Sunday, April 17, 2011

Growing Food in Niagara - How things change in 14 years : Part 3 Local and Organic ?

When I first started growing and selling vegetables, I was organic.  But local wasn't a buzz word. And locavore  - an illness? A new tender fruit?

But my oh my, how that has all changed.

I'm local now, although of course I always was, and organic is a word I just can't use anymore. It isn't that I have changed my growing methods or have started on a heavy regime of nasty chemicals..not at all.  It is just that the word is one I have to pay to use now..I have to have someone else come out to my farm to tell you what I could tell you myself. Or you could come out to the farm and see.

And according to the standards, the certifiers are more honest than me.

I truly believe most people who are certified are honest people, just as most people are. But when people are led to believe that certified organic produce and other certified farm products are the only assurance that products are organic, my hackles are raised.

Do I know of certified producers cheating personally?  Yes, I do.

Be clear, a certificate means absolutely nothing if the farmer is unethical. Until there is actual field testing, certification relies on a farmer's honesty. Period.

I'm not the only one who thinks that way.

Mischa Popoff, a former organic inspector concurs.  On April 11, 2011 his interesting take on the whole "certified" issue was considered in the National Post.  The comments that follow the article show how divisive this whole issue really is. Read more here.

Whew...always a topic that I get carried away with!

Over the last few years since certification has been required, I haven't seen a huge change in my business as a result.  My long term customers have't demanded I become certified, nor the restaurants and stores either. New customers still come on board.

I've chosen not to use labels like "truly organic', "beyond organic", "natural or authentic". They mean as little as organic now.

I still am a test gardener for Rodale's Gardening magazine. Nope, they didn't boot me out.  And J.J.Rodale was considered the father of the organic movement. Wonder what he would think of it all? I was actually the chair of the Niagara Chapter of Canadian Organic Growers when the standards were introduced. Whew...that can't be right. Maybe that's why it is now defunct.

The local craze hit big over the last 4 years too.

Has this changed my business?  Well, yes and no.

It hasn't improved my business or given me more business.  What it has done is introduced more farmers markets and CSA's, more growers and we have the same number of people buying. Maybe a few more.

I'm glad more people are growing, especially people younger than myself. I'm glad more people are supporting local farmers.

But until there is a rethinking of farming, it is just slicing the same size pie into pieces that are just a bit smaller.

I no longer go to the market I helped form.  At one time I had line-ups for my bags of mixed salad greens.  Then everyone began growing them, or reselling them and price became the biggest selling feature. Mine was $4.00 for a 1/2 lb, a fruit farmer who was reselling had it for $2.50. Romaine heads being resold next to me for 50 cents. I can't grow it for that price. Sayonara market!

If I wanted to travel to Toronto, I know the markets are more lucrative. But I don't.

Price, for most people is the biggest consideration when buying food.  That's it.

People who have always bought from me continue to, some new people come on board.  But most of my sales are now to restaurants.

And not the restaurants who make the most noise about being local.

I've had my vegetables listed as being on menus at restaurants I have never sold to.  My tomatoes on menus in May, when  I don't have them at that time of year.

I've been invited to appear a events in restaurants so there is the appearance of a close relationship with a chef. Sometimes there is no relationship...only for the event, but not before or after.

There certainly are those prepared to exploit the whole local thing.

Organizations were formed to help bridge the farm to consumer gap.

The Niagara Culinary Trail, the recipient of a cool $250,000 "Friends of the Greenbelt" grant has now gone the way of the wooly mammoth. Farmers had to pay to join, while hired staff made salaries.  If you don't pay, you don't exist on their map and in their media they pretend you don't exist at all. You may farm here in Niagara, but oddly, you don't.

Ahh, and food miles.  That was the big thing of the NCT.

(I'm not even going to begin to get into the topic of the Greenbelt here.)

It doesn't necessarily translate that food produced closest to home is the most environmentally friendly, as people would like you to believe. On the website Grainews , (  "food miles" are revealed to be what they really are. A marketing fad.

"People might choose to buy local for the food's freshness or flavour, or out of support for the local community, "but if you're doing it to save the planet, you're being misguided," University of Toronto professor Pierre Desrochers said in a separate story recently on CBC.

In a recent policy paper, Desrochers said the concept of "food miles" is based what he called a faulty premise: that transportation is the chief contributor to greenhouse gases in food production and processing.

"Food miles are, at best, a marketing fad," he said in his report, citing "efficient" farms in California raising roughly 17 times as many strawberries as a typical Ontario farmer on the same acreage base and using the same resources.

