(This column appeared in today's Star Phoenix.)
Would you buy more Saskatchewan fruits and vegetables if they were available? More than 90 percent of the fresh produce sold in the province comes from elsewhere. The only vegetable grown locally in sufficient quantities is the potato. Would it be possible to bring that split closer to 50-50?
That was the question posed at a recent forum called Hort 2020, which was organized by Karen Tanino, associate professor of horticulture at the University of Saskatchewan.
She wanted to know: Is a goal of 50 percent local produce desirable and realistic? What are the barriers that stand in the way? What are the models of success elsewhere that we can learn from?
The first speaker at the forum was Mike Furi, a manager with The Grocery People, a food wholesale distribution company owned by Federated Co-op. He was not too optimistic. He pointed out that the top-selling fruits and vegetables (things like oranges, bananas and nectarines) don’t grow in Saskatchewan. There are no local alternatives and consumers are unlikely to give them up. While other popular items are grown here, such as hothouse cucumbers and tomatoes, the global market is so competitive that local producers find it hard to compete with the price.
Very few grocery stores accept small amounts of produce directly from the growers. They order from wholesalers, who like to buy in huge quantities from as few sources as possible. Add to that, the quality, labelling and storage standards required by the grocery chains are so strict and onerous that small producers simply can’t afford to meet them. The few independent grocery stores that can choose to buy “through the backdoor” represent just 5 percent of the market, according to Furi.
However, he pointed out some individual food items that, in his estimation, offer a great opportunity for local growers. These include broccoli, cauliflower and corn-on-the-cob (currently imported from Alberta and Manitoba); squash such as butternut, spaghetti and pumpkin; and delicate items such as fresh herbs and cantaloupe. The challenge for growers is to provide an ample supply, at the store’s schedule, for a competitive price while meeting all the food safety requirements.
“It is my mandate to buy local whenever possible and I’m prepared to discuss the opportunities,” he said. “I don’t think that will ever get to 50 percent.”
A more optimistic perspective was offered by Brent Warner, the agri-tourism specialist in British Columbia and executive director of Farmers’ Market Canada. He said consumer demand is compelling the grocery chains to rethink their resistance to local produce.
“The local food movement is bigger than I would have envisioned five years ago,” he said. “It will change things.” In the face of multiple industrial food recalls, consumers believe locally grown food is healthier, tastier and safer, and they’re willing to pay extra for it. They want to meet the farmers. This explains the growing popularity of farmers’ markets: in Calgary, the farmers’ market is now the largest food retailer in the city, according to Warner, and grocery chains are redesigning their produce sections to look more homey and rustic, like a farmers’ market.
One chain, Whole Foods, has set up farmers’ markets in grocery store parking lots. “Retailers might not be able to sell your products, and you can’t meet their volumes, but you can partner is other ways,” he said.
He’s also a great proponent of agri-tourism that brings city consumers into the countryside for an authentic encounter with the source of their food. In British Columbia, he said agri-tourism profits jumped 20 percent year over year. Elsewhere, Calgary has a goal of 30 percent fresh local food by 2020 and in Manitoba, the 50 percent mark for vegetables has been surpassed.
For a broader look at the proceedings, please see the power point presentations posted online.
So here’s the challenge: to serve 50 percent Saskatchewan vegetables in your home, at least now and then.
Red Cabbage with Apples
(Adapted from TimeLife Foods of the World: The Cooking of Germany. 1969)
Small red cabbage (about 2 lbs)
1/2 cup cider vinegar
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp bacon fat (or lard)
3 small tart apples, peeled and diced
1/2 cup diced onion
1 bay leaf
1 large piece of onion stuck with 3 cloves
4 cups boiling water
2 tbsp cranberry jelly
Slice the cabbage into thin shreds. Toss with the vinegar, sugar and salt. Melt the bacon fat in a large skillet. Cook the apples and chopped onion until the apples start to brown. Add the cabbage mixture, bay leaf and onion with cloves. Stir thoroughly. Add the boiling water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is tender, about 45 min. Add more liquid if needed. Before serving, remove the bay leaf and onion with cloves. Stir in the jelly until melted.