Friday, May 29, 2009

Eating by the signs

My first CSA baskets of 2009 were delivered into Fonthill and St Catharines this week, and a desperate email from one of my customers made me realize how much I take for granted when I sell food to people who are used to buying all their food in the grocery store.

Apart from the bag of lettuce and the lilacs adorning the basket, she was unsure about what anything else in the basket was, or what the plants were that were part of her share. Her young son was unaware that food was even grown — he thought it came from the grocery store.

Bless them all, they'll learn this year and I am so pleased to have them as part of my CSA.

It made me realize how far away from our food sources and nature people have become. When we buy our food at the store, we depend on signs to direct us — names attached to bags of veggies and fruits. We don't pick up items and identify them by taste or smell. We don't think of what dish that smell would direct us to create. We think the sign says chard, carrots, bok choi, and that of course tells us how they SHOULD taste.

Green garlic for example, was in every one's basket. Most people are very familiar with the smell and taste of garlic. But in it's immature form, a number of folks were stumped, despite the very definite, in fact, unmistakable odour. No doubt about it, a little bite of any part of green garlic would convince you it is garlic.

And that little bite would direct you as to its use.

As a grower, I have the tremendous luxury of shopping the garden. Not much better than strolling through, tasting this and that, especially the first taste of something I've never grown before.

The CSA basket can be a small version of that because, of course, it is a sampling of what is in the garden. You have the opportunity to smell, taste, feel and let those senses guide your eating, as opposed to signs in a store telling you.

This is not my way of getting out of identifying basket items, not at all. But don't be afraid, it is all edible! Then check my blog for basket contents.

My "Tomato Days" was a great success. Hundreds of people from all over came, talked tomatoes and I hope will be pleased with their plants. Heirlooms seem to be hitting their stride. It is certainly time. Because of course, despite what the sign in the store says, those hard, red balls don't taste like tomatoes!

Monday, May 25, 2009

I say farmer, you say cellphone

Sure, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. And now, Apple seems to want to make it easier to find those doses of nature's medicine — so long as they're local — all the while ensuring there's nothing the iPhone can't do.

There's a new application that iPhone users and wannabe locavores can tap into when they're hungry for something in season.

Aptly named Locavore, this application was launched in March to help American iPhone users eat local. It detects what state users are in, tells them what's in season at the moment and lists nearby farmers' markets. It also allows users to browse from a list of 234 fruits and veggies to see where they are growing at any given time. Links to Wikipedia and Epicurious are also provided to find info and recipes for the latest crop to hit local market stands.

Here's the sales pitch on iTunes, where iPhone users can purchase Locavore for $2.99 and have it at their fingertips when they're shopping or get bored of looking at MRI images (which makes my brow furrow. How many people have that many MRI scans they need to look at on the go to warrant an iPhone app? Maybe it's good fodder for some dinner conversation over the local meal your cellphone just helped you purchase). Anyway...

Know the food in season near you.

Eating local food when it's in season is an increasingly popular goal amongst people who are interested in eating the tastiest, healthiest food while also being good to the environment. Knowing what's available in your area at a given time of year is often difficult to determine, so we've taken on the task of collecting data from a variety of sources and presenting it all in the most understandable of ways. The Locavore iPhone app will come in handy the next time you're at the market and want to know what's actually being grown near you, and what is most likely to taste the best right now.

Whether you're just trying to become more aware of what's in season around you, or you are fully committed to eating only locally grown food, this app will help you know what you're options are.

Cool, right? More than 5,600 people who bought Locavore in its first month on iTunes must think so. It was also ranked #65 on the Top 100 Paid Apps list, according to the blog of Buster McLeod, the creator of Locavore. As someone easily wowed by technology and a proponent of local food, I probably would have dropped the three bucks to buy Locavore if I didn't have an antiquated cell phone that only allows me to make phone calls and send text messages. You know, communicate with people.

