Tuesday, December 29, 2009

One dollar to make it all peachy

I don't have a crystal ball (I'm all for kitsch but even I think they're tacky) but I do have a prediction for 2010.

This will be the year that really tests how committed we are to eating local and how sincere grocery store chains are about wanting to have local food to offer us.

With minimum wage set to rise to $10.25 in March, Niagara's tender fruit industry is at an interesting crossroads. It has managed to survive the loss of a sour cherry processor, the last remaining fruit cannery in Canada and, so far, the well-timed invasions of foreign produce on grocery store shelves.

But the latest hike to the hourly wage — something no one denies is needed — could be what drastically changes the industry as we've come to know it. While I don't have a crystal ball, I did have a copy of a George Morris Centre report come across my desk predicting a rotten outcome for the edible horticulture industry — fruits and veggies — next year.

The report's author, Al Mussell, calculated the pay raise to the labourers Niagara's tender fruit growers rely on in their orchards could cut farmers' profits in half. It's not that they're making much of a profit to begin with. Still, the pay increase will cost them $73 million.

In a story in The Standard earlier this month, Mussell painted a grim picture for an industry that defined agriculture in Niagara long before wineries started dotting our landscape.

"If nothing is done, it will surely shrink (the industry)," said Al Mussell, report author and researcher with Guelph's George Morris Centre. "Will it kill it? If the industry decreases in size by 40, 60, 70%, has that killed it? Some people would say yes.

"What exactly would go on in the rural areas surrounding St. Catharines if it didn't have tender fruit and grapes and wine? This is serious stuff."

The problem is further exacerbated for growers when those paltry profits start to take their toll on stabilization payments, which are calculated based on growers' earnings.

But perhaps the most interesting part of Mussell's report was the statement that what's happening in the edible horticulture industry is an example of provincial policies being at odds with each other. On the one hand, we have the greenbelt, a provincially mandated agricultural preserve that some fear is becoming a farming museum. On the other, we have policies that seem to contradict what the greenbelt was created to do — keep farmers farming.

Provincial agriculture minister Leona Dombrowsky said she was lobbying hard for a new business risk management program — something industry reps have also been asking for. She also rhymed off other programs, including a self-directed risk management program and cash help in 2007, to try to prove that the government does support Ontario's edible horticulture industry.

Problem is, some of that assistance and those programs Dombrowsky was touting are either now defunct or were intended to help growers with problems they were facing at the moment, not to poise them to deal with the pending wage hike.

So what to do?

While Leona keeps lobbying, Brenda Lammens, chairwoman of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers, does the same. She's visiting local municipalities to drum up support for growers. And she's getting some help from a sage guy on the local ag scene: Len Troup, chairman of the Tender Fruit Producers Marketing Board.

Len is one of my favourite people. I always get an education when I'm in his presence. Though he's also in favour of a business risk management program, which is similar to crop insurance, Troup recently offered this innovative suggestion: have consumers pay only one dollar more on a basket of peaches (or pears, plums and nectarines) in the grocery store. A small cup of that all-Canadian elixir, coffee at Tim Hortons, costs more than that.

With consumers chipping in an extra buck, raising the price from the usual door-crashing, below-cost $2.99 that's commonplace in the summer to $3.99 on a basket of peaches, the industry could sustain itself without government aid, Troup said.

Dombrowsky has often said in interviews that farmers want to earn their money from the marketplace, but will they be able to do it? Or will consumers balk at the dollar and opt for the cheap imports stocked next to local food in the grocery store, without really understanding the expense of their actions? And that's only if grocery stores agree to finally pay farmers a fair price, and therefore, charge shoppers a fair price. To me, that seems like the bigger hurdle. They are, after all, competing for consumers and price is usually the best artillery in that battle.

If they don't, though, they'll be losing out on a major marketing ploy — local food, particularly if Mussell's prediction comes true. Remember the warm and fuzzy commercials by Loblaw Companies during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in which chairman Galen Weston was filmed walking through fields and orchards throughout Canada, meeting with farmers?

