Bean There: The Locavore’s Dilemma

Inspiration for this column can come from the strangest places. This time, I was deep in the heart of my favorite blackberry patch, high canes arching above my head, hands and mouth stained as purple as my bucket. A flock of sparrows and finches were chirping and scolding me for invading what they clearly considered to be their private reserve. Some of the older berries had fermented in the recent rain which doubtless added to their bird belligerence. I discovered the patch in the first place because of all the boisterous avian activity around it.

In my convoluted mind, it reminded me of a recent CBC Maritime Noon broadcast, which was both the worst and funniest call-in show ever. The featured author had written a book about his favorite beaches in the Maritimes and everyone was invited to phone in with their own favorite swimming spots. Caller after caller rhapsodized what each insisted was the most beautiful, sweetest little bit of shoreline ever seen – they went swimming there every day. But when asked about the location of these gems, each became suddenly coy and forgetful of the actual location.

Yeah, right. I mean we Maritimers are friendly, but we’re not that frickin’ friendly. You think we want just anyone showing up at our special swimming holes? You want to know where this blackberry patch is? I don’t like anybody that much.

 

This dilemma is very much at the core of the current trend to eat local. As an unabashed social democrat (the Red Menace, that’s me), I do not think that good food should be the sole province of the well-to-do. Farmers’ Markets and other tools for direct and niche marketing are all fine and good, and since I earn my living through them, I cannot complain. Yet, they do have a tendency to attract a certain demographic, usually with sufficient income to indulge their tastes for fine food and good wine. A subset of these local food patrons take it a step further, cultivating a desire for unusual, so-small-scale-as to-be-actually-rare specialties.

Poster for 2016 International Slow Food Convention, Turin, Italy.

Poster for 2016 International Slow Food Convention, Turin, Italy.

When my daughter and I attended the International Slow Food Conference in Italy in 2006 as seed-saver delegates, we weren’t surprised by the huge emphasis on this specialized local aesthetic. The Slow Food movement has frequently been criticized for its elitist attitude. While much of the public discourse at the conference did concern issues of access, fairness and indigenous rights, the trade show and exhibitors catered unabashedly to the desire of attendees and other customers to take home some of that rare cheese from sheep exclusively pastured on the north side of a remote mountain, or a special bread handmade by three Romanian grandmothers.

In talking to other delegates from around the world – you learn more chatting in the lunch line-ups than in the workshops at these things – I found that, from Senegal to the high Andes and Southern California, the anxiety of these small producers was the same. How could they get their unique cheese/bread/sausage/herb/wine out to the larger world and actually start making a living? How could they leverage rarity into market advantage? These are reasonable considerations, especially when you’re trying to make a living from a farm.

Can a movement based on pillaging unique, small habitats and farms to satisfy a snobbish thirst for novelty while ignoring the ecological impacts of worldwide shipping be sustainable long term? I have already written about how quinoa, the latest super-food darling of developed countries, has become expensive and scarce in its countries of origin. The quest for export currency – an absolute necessity to improve education and other infrastructure in the Global South – puts enormous pressure on these countries to set aside long-term planning for in-house food security. Local labor forces often subsist on cheap, high-carb poverty diets while producing exotic food for a wasteful West. The much-promoted Golden Rice, genetically modified to contain Vitamin A, only underscores the loss of the original diverse, locally-produced diet. This whole phenomenon glosses over the social and ethical implications of catering to the wealthy while those who lost the birth lottery must settle for less healthy, less tasty and less sustainably-produced fare.

 

I struggle with this myself. At my market stall, ideally, I should be paid fairly and appropriately for what I produce. I am frequently told I don’t charge enough and this is true. I pay for premium inputs like Fair Trade sugar (seems like I should make sure those farmers in Paraguay are treated right as well). Growing many ingredients myself, I strive for high quality and if my prices are somewhat higher than a Home and School Bake Sale, they are still within reach. But in my mind, if I am only feeding professional-class tourists passing through, then in the long run, I am bankrupting the social capital I enjoy living in my small community. It is both an education and a dance. For a long time, my prices were low enough to encourage people used to those Home-and-School prices to try the food and taste for themselves what quality means. What it tastes like when you forgo margarine and packaged mixes for butter, home-grown ripe fruit, and freshly ground and bolted flour – simple food made with good, honest ingredients. As their appreciation grew, we both became more comfortable with higher prices. You just eat less, and enjoy it more.

Michelle Smith at Mabou Farmers' Market (Photo via Mabou Farmers' Market website) http://www.maboufarmersmarket.ca/

Michelle Smith at Mabou Farmers’ Market (Photo via Mabou Farmers’ Market website)

Another aspect, especially for young or new producers, is learning the delicate balance of accommodating the price to the cost of production. Toting up inputs and labor may well convince them that three potatoes should cost $4, but they should probably take a harder look at their production methods. At that price, small producers won’t contribute enough calories to the food system to make a convincing case for changing agriculture to a more sustainable model.