Which is why I'm a little skeptical of Locavore's virtues. While I applaud McLeod's creation because it will undoubtedly draw some to the local food movement and promote all that's good about eating in season foods from close to home, I also couldn't help but think 'Why use an electronic interface to find local food when you can use the human kind?' How about this for an application — talk to the farmer selling food at the market? They can tell you what's in season, recipe ideas and all about how the food that you're contemplating eating was grown. I know I've written about this before, but the social aspect — the building of human relationships between consumer and farmer — is part of what's so wonderful about the local food movement and a big reason why people choose their farmers' market over the grocery store. I guarantee those looking for an education about their food will get more from the grower than their cellphone.

Still, if Locavore draws more people, unfamiliar with the four seasons and the food they proffer, to the local food movement, great. But Locavore users beware. Don't let it replace your local farmer as a source of information about the food you eat.

Two and a half hours of my Sunday afternoon was proof of just how good it is to connect with your local farmer. This weekend was Linda's tomato transplant sale (the photo below shows the transplants about a week before the sale). I went to her Wellandport farm to help out. It wasn't long before I volunteered to take over the cash box duties because I know nothing about the hundreds of varieties of tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and various other heirloom goodies she was selling — except that they taste good when they appear in my CSA basket. My poor math skills were clearly stronger than my knowledge of what a good substitute for a green zebra tomato is.

As I waited for people to make their purchases, I had the chance to watch Linda in action. She took time with each person who ventured out to Wellandport to peruse her plants. She offered alternatives to those they found on her long list of tomato varieties that had already sold out. She shook people's hands — a sign of someone who stood by what she sold and appreciated people's interest in her work and their food — she offered growing tips and, if asked, the story behind the individual tomato plants with quirky names like Egyptian Tomb. That, to me, epitomized what local eating is all about. Not just purchasing what's produced locally, but really getting to know that food — the story and the people behind it. And it was clear from watching Linda, the people behind it are much obliged and proud to tell you about it. All you have to do is ask them, not your cellphone.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I'll pay the extra 50 cents for Ontario asparagus, thank-you

I couldn't help but be baffled by it all.

One day last week, with an hour to kill before work, I walked into a ginormous grocery store selling everything from socks to strawberries to the latest Stephanie Meyer vampire novel. There, at the front of the store stood a large display of asparagus. Being the height of asparagus season here in Ontario, I was beckoned over. I had visions of asparagus frittata, grilled asparagus drizzled in lemon juice and goat milk Parmesan, or broiled spears tossed in a chimichurri sauce, dancing in my head.

The closer I got, though, those tasty visions were dashed by something that left a bitter taste in my mouth. The asparagus were from Peru.


Why was the biggest grocery store chain in the land flying and trucking Peruvian spears thousands of miles to its Ontario stores when a mere hour away from this particular store exists a panacea for anyone needing an asparagus fix? It's called Norfolk County. Home to hundreds of former tobacco growers who traded in the golden leaf for the green spears. The sandy soil of Lake Erie's north shore is a hotbed of asparagus production. This made no sense to me at all.

I know about the trade rules. I also know sometimes there isn't enough local supply to meet the local demand but for some reason, I was more miffed about this than the swarms of California strawberries that hit store shelves just as the local crop turns ripe for the picking. The local asparagus season is so short. It should be celebrated. Touted at every grocery in the province. And let's face it, we do asparagus better, even if Peru has become a world leader, as far as quantity, in asparagus production. Besides, they have the climate to grow asparagus year-round. Can't Ontario asparagus growers just have this one short window of time to sell their crop without interference from the guys who have the market cornered the other 10.5 months of the year?

But the bafflement didn't end there. In my fury, I ranted publicly. I twittered about it in search of a virtual locavore to empathize, only to have someone respond with an unexpected answer.

"Which ones cost less?" someone had reply tweeted me.

I didn't know what to say in 140 characters. Did it matter? I thought. Did this person know the (pardon the cliche) true cost of our food and that even if the Ontario asparagus cost more at the cash register, they're actually less costly overall than the imports.