Those were good commercials and Weston's appeal is his seeming authenticity. In last week's Ontario Farmer, Weston told delegates at an adaptation council meeting that Loblaw's sheer size can drive change in food, including "the production system and stimulate more responsible and consumer-oriented outcomes."

Here's his chance to prove it.

(Sobeys can jump in with $3.99 peaches anytime, too).

In other 2010 predictions:
My indoor Swiss chard doesn't last the winter. Doesn't last January, more like it. Things aren't looking good for my favourite leafy green, which hasn't grown much since coming inside. I got the impression after talking to Linda that it was turning to seed. Now I'm certain it was just plotting its death.

Friday, December 18, 2009

‘You can’t eat energy’: Fighting a plan to build a peaker plant in the Holland Marsh

Written by Avia Eek, Holland Marsh farmer

Consider this: 56% of Canada’s prime agricultural farmland is in Ontario. The Holland Marsh is one of three micro-climates in the province; the other two being in the Niagara Region. Organic-based soil pockets like that of the Holland Marsh do not occur everywhere, and should be treasured and protected. The population is increasing and we will require more food production, not less.

Yet a government plan to build a gas-fired power plant in the Holland Marsh threatens all of that.

My name is Avia Eek. My husband, Bill, and I farm in the Holland Marsh. My husband, and many of the farmers in the Holland Marsh are descendants of the first pioneers who broke this land in 1934. Although, it should be noted the first industry here was the harvesting of the marsh grass for mattresses. This business took place from 1880 to approx. 1915, when it peaked.

The soil in the Holland Marsh is organic based, the result of thousands of years of vegetation decay. The Holland Marsh contains huge pockets of peat/muck soils — a tremendous medium for growing the more than 40 crops that are produced here. The soil is valuable because it holds moisture and nutrients so the plants can grow. This type of soil does not occur everywhere. In fact, a recent economic impact study shows the Holland Marsh, through the business of farming and related activities, contributes more than $500 million to the province of Ontario annually!

The farmers of the Holland Marsh are community-minded people, and are ready, able and willing to help those in need whenever the need arises. We regularly provide fresh vegetables, together with our time, to our local food banks. We give our time and resources to family crisis shelters, coach sports’ teams, and simply help one another when given the opportunity.

Last year, we found out that a property in the province’s “Salad Bowl”, diagonal to an elementary school, metres from a waterway farmers use for irrigation, which feeds into Lake Simcoe and is also located in a flood plain, was to become the home of a 393 Megawatt, simple cycle, natural gas-fired peaker plant. The name “peaker” refers to the fact that this facility will provide power at “peak” times i.e. summer, when it’s hot, and winter, when it’s cold.

This land is also protected countryside and in the greenbelt, a provincially mandated agricultural preserve. There are 17 pieces of legislation intended to protect the Holland Marsh. Yet, this facility is designed to run at just 36% efficiency. The emissions from this plant will be the equivalent of three tonnes of greenhouse gas every hour it is running, complete with 18 kilometres of 16-inch, high-pressure, industrial gas pipeline.

This type of facility is a “conflicted use” for this highly productive, sensitive growing area, which has the designation of “Specialty Crop Area”.

It’s my understanding information meetings were held in September or October last year — a very busy time for farmers here, so I’m unsure how many farmers actually even knew the meetings were taking place. I do know that there were five or six proposed sites for this peaker plant. I also know that residents in those particular areas said “NO” to having the facility in their communities.

One of the proposed sites was beside a conservation area in the Bradford area. I understand about 300 people showed up to that meeting, said no, and that was that. Conservation areas are very important and should be protected, but I would think a highly productive, sensitive food growing area would at least be given the same consideration.

A Town Hall meeting was held in February this year, after the site was chosen during harvest 2008. The meeting was held in King City with then Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, George Smitherman, addressing more than 500 farmers and residents. He opened the meeting with an announcement that “NIMBY’s would not be tolerated…. People wanted to flick a switch and know they had electricity….. This peaker plant was going to be built on the chosen site!” So began our fight to continue to be able to grow safe, healthy, local food for the people of Ontario! To date all of our requests for re-consideration have fallen on deaf ears!