"When you're that efficient you can invest in better handling and storage," Desrochers told CBC. "The environmental impact of transportation isn't very significant."

He cited studies showing British farmers emit 2,394 kg of carbon dioxide for every tonne of tomatoes they produce, while Spanish farmers produce only 630 kg of carbon dioxide but produce the same amount.

And rose producers in Kenya emit 6,000 kg of carbon dioxide for every 12,000 cut flowers they sell in Europe, whereas Dutch competitors generate 35,000 kg to do the same.

Desrochers told CBC he's not opposed to buying local but urged consumers to be aware of foods' seasons and geography. "A 100-mile diet might be quite economical and varied in Vancouver... (but) it's quite a different story in Edmonton, for example."

Niagara Agri-tourism, the  arch rival of the Culinary Trail is gone as well.  Yes, I was included on that map and without a fee.  But lots of people who should have been on it weren't.

These organizations left me with the sense that their biggest goal was actually to promote themselves and the folks at their helm. Goals like selling their own books and products, instead of promoting farmers.

Should it not be equal promotion of all farmers, restaurants and wines, not just those who have kissed ass (sorry). In Niagara it is not usually the farmer who is considered the "local food hero"'s the promoters.

And I'm not sure that's what farmers want. I can only speak for myself.  I want to sell what I grow. I don't want to be a hero. I want to see decent payment for what I work hard to produce.  I don't think there are any farmers whose goal is to remain amongst the working poor or end their year with a negative income.

Governments need to step up and truly support farmers.  There is something wrong in the system when farmers whose work is essential are required to live below the poverty level, or work off farm to produce food that is inexpensive enough for all the rest of the and poor.

And in Niagara we need a regional effort to support all farmers equally and get the true and accurate word out about what everyone is producing and selling. Kitchener-Waterloo does it wonderfully well, as do Hamilton and Perth County amongst others.

So at this time what is there left in Niagara? Absolutely nothing (say it again).

We've had so many "local food" discussions, at the regional level, through the university, and within individual cities. Some of these discussions have shut out farmers.

I don't see it has gone anywhere.

The only reason my business has increased over the last few years is because I have continued to diversify and work even harder. Not because of local, not because of organic.  Perhaps even in spite of them.

Is this a rant? Perhaps.

But I am extremely happy with what I do and I have developed some extremely important relationships over the last 4 years of business. I just try to ignore all the noise, and forge ahead with the motto "ignorance is bliss".  Head down, hoe in the soil.  Nothing has changed the fact that my seeds grow and I love what I do.

Regrets?  Not at all.


outpost said...

I remember being an early member of your food box program. Never heard of the word "locavore" either. I just wanted farm fresh veg and to support a local fellow grower. Agreed, ignorance is bliss...just keep doing what you love Linda and we will follow!

Cellarguy said...

I'm following your series here with fascination. The average urbanite might see organic certification as a good thing, protective of their consumer rights, etc. I see it as a way to promote certain farmers over others, and thus it turns out to be a deterrent against farmers who are interested in improving their land, growing food sustainably, and going organic. I'm not in the Niagara region, but in my area, I've observed that farmers who want to be "organic certified" have to jump through so many hoops, and take so many years of loss, uncertified, they find it easier to grow things hydroponically rather than in soil. To me, that means we've taken a misstep. At this point, we have lost all sense, and have ceased to protect the planet (and therefore, ourselves). Thanks for writing, I love reading it, glad I found it by accident.

Buttons said...

I love your posts or as you say your rants but you are telling the truth and it is what most of us are thinking anyway I wish I lived near you but I don't I think a farmer should expect to get fairly compensated for his hard work and we chose not to use the organic(in our case natural grass fed)on our product. The people who buy it trust us and that is good enough for me. Good luck you love it and you should be able to make a good living from it. I am glad you enjoy it as that is what is really all about.Looking forward to your next rant. B

Linda said...

Thanks all for reading. These are the things that really frustrate me and i believe lots of other people too, especially of course farmers.I got a good number of "tweets" from other farmers sharing their concern about certified, and examples of transgressions they were aware of. Yes, it happens and people are being duped.
Sad for agriculture, especially as you point it out Cellarguy-hydroponics! Yes, a misstep for sure.
And trust is it Buttons. I always liked Joel Salatin's line
"you can't regulate integrity" You have it or you don't.

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gretz said...

Great article!! I look forward to eventually meeting you. Be awesome to learn more about your farming.