But really, what could I infer from four words sent to me by a stranger by way of an impersonal electronic medium? So I RT'd a diplomatic "They're the same price" because it was the truth.

As it turned out, the tweeter was advocating for Peruvian asparagus and I was relieved by her subsequent response. But all my initial disappointment inspired me to delve into the much-talked about topic of the true cost of our food. Since just about every thought has been penned on the issue already, I've included links below for the curious to do their own research. I'm unlikely to add an original idea to the discussion at this point. But the links come with a prologue, so here goes.

The question of cost was an interesting one and a double-edged sword. Let's face it. Times are tough so I can appreciate the temptation of buying something cheaper. Even when the economy is booming, I enjoy a bargain as much as the next person. But when it comes to local food, I'll willingly pay more for a pound of local asparagus. I've seen Ontario asparagus sold for 50 cents more, up to a dollar more than their Peruvian competition, but I don't care. Since when did cheaper mean better?

The 50 cents is a small price to pay for something that has less of a negative impact on the environment because the farm from whence they came is closer to my fork. Those spears may have also been spared treatment with pesticides that are fine to use in South America but that the Pest Management Regulatory Agency has poo-pooed here.

It's a small price to pay to help keep a Canadian farmer in business. It's a small price to pay to support our local economy. According to the Niagara Culinary Trail, if Niagara's 435,000 residents spent just $10 of their grocery budget on local foods each week, that would give a $253 million-shot to the local economy each year. A dollar spent locally generates twice as much income for the local economy.

I can be spared the lecture about developing or less fortunate nations relying on exports for their betterment. It's highly unlikely that my purchasing their asparagus is going to better the situation of their people. If anything, it will likely make it worse since my money is probably going to an agribusiness giant that pays the local Peruvian asparagus grower a pittance. The agribusiness giant only cares about the bottom line, not the people growing for them. People, after all, cost money. (This would be a nice segue into fair trade but I'll save it for now).

That extra 50 cents is small price to pay for something fresher, for something that makes me feel good to support. So yes, crazy as it may sound, I want to pay more. I know it will cost me less in the long run.“local”-is-challenging-industrial-food/,M1

Monday, May 11, 2009

Understanding where food comes from (it's not the grocery store)

Covering agriculture for the past seven years of my short, seven-year journalism career, thus far, I learned early on about some of the safety concerns with imports. Countries still using DDT or other pesticides long outlawed here. Questionable labour practices, though some might argue those also happen here with some of our foreign seasonal agricultural workers.

I'm curious to check out this website. I'm even more curious whether supermarket-only shoppers, who don't read labels, will use it. If so, what effect will it have on them? Will they be more inclined to check out their local farmers' market? Search out the Foodland Ontario sign in the grocery store? I don't want to spout the dogma that locavores, including myself, have been known spout, but I can't help but think this would motivate many to think a little more critically as they load up the shopping cart.

But then the path of least resistance is awfully tempting. And grocery stores, what with their convenience and plethora of products are certainly good at beckoning us down it.

Online global grocery site helps shoppers understand where food comes from

By Judy Creighton
The Canadian Press

TORONTO — A new online tool by Washington-based consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch could capture the interest of Canadians concerned about the safety of imported foods.

The Global Grocer: Where is Your Produce From? transports online visitors to a virtual supermarket displaying fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables that top grocery lists of many Canadian and American consumers.

After clicking on various items to add them to a shopping cart, shoppers can learn the likelihood of the food item being imported and from what countries.

For example, many consumers may be surprised to learn that one out of four packages of frozen spinach is imported. China alone produces one out of seven frozen spinach packages shoppers buy at the supermarket.

A study done by the advocacy group last year shows that much of the imported food from off-shore countries such as China, Chile, New Zealand and Mexico, to name a few, used to be grown in the U.S., says Patrick Woodall, senior policy advocate on farm policy and international trade at Food & Water Watch.