I won’t get into all the scientific data regarding the emissions — nitrogen oxide, greenhouse gasses, PM2.5 — that this facility will release from its smoke stacks, or how it will increase respiratory problems for people, since I am not qualified in these areas. But the research is available.

What I do know is that the Holland Marsh is located within a bowl, hence the name “Salad Bowl of Ontario.” While this peaker plant facility is not technically within the Holland Marsh, it is meters from it, and within our bowl. That means emissions have a better chance of being trapped here — that’s just common sense!

The fact that this facility will be running in peak times, when it’s hot and extra power is required, also coincides with the crucial growing period for our crops. If this peaker plant facility is built in this area, it will cause additional challenges, such as air pollution, which will affect crop yields, and undue hardship to our farmers, who are already struggling to compete in a global market.

This website will show you the damage that will occur as a result of the added air pollution http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/01-015.htm .

We also have Highway 400 running through the Marsh and scheduled for expansion. This will only add more air pollution to this sensitive area.

According to the proponent, the emissions from the plant fall within the acceptable parameters for air quality. I question this. I believe the standard data used for testing air quality comes the air shed at Pearson International Airport. I wonder whether the findings would be different and not so “acceptable” if the air shed where this facility is slated to be built was to be tested independently! The soil data that was used was also based on mineral soils, not organic soils. Again, the proper testing should be done to see exactly how the emissions from this peaker plant will affect our organic soil!

Holland Marsh farmers adhere to strict rules and regulations to ensure food safety and a nurturing environment for our crops. Farmers here monitor changes in the soil twice a year. Tissue samples are taken. Water samples from the canal are also taken on a regular basis. Our crop yields are reported annually — we know what we produce, and we know our environment. Our farmers attend workshops and implement environmental farm plans on a regular basis. Many of us are Local Food Plus certified, meaning a third party comes to your farm to assesses your best farm practices.

Over the last several months, while we’ve been fighting the rash decision to build the facility in the Marsh, I keep hearing the same lame argument from those who are in favour of the project or who stand to gain from this short-sighted vision: “We need the energy for northern York Region development.”

I find this statement ironic because there isn’t going to be any development in the marsh. It’s a flood plain. The development this facility will supply energy to is north and east of the Marsh for several kilometers. The Marsh isn’t even on the same grid this plant will be supplying peak energy to!

Yes we do need energy, but we also need adequate food production — you can’t eat energy! This area is designated for food production and should remain protected for food production!

The decision to build a peaker plant in the here, on a flood plain no less, is just irresponsible.

I believe Premier Dalton McGinty, and current Energy Minister Gerry Phillips have an obligation to the people of Ontario to rescind the directive to build this industrial facility in the Holland Marsh. I extend an invitation to them to meet with us and discuss this project before it’s too late. The proponent has already made reference to the fact they will be proceeding to the OMB with this matter.

There is a petition at www.gpo.ca that you can sign, which will be forwarded to the environment minister.

Photo credits: Top — Children of the Greenbelt Map — megawhat.ca

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

For the Love of Green Goliath

I am always really excited this time of year when the seed catalogues roll in and I can discover some items that perhaps I know little about or have never grown before (although as I grow more and more I am surprised less and less).

There are also some staples that I don't always save enough seed for, so I depend on certain seed companies' willingness to continue to offer my tried and true favourites.

So it was with great dismay that I opened my hot-off-the-press William Dam catalogue today and saw— horror of horrors — that they don't offer Green Goliath Broccoli anymore! To many people I'm sure this doesn't sound like a big deal. It is only broccoli. But to me it is the broccoli.

I have tried many, many open-pollinated and hybrid broccolis over the years and for me, on my soil, this is the standout. Imagine if you couldn't buy your favourite wine anymore, or your favourite snack food. To me, it is that bad.

So, onto Google I go. Seeds of Diversity lists other companies that (used to) carry it, but from what I can tell, all Canadian seed companies, and a good number of American ones have dropped it. I ended up ordering a whole whack of it from Oregon of all places, so if anyone is interested in trying it I will have a bit of extra seed for sale.