I call it the “chi-chi fou-fou” effect: a high-end, off-grid house – the kind that isn’t a hippy hovel, I mean – that only a fraction of the world’s population can afford will not adequately address issues of world energy consumption and climate change. Likewise, meaningful change is not going to occur in the food supply if our sustainably produced offerings are the preserve only of the elite, however enlightened and liberal they may be. As a dour local said about one such sustainable homestead, “It’s what God would do, if he had the money.” By the same token, if the vast majority must be fed through ecologically disastrous agriculture, it doesn’t matter how much gourmet artisanal cheese the rich people buy.

 

September in Nova Scotia has lately been promoted as “Eat 50% Local” month, and it’s not a bad slogan or campaign. It doesn’t pretend to address the deep issues of diversifying local production and food security and that’s all right. Buying specialty sausages from a local butcher raising happy pigs is delicious and laudable, but let’s not be under any illusion: eating mass-produced food — even organic — from far away the rest of the year makes it just another marketing tool. Still, it is a gateway for many people to consider their food choices in a deeper way, even if only superficially at first.

Even if we think about small, artisanal production, it will come down to diversity, the limits to production capacity, and basic math. Food needed equals population times required calories and nutrients. It is doubtful we will do away with large-scale production any time soon, but can we realistically make a dent in it? If we resist the commodification of regional specialties, should local production feed the locals first? What does that even look like?

I largely eat from my farm. Meat, eggs, vegetables and fruit  (milk and other dairy too, at one time). This allows me, as a not-very-high-income-earner, to eat good, healthy food. Many people would not be satisfied with the simplicity and lack of variety in my diet, though they might be surprised at the variety I enjoy due to my creativity in the field and kitchen. But I ain’t one of the self-styled farmer-monks and this isn’t a purity contest. Many older Cape Bretoners do not think back fondly to the winter monotony of potatoes, turnips and cabbage — it may have been local, but it was the mark of grim poverty. Having been there myself as a single mother of three children, I have direct experience with the desperate need to enliven our pantry by picking wild berries, fishing mackerel and foraging for the first early wild greens in the spring. Fiddleheads, for us, were a longed-for change from root vegetables in May, not a gourmet delicacy.

Today, I use unusual fruits like elderberries, black currants, and Juneberries in fancy pastries for my customers, who do not know the hard times that gave me my confidence and experience with such ingredients. Likewise, traditional Italian cuisine – hand-rolled ravioli, cured meats made with the often discarded, cheapest parts of the pig, osso bucco, oxtail soup – was at its core, the product of deprivation. The long labor for small return involved, mostly performed by women, was not valued or accounted for as long as the family bellies could be filled. Today, we have made a culinary cult out of what originated in hard necessity. In Cape Breton, marag, that traditional Scottish dish of onions, oatmeal and suet boiled in a cow stomach then sliced, fried and served with molasses, was simply a bald attempt to eat enough calories to enable people to go into the woods or out on the water in the cold and wet and work. (Full disclosure: I don’t care for it myself, a confession I don’t often make in public on this side of the Causeway.)

The rare cheese from sheep on the North Mountain likely originated from unused marginal land that an enterprising (or desperate) farmer turned into something they could eat to stave off starvation. That historic effort can and should be honored and cherished. The cheese tastes delicious, no doubt about that. So do the pastries I make from unusual, misshapen and oddball fruit. That North Mountain pasture is small — there will never be many sheep farmers able to earn a living off it without a job in town. If all that farmer and village do is figure out how to make enough money from cheese to buy the rest of their food from god-knows-where, the pasture will be agriculturally strip-mined and barren in no time. Neither can I feed the masses with wild berry pies – although I might keep them happy for a while. It can’t ever just be about the small picture — export dollars are needed, whether in Ecuador or Skye Glen, and no country or community will ever be totally self-sufficient food-wise. But, and this is a serious truth, diverse local production fosters community health both physically and culturally. Food is more than the sum of its nutritional parts. Rice with genetically engineered Vitamin A barely nourishes the body and does nothing for the soul.

 

Thanksgiving, as anyone who knows me will tell you, is my religious holiday. I usually hold a big potluck dinner for anyone without a family function to attend, and for quite a few who now make this their family function. I cook the obligatory big bird, locally raised, and the vegetables, fixings and all the rest come from my farm. I even have vegetarian and gluten-free options because it is a principal with me on this holiest of all my days to make sure everyone is fed. Everybody makes an effort to bring dishes that come from their own heart and hands — beets pickled with a grandmother’s recipe, salads garnished with some late raspberries. Gerard MacPhee makes molasses fudge every single year