"Structurally we have encouraged this through the pursuit of free-trade deals that aim to allow companies to source their product at the cheapest point," he said in an interview. "So it encourages food-processing companies and produce importers to seek out cheaper venues and these include venues with weaker environmental standards.

These, he says, include unenforced pesticide rules and disregard for workers' safety and wages.

"It's a pursuit of a race to the bottom of food production that delivers to the American and Canadian plates a source of cheaper food but produced potentially under riskier conditions," Woodall says.

He cites the big salmonella outbreak in 2008 in Mexico when raw serrano and jalapeno peppers were found to be contaminated.

"This was inadvertently linked to U.S.-grown tomatoes and destroyed a whole season of tomato production for our growers here."

And Woodall adds that one of the arguments for free trade at any price is to give consumers more choice and to bring more things to the supermarket during the winter.

"And while that may seem attractive at first blush, the reality is opening the floodgates and we are seeing more head-to-head competition with imported fruits and vegetables coming in at the peak of our growing season."

Woodall says the Global Grocer site would be useful to Canadian consumers.

"The U.S. imports from the larger commercial producers and they serve a global market. Those melon exporters in Central America are tied in with the large international fruit companies and they export cantaloupes and honeydews to Canada as well."

Woodall says all this global production "certainly flies in the face of eating local."

He adds that "on a very basic level, consumers need to have the information to make choices about where their food is coming from."

For more information on the Global Grocer, visit to start your shopping trip.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Lettuce, Turnip and Wine grows. And other stuff.

I'd better write notes here about our garden club meeting before I forget. Sadly, the recorder of minutes — me — forgot to write anything down.

Anyway, five new members came, shared and, I believe, enjoyed! It was our plant trade night, as well as "guess that plant," and progress reports on our gardens.

Several members will be writing diligent notes as they follow the progress of their tomato plants from my Organic Gardening magazine test seeds for 2009. Most popular for the taking appeared to be Clint Eastwood's "Rowdy Red" (what a GREAT name for a tomato!) Hope it is as wonderful as the name suggests. We'll all compare notes on the tomatoes and I will consider all comments as I write my test garden report in September.... It will be great to have the input.

I brought in some mystery plants and the individual who could guess the plant took it home. Included were cotton, cardoon, sunberry and milk thistle. All very worthwhile plants to grow. Cotton is a fantastic plant, although with our short season, it is unlikely we'll ever see a Niagara cotton plantation. But the flowers are stunning — hibiscus-like and the glossy leaves are very attractive. It is one of those things I grow most years to see if I can ever get a fully formed cotton ball. Close, but not yet. I won't tell you where the seeds are from. It might be highly ILLEGAL!!!!

What a great yet evolving group of individuals we have at our little meetings.

Next meeting is TUESDAY, June 2, at 6:45 pm, Wildflower Market. All welcome, no cost involved.

As for life on the farm, we have developed what my eldest daughter Emily likes to call the red light district in Wellandport featuring some hot little chicks. This is farmspeak for baby chicks under the heat lamp. Yes, Minor Brothers was the pick-up place for 28 little Rhode Islands Reds and Plymouth Barred Rocks. Now I am trying to light a fire under Gary to create a magnificent new facility to house them. They are in a box in the basement and have doubled in size in 6 days.... The clock is ticking.

The chicks out in their coop recently.

Tomato-wise, transplants are fantastic. Some worth mentioning that really stand out, just from the appearance of the plants are last year's discovery, Micro Tom, which is a mini-plant that can stay in a 4" pot all season and produces cute little cherry tomatoes, attaining a height of no more than 6 feet.

Stick is an odd one too. No leaves up the stem, then a twisted ball of leaves at the top. Never seen anything like it. Variegated with the lovely white patterns on the leaves.

Garden-wise, I have not a whole lot in. Some salad, spinach, radishes and onions, but my clay, which should never be worked when wet, is just simply too wet. Late year for the CSA, but that is okay. I can go as long at the other end of the season as I need to.

