Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Mixed Feelings

We've had a big dig here at Red Lane Gardens, about 1500 plants going to a daylilly enthusiast from Quebec. Most of the digging and cleaning was done in the wet and muddy.  We were better off than my neighbour who was trying to get in hay. Some days with sunshine will be welcomed by all. Exhaustion, visiting family, and some angst (great word, difficult feeling)  have kept me away from writing.

My feelings about food and farming are being pulled in completely opposite directions.  Many people that I meet are quite rightly  frustrated and angry about the fishkills in West Prince. Two farmers have now been charged with violations of provincial environment laws that set out buffer zone regulations (fields must be fifteen meters from a waterway). Many are now waiting to see if Environment Canada will also lay charges under the Fisheries Act. If proven this would be much more serious and costly for the farmers. Fines can be as high as a million dollars and six months in jail. Here's the section:

"Subsection 36(3) prohibits the deposit of deleterious substances. Environment Canada is responsible for administering this subsection. Unlike Subsection 35(2), there is no provision to authorize the deposit of deleterious substances except by Regulation or an Order in Council. A deleterious substance is defined by the Fisheries Act as any substance that, if added to water, makes the water deleterious to fish or fish habitat or any water containing a substance in such quantity or concentration or has been changed by heat or other means, that if added to water makes that water deleterious to fish or fish habitat. Currently there are regulations that authorize the deposit of pulp and paper liquid effluent, metal mining liquid effluent, petroleum liquid effluent, and effluents from other industrial sectors."

 One question would be whether agriculture is an "industrial sector".  I hope it isn't considered that (and I have no indication that it is)  because that would seriously jeopardize any effort to keep waterways safe for fish or people.

There is a lot of relief amongst farm organizations that charges have been laid. It puts the focus on individuals who have ignored the minimal rules laid out by the province, rather than the broad brush condemning all farmers. If there had been no violations then the fifteen meter rules itself would have been in doubt (and as I've written earlier I'd like to see at least five meters used as a riparian zone with trees and shrubs).  There have been a lot of heavy rains this summer and many waterways where fish continue to thrive, so a lot of farmers are responsibly managing fields. It's long past time that those that aren't play by the rules.

I've also spent time hosting some cooking demonstrations for the Certified Organic Producers Association at Old Home Week.  The farmers I've met are enthusiastic about what they're doing, and deeply committed to farming sustainably. There's an almost religious fervor when they talk about soil, that if it's healthy then everything else will work properly too. These are farmers who have a very direct relationship with their customers (through CSA.. community supported agriculture, or at farmer's markets).  Some are adding value (milling buckwheat into flour for example, or making tofu from soybeans). Chefs from the Merchantman's Pub have been doing the cooking, and their enthusiasm for local food is infectious. Many more people now know about the health benefits of sprouts, and that buckwheat is not a grain so doesn't have any gluten (who knew??).  This experience has definitely taken the edge off for me that we're falling off a cliff when it comes to producing food.

Here's a bit more on the local food movement in Canada:


Bare shelves in Canadas breadbasket

With the local food movement booming across Canada and the United States, farmers’ markets have been cropping up everywhere, from office buildings to hospital lobbies and even remote communities.

The heart of Canada’s breadbasket, though, is becoming the country’s most unfortunate place to be a foodie: In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, two of the nation’s most agriculturally oriented provinces, reams of requests for new farm markets are being turned down, and some markets regularly have dozens of empty stalls despite the crowds they draw.

The reason is paradoxical but simple: there aren’t enough farmers to go around.

“Because of the local food movement having this huge momentum now … I have calls on a regular basis from people wanting to start a farmers’ market. [But] we haven’t figured out a plan to recruit farmers’ market vendors,” said Dianna Mae Hocaluk, director of the Farmers’ Market Association of Manitoba. “There is a lack of affordable farmland for small scale farms,” she said. “We have a lot of large, corporate farms. They’ve taken over most of the land.”

With more than 7.7 million hectares devoted to farming (picture a sprawl of about 19 million football fields) Manitoba ranks third among provinces with the most agricultural land. Most of that has historically been devoted to cash crops such as corn and grain, and while small-scale farms have begun to increase, demand has outpaced them. In 2007, the province had just 13 farm markets; now there are 48.

The story in Saskatchewan is similar: The province leads the country with more than 26 million hectares of farmland, but struggles to entice large operators to local markets, which are running well below capacity.

“I know there’s good spice production in this province, but they [producers] are too big to consider doing some portion at a small scale and getting the product right into the hands of the people that live here,” said Debra Claude, manager of operations for Saskatchewan Farmers’ Markets.

“We’d love to run more markets,” she said. “We just don’t have enough people that are really taking on market gardening.”

Making a sustainable living from small-scale farming can be a slog, especially during the early years when many farmers still work regular jobs to make ends meet. Between these jobs and work on-farm, people have to be strategic about where they sell.

“We have to be selective about the markets we choose,” said Kim Shukla, an agrologist and co-owner of Stoneland Orchard, a fruit and vegetable operation near Steinbach, Man. Ms. Shukla and her husband, Richard Whitehead, bought their farm 10 years ago. Now, they vend at two markets a week and operate a successful community-supported agriculture operation (consumers pay a fixed weekly fee for a box of bounty that is heavier in good seasons and lighter in bad ones, sharing both risk and rewards with farmers). Expanding sales to more markets, particularly at new and unproven locations, upsets their balance sheet, Ms. Shukla said.

“Last year, we did three markets. We ended up just working to pay the staff,” she said.

Ms. Shukla said she needs to take in $2,000 to $10,000 to make a market day worth her time.

Numbers like that are easiest to hit in areas with more density than the Prairie sprawl. A cross-country survey conducted in 2008 by Farmers’ Markets Canada showed that 64 per cent of farm market sales occur in Ontario, which has about 150 of the country’s 500 markets. Despite ranking fourth in terms of the amount of land farmed, the province has the most farms in Canada, more than 57,000. In the populous Greater Toronto Area, small-scale farmers have dozens of options each week.

Bert Andrews runs a pick-your-own berry operation west of Toronto at his farm, Andrews Scenic Acres. He also sends staff and a fleet of rented trucks packed with produce to 11 markets across the GTA each week. The vast exposure, he said, helps drive people to the picking operation at his farm, boosting the overall viability of his business.

“We go to four on Saturday morning alone,” he said. “If we had the ability, we’d go to more.”

1 comment:

  1. Ian, just read this in McLeans: http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/08/15/the-25000-cow/.

    Thought you might find it interesting!!

    Hope you're enjoying the summer!