  The food purchasing and retailing business does an extraordinary job giving consumers choice and value, but it's left farmers economically powerless. (see earlier posts).  If enough consumers ask for, then demand,  local products, then these big retailers will respond.

And if they won't, Maritime consumers have other choices. Atlantic Co-op stores, as an operating principal,  source as much as they can locally, and have been the long-time home of (award winning) Atlantic Tender Beef.  On PEI,  certainly try The Riverview Country Market across form the racetrack in Charlottetown.  Its meat is outstanding, and whatever is in season, will be fresh, and available, along with locally produced, jams, chutneys, and so on. I'd appreciate if readers would pass on their best places to buy local (we'll let Sobeys and the Superstore do their own marketing).  

There is one food retail story that might be instructive. The Best of PEI was a successful craft retailer in Charlottetown, that decided to move into local food retailing in a big way, opening a pretty fancy store on University Avenue. It promised to pay producers "fair trade" prices (essentially assuring farmers a profit), and to consumers it offered the opportunity to get most of the food basics from local sources, and the rest from the big supermarkets up the road.  The first time I sensed trouble was when friends (at my encouragement) tried it out and complained that the prices were way too high.  I could never figure out if the high prices were to properly pay the farmer,  or to pay the bills on an overly ambitious, poorly managed  retail business.  I still don't know. The business went bankrupt, leaving many farmers and other suppliers owed a lot of money.  Was it ahead of its time, or just not run very well?  It at least shows that food retailing is a very difficult business (like running a restaurant). Yes we all have to eat, but making money off of that is very challenging.

Then there's the dark side to the local food movement.  PEI is the million acre farm, but has a population equal to a few apartment blocks in Toronto.  Somewhere around ninety percent of what's produced here has to be sold in someone else's backyard, where consumers there too are encouraged to buy local.  Foodland Ontario spends millions of dollars encouraging consumers there to look for Ontario produce, that's not a big help to sell PEI potatoes.  And the story gets repeated in Montreal, Boston, New York and so on. You get the picture.

There are very smart people who think the answer is to shift PEI production away from these distant markets,  and essentially replace the meat, produce, cheese, etc. that's now brought in from elsewhere, on supermarket shelves here.  I'd like to think that could happen, but I'm not totally convinced yet. It's certainly the welcome,  end result of  "empowered" local consumers demanding more local food, but disentangling all of the current international commercial relationships would be a challenge, unless there was new ownership locally and I'd be heartless and dumb not to acknowledge that cheap beef from Argentina, or applesauce from China isn't critical to the diet of many working-poor Maritimers.  

For those fortunate enough that price isn't the only consideration, consider this.  I spend a dollar at Cooper's Store in Eldon on carrots grown locally. David Cooper pays most of that to the local farmer,  who spends it on a litre of Purity Milk, who pays one of its employees, who buys jam made locally at the Riverview Store, who pays a local farmer for butternut squash, and so on and so on. It's called the multiplier effect of money. If instead I bought garlic produced in China, very quickly the money has left the province to a central Canadian wholesaler, and then onto China to be loaned to the Americans to cover their big deficits.  I know where I want my money to go.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this Ian. There are no easy answers. Buy local is a tough concept when viewed in the light of reality. Rather then looking for the easy answers lets concentrate on some honest discussion to start. Why are the goods trucked 1000s of miles to get here cheaper? Are there values of Island agriculture beyond pure economics. And my personal favorite asked of me when my son was 12. why do you work so hard and smell so bad for little money.