Cool night tonight. Keep your babies in. If you have bought tomato plants, best to hold off on planting them for several weeks yet. You risk losing them if we get a frost, and cool damp soil won't put them ahead any.

Hope everyone had a delicious Mother's Day!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Asparagus in my belly

Thanks to Deborah Keegan, a media relations specialist and food consultant following Eating Niagara on Twitter, for the following asparagus recipe (and a white asparagus recipe, no less): White Asparagus with Poached Eggs, Lemon Zest & Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Deborah tells me green asparagus can be used instead, but if you follow the link, you'll see the post, which mentions a white asparagus supplier on the north shores of Lake Erie. Those sandy soils — think Norfolk and Elgin counties — aren't too far from here.

Local asparagus are in grocery stores now. But there's always the St. Catharines Farmers' Market and Welland's edition Saturday morning where you can find some local spears — the green ones anyway. A few have also been known to show up in my baskets from Linda (

Keep checking back for more recipes or links to them to be posted.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Linda gets vocal

As a member of the community editorial board at The St. Catharines Standard, Linda gets to provide her take on issues in the region. And, as a farmer and ruralite, she's providing a perspective often absent from a city daily and one city slicker readers would benefit from checking out.

Here's her latest column for Niagara Voices, the forum for community editorial board members to express themselves.

Canadian farmers aren't appreciated

Posted By LINDA CRAGO, St. Catharines Standard, Tuesday, May 6, 2009

Perhaps it is time to ramble on here about my chosen career, life as a farmer. This will not be a litany of complaints, although it is only fair if I complain just a little bit about the weather. That is what farmers do.

Like all other farmers who grow for a living, this is an extremely busy time for me. Planting, transplanting, watering and working out how all my sales will go ahead, while I look to the heavens for sun, so my land will dry and I can begin the ritual that has been in place for thousands of years -- putting in the crops.

I recognize that I'm a bit of an oddball. Statistics tell me that only two per cent of adults make their living farming. To me that number seems unbelievable. Two per cent of us farm, and we all eat. And now everyone wants to eat local. Somehow it all doesn't jive.

And farmers are leaving, or at least trying to leave, the farm in droves. Why? Because the average farmer in Canada actually has a negative income and a great many farmers have to work off the farm in order to support themselves and their families.

I get angry when I hear about all the local food initiatives. They don't even begin to touch on the real issues that affect farmers. Farm issues are beyond the scope of these projects. Lists are compiled, speeches are made and farmers sit on the sidelines, with a negative income, often not involved in the process at all. Can you imagine a city council meeting without city councillors there? A teachers' meeting without teachers? How patronizing is it that others know what direction food issues should go, and how local food should be presented, without farmers being involved.

If farmers aren't involved, then any local food initiative will fail.

Local farmers' markets are created without the farmers to fill them. Perhaps it is the "build it and they will come" attitude. But many markets are finding that in fact the farmers are not coming and the markets are disbanding

Why don't farmers have a voice? The autoworkers have a voice, teachers have a voice and the wine industry has a voice. But people will still complain about the fact that my broccoli -- that I nursed from a seed sown in March and harvested four months later -- costs 50 cents more than a broccoli from California. People need to get to know farmers and what they do, and it is easier if we speak for ourselves, not through those who believe they represent us, but don't.

I'm very concerned that as a society we undervalue food. We don't even begin to pay the real cost of food; in many cases the farmer does. Why is the public and the government OK with that? It really is no wonder that our food supply is substandard. Cheap food is the expectation, and cheap food is what we get, with processors getting the lions' share of our food dollar.

Now there is an initiative to list the number of calories in more foods commonly consumed by children -- processed foods. This misses the mark. The push should be towards eating more whole foods, that are grown sustainably and supporting farmers, if need be, with government dollars, diverted from other issues that may not be as pressing as food.

Really, what is more pressing than food and a healthy environment needed to grow it well and sustainably? Absolutely nothing.

