Archive for October, 2009

Creating a Local Food Supply

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

Despite growing consumer awareness and increased support for local foods, there are many obstacles that must be overcome if we are to create a  vibrant and sustainable local agricultural economy.  Canadians import 53% of their vegetables and some 90% of their fruit.  Food production is steadily shrinking as prime agricultural land is developed and paved over.  In the past 15 years, the Canadian population has grown by some 15% while food imports have increased by 160%.  Ontario alone imports four billions dollars more in food than it exports.

Many of the problems lie with both government regulations and with the larger food suppliers.  What are the chances of finding a local strawberry in a major supermarket in June?  As often as not, they are still coming from the U.S.  In the U.K. this year, hundreds of tons of plums were left to rot on trees because farmers could not find a market for their fruit.  Despite a bumper crop of local plums, most supermarkets allocate only about 20% of their shelf space to British plums, the rest goes to foreign imports.  Only two of the larger British chains, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose, responded to the problem by making space for British plums.  Others cited an unpredictable British supply as reasoning for their reliance on imported plums.

Poorly thought out government regulations are also a big barrier in the fight to increase local food production. In Quebec, small scale poultry and egg producers have been banned from selling any products that have been raised out of doors.  This is reportedly due to worries about avian flu, despite the fact that the disease occurs primarily in industrial farms.  In British Columbia, new regulations require that all meat sold directly to the public must be slaughtered in a provincially or federally inspected abbatoire.  This policy affects small farmers who have traditionally slaughtered on their own farms and though it may be appropriate for large scale operations it is questionable wether it is necessary for small producers.  In Ontario, government regulations have resulted in the closing of hundreds of small local abbatoires that traditionally served small farmers.  Instead we have only a handful of federally inspected abbatoires that create both problems of distance and scale of supply for the farmer that produces one or two dozen pigs a year for market.  Most Ontario supermarkets will only sell meat from federally inspected abbatoires, resulting in conditions where it is almost impossible to buy local meat.

So what kind of food systems and policies are needed in order to support small and mid-sized farms?  Must we completely rethink our ways of selling and buying food.  Not all of us can grow our own food or purchase directly from local farmers.  There are many innovative ideas that can increase the availability of local foods.  Farmers cooperatives, such as the Quinte Organic Farmers Cooperative are examples of farmers working together to pool their production and marketing efforts.  Mobile delivery services are another way in which producers can effectively reach consumers through a better system of distribution.  In the U.K., Riverford Organics delivers fruits and vegetables directly to over 100,000 customers, with 80% of their produce coming from small to mid sized farms.   Another very positive sign comes from the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International which recently  resisted pressure from large buyers such as Starbucks and decided that certified ‘fair trade’ coffee would only come from small scale operations.  All of these are very positive initiatives, however, one cannot ignore the need for supportive government policy if our food systems are going to change significantly.

Extending the Fall Garden

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

As the weather begins to get colder, there are many ways in which one can protect the fall garden and extend the harvest into December and sometimes even January.

The floating row cover is usually my first line of defence against early and light frosts.  The row cover is an extrembely lightweight blanket made of spun polypropylene, a bit like a light fabric interfacing.  It comes in different widths and is placed directly over the garden.  It provides four degrees of frost protection while allowing the rain through and 80% of the sunlight.  In the spring it works to protect small seedlings  from frost and to speed growth.  In the fall it provides about 4 degrees of frost protection.  I buy my row cover from Stokes Seeds in St. Catherines, Ontario.  There are many different weights and widths available, their product is light enough that you do not need to raise it off the plants with hoops and comes in a 5′ width which works perfectly for my 4′ wide beds.

If you are using the row cover to protect low lying plants such as lettuce, you can probably anchor the cover with a few strategically placed rocks.  If you are covering larger plants such as tomatoes or peppers you pretty well have to drape it over the plants and hope that the night is not too windy.  Luckily frosty nights usually are relatively still.

Often there are light frosts in September and October.  A light frost means that the temperature goes slightly below zero, maybe 2 or 3 degrees.  Vegetables such as lettuce, salad greens, beets, carrots, cabbage, and kale will easily survive a light frost, without any protection.  It is the more tender vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and basil that need protection – often covering with the row cover can mean a month to 6 weeks longer of harvest. Once the nights get colder, below -4C, I find it is hard to protect these tender plants and I allow nature to take its course.

My next category of frost is the medium frost, this means that the night time temperature will drop to between -4C and -8C.  For these nights, I use the floating row cover to protect all of my salad vegetables, beets, swiss chard, cabbage, and kale.  Root crops such as carrots and parsnip will not be affected by this kind of frost, and in fact, their flavour sweetens considerably after several frosts.

As the weather gets colder, I try to save as much as I can in the garden by using a double layer of floating row cover.  Then I pull out some old sheets bought at second hand stores.  These are arranged as puffily as possible to trap air and insulate the plants.  It is important not to leave these covers on during the day as your vegetables will start to suffer.  Straw is another nice insulator and can be hilled around the base of kale plants to help them survive some very cold frost.  I also like to place a light layer of straw over spinach and swiss chard in the hopes that these plants will survive the winter and regrow in the spring.  Kale and Swiss chard are perhaps the two hardiest green vegetables in my garden, and I have often harvested them well into December and sometime again in January if there is a thaw.

note – I do not write about cold frames, which can be used to successfully protect lettuce, endive, beets, etc. into December, mainly because I have seen too many cold frames left out after the first snow and in the spring there is a mess of broken glass on the garden.  Also, if at all possible, do not leave the floating row cover out all winter – it usually disintegrates and is no longer usable.  Row cover that is stored inside can last 5 or 6 years.