Thank goodness, though, it is open-pollinated. Now I know I have to save seed from it for next year because it seems clear to me that one day in the not too distant future, it may not even be available in Oregon and I will need to be self-reliant in producing and saving this seed if I want to have it.

There really are so few good open-pollinated broccolis that losing this would, in my humble opinion, be tragic.

New broccoli hybrids are popping up everywhere, but if I choose to love one of them, then I am reliant on seed companies. I can't save and reproduce hybrid seed and, of course if I found a hybrid I loved nearly as much as Green Goliath and the seed company dropped it, back to more trials.

So many wonderful varieties of vegetables have been lost over the years — most varieties, in fact. This loss of diversity is tragic and an reliance on huge multi-national chemical and seed conglomerates is scary in its own right.

I choose to offer support to and sell seeds for Seed Savers Exchange, based in Iowa, because as an organization and a movement, they have done more to bring vegetable varieties back from the brink of extinction than any other organization worldwide. Many small seed companies would have limited offerings if Seed Savers had not done all their good work first.

Some people bristle at the fact that this organization is not Canadian and I sell their seed. But good has no borders. Proceeds from the sales of this seed goes back into this non-profit organization so they can continue with their mission to stop this loss of vegetable diversity and circulate the seed as widely as possible.

I have been to Seed Savers Heritage Farm in Iowa several times and am always so taken with the level of commitment and expertise of this organization. I am so pleased to be a member and to list seeds in the exchange, as well as offer some fabulous seed for sale. I grow all varieties I offer and have for years. Try some yourself. You only have to buy it once — then it is yours to save and safeguard forever!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Christmas Tree Guilt

I am a tree killer.

I bought my first real Christmas tree this year. It seems amazing that I've lived 32 years and never had one.

Back home in London, my parents always put up a green pipe-cleaner-style fake tree.

For years, trimming the tree meant pulling out the "traditional" cardboard box stuffed with limbs, and sticking in the artificial branches one by one. How romantic.

This year, my husband and I decided enough with the plastic and in with a sweet pine-smelling real tree.

From the start, I had reservations about the "cruelty" of cutting down a tree. Yes, Christmas trees are grown as a crop and are renewable, but is chopping one down the best thing for the environment?

If I use my crappy fake tree for a few years more, am I a better environmental steward?

Likely not, given most artificial trees contain polyvinyl chloride (or PVC, otherwise known as vinyl), one of the most environmentally offensive forms of non-renewable, petroleum-derived plastic.

A few of our friends suggested foregoing the shopping mall tree lot and heading out into the woods to cut down our own blue spruce, a practice our pal, Matt, calls "tree hunting."

Luckily, Niagara has a few tree farms. We opted for Smiths' Trees, one of the region's oldest growers that has been growing them since 1962.

Armed with a hand saw, my husband Tim and I, and our friends searched Smith's wooded lot, looking for the perfect tree. The landscape became a blur of branches, green needles and wooden trunks, oh my!
Fat ones, tall ones, limps ones, sparse ones. Then we saw it: A full blue spruce with a comely shape.

Tim went to work, sticking the teeth of the saw into the flesh of the tree. I winced as the tree collapsed onto the ground, revealing a tiny birds nest with crushed eggs beneath. Instant tree guilt.

It didn't take long for the spiky, porcupine-like creature to fight back. Its needles dug into our skin as we crammed it into the backseat of our car and hauled it into the house.

Wearing work gloves and resolve, we struggled to fit it into the tree stand, and give the creature its first living-giving glug of water.

With apprehension, we began putting on white lights and gold decorations — with each one our hand recoiling in case the tree decided to strike.

Then it was over. We sat on the couch nursing our needle wounds and eggnog — dreaming of artificial trees.

Then, I looked up at Mr. Tree, sprinkled with lights. It was beautiful. It was worth it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

National Food Policy? Yes, please, and hurry

Here's a shocker: Canada is one of the last nations on the planet to be without a national food policy.

Maybe it's not a shock to anyone working the land and trying to make a living off it. But it was to me and was case in point yet again that we as Canucks take our food supply for granted.

On Thursday, I turned the Ontario Federation of Agriculture's piece posted here into a story for The Standard.

If what was written in the words of the OFA wasn't enough to inspire action and interest in this issue, President Bette Jean Crews and her local counterpart here in Niagara North, Albert Witteveen, had enough to say that could.

OFA president Bette Jean Crews said the idea of a national food policy has been talked about for years but there's been little motivation to do much more than that.

"We've never had a famine. We've never had a war on our soil. Our grocery stores are always full," Crews said. "Too many people are too far removed from farming."

Without a plan for the future of our agriculture industry, Crews and Witteveen said Canadians will be left vulnerable when wars, famine, weather disasters and disease outbreaks happen in countries we would rely on to feed us.

"We may be standing second, third, fourth in line," Witteveen said. "This is being proactive, saying we have to protect our farmers."

Although Crews said the focus right now in the OFA's push to get a policy in place is to start with feedback from farmers, I hope there's a chance for consumers to get involved. And I hope there are consumers who care enough to get involved.

Living in greenbelted Niagara and seeing the local food processing industry erode, with farming as we've known it in the fruit belt taking a subsequent hit, it's time to stand up for our food supply and the people who grow it. Otherwise, we're simply biting the hand that feeds us.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

OFA pursues national food strategy

Here's the latest from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

The OFA isn't pulling any punches with this piece, the latest in its monthly pieces about farming and food. It's also asking some important questions.

I look forward to when OFA brass descend upon Niagara to talk about these issues. I look even more forward to government response. Any thoughts on what that might be?

I'm taking bets now that it will be the usual rhyming of programs past and defunct with nothing new to move the industry and its various struggling sectors forward.

Time to Turn a ‘Laissez-faire’ Attitude about Farming into a ‘Can Do’ Strategy

The French phrase, ‘laissez-faire’ means allow to do.  More broadly, the term is often used to indicate a refusal to interfere in other people’s affairs and instead, simply let them do as they wish. In some situations, a hands-off approach makes sense. In other cases, it’s a philosophy that may not work. Here’s a case in point.

Canadian farm leaders and farm business owners have become increasingly frustrated by the lack of governmental coordination and functional agricultural policies to adequately serve the needs of Canadian consumers.

According to Bette Jean Crews, President of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, “There is a perception that both levels of government are taking a laissez-faire attitude in the belief that farming and food production will always exist in Ontario and across Canada and therefore, the agricultural sector doesn’t require much attention.”

Many consumers have little knowledge or awareness of food production and food issues which could be feeding into the political malaise.  Why? Consumers might simply not see any potential problems.  Grocery store shelves are brimming with abundant food supplies. At the same time, consumers’ disposable income is generally sufficient to purchase the low-cost food that is arriving daily from around the world.

This lack of awareness and attention to where food comes from could be supporting agricultural policies that may not necessarily be serving the best interests of the farming industry and in the long run, Canadian consumers.

“Unfortunately, Canada has no comprehensive strategy for agriculture and food production now nor into the future,” says Crews. “Because of this, many farm families are floundering and, as individual business operators, they’re trying to make decisions in a vacuum based exclusively on short-term priorities and the current political winds. From a general business perspective, few corporations could operate successfully in this kind of environment.

“What’s more, in an age of global economic instability and climate change, it is even more important that a country like Canada and the province of Ontario be more motivated to develop policies that will help to ensure its citizens have a sustainable food source, tomorrow and beyond,” adds Crews.

There are solutions such as creating a comprehensive, progressive plan developed by farm organizations, in collaboration with government, consumers, food processors and distributors.

“The Ontario Federation of Agriculture recognizes that agriculture is at a crossroad,” says Crews. “As a result, it’s critical that we establish forward-looking strategies for food production to ensure that Ontario farms can continue to feed Ontarians and ignite the Ontario economy.”

To help launch this process, the OFA will be holding regional debates across the province to tackle some tough issues including:

What should a National Food Strategy look like?

How can farmers balance the need to produce food, fibre and fuel?

What shape will the farm and farm business of the future take?

“Only by going through this process will Ontario farm families be assured that there will be opportunities for young people to farm and for Ontarians to continue to enjoy healthy, safe and nutritious local food” Crews says.
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