OK, I have ranted. But I love what I do. I usually try to keep my head down and ignore all this noise around me. I just want to grow food, meet wonderful people who appreciate what I do and send the husband off to work in the morning to support my farming habit. And that is how we live.

Contact Linda Crago at

Monday, May 4, 2009

Spring has sprung. Now let's eat

Calling all culinary whizzes. Send us your favourite fiddlehead and asparagus recipes. Now that they're in season, I'll be eating plenty and am always looking for new ways to serve the first crops of year.

Drop us a line at or just leave them in the comments section of this post.

Higher learning with a side of local food.

Locavores in academic circles will soon have a place to get their fix of local food.

Brock University recently unveiled plans for a market-style dining space with a focus on local food. If it sounds lofty, it is. Even some who have envisioned this development for food services on campus have admitted it's tough to find a local food supply large and steady enough to help Brock serve up the 1.5 million meals staff and students chow down on each year.

So who's at fault? The farmers for not being better organized, or the local food advocates for not better organizing a way to bring the farm to the table, as they've been mandated to do?

Based on my experiences, I often hear farmers just want to farm.

Plans are in the works for some sort of mechanism to facilitate the supply Brock needs to boast a truly local eatery. It will be interesting to see what that is and if it's enough to get enough local producers on board.

Fingers crossed that it is, because truly, getting more local food into provincially and federally funded institutions is important and finally will mean governments are putting local meals where their mouths are when it comes to their rhetoric about supporting Ontario and Canadian farmers.

Here's the story, as it appeared in Saturday's St. Catharines Standard.

Brock feasts on $6M donation

Brock University's food services provider has forked over $6 million to upgrade learning space and increase the pot of student awards.

The donation from Sodexo Canada, announced Friday, puts Brock closer to the $75-million goal of its Bold New Brock fundraising campaign, meant to help the university expand graduate studies and research.

"We are honoured to have in Sodexo a partner ... who shares our longer vision of the urgency to build the kind of innovative, knowledge-advancing institution that Niagara and Canada need," Brock president Jack Lightstone said.

Sodexo president Dean Johnson handed over the giant cheque while simultaneously serving up plans with the university for a $9.5-million marche-style dining space in the Schmon Tower cafeteria.

Called the Niagara Marketplace, it will offer locally grown and produced food whenever possible and create muchneeded space for staff and students to dig in.

The Niagara Marketplace will "establish and strengthen" the relationship between Brock and local farmers, Johnson said.

"We're excited about creating this wonderful culinary facility...," he said. "We really recognize (Brock's) leadership in the community and their ability to tap into the Niagara community, its farmers and local food."

Construction of the marketplace, which will be paid for by food service revenue, is set to start this month and be completed by January.

It will turn the nondescript room at the bottom of the Schmon Tower and a neighbouring outdoor courtyard into a 500-seat dining and social spot.

The space will also eventually serve as the backdrop for a year-round farmers' market.

With the emphasis on local, Sodexo and Brock are also working on a farm-to-table chef certification program with local food advocate Lynn Ogryzlo.

Chefs will be given a crash course in local agriculture, learning about the local food supply to know what's in season when and plan menus accordingly.

The certification program is believed to be the first of its kind in Canada and will serve as a template for other Sodexo facilities.

Plans for the Niagara Marketplace have been two years in the making, said Tom Arkell, Brock's director of community and ancillary services.

Many of Brock's food retailers already try to offer students local choices instead of the usual cafeteria grub. But the university needs more food options-- and space to offer them -- on its growing campus.

"For us, this just makes sense. It's what people are looking for right now in terms of healthy choice. It's something we should be doing and something we want to do," Arkell said.

Finding enough local food to feed Brock hasn't been easy, though, Arkell said. About 1.5 million meals are served on campus each year.

But he said plans are afoot between now and the marketplace's grand opening to work with local farmers and orchestrate a reliable food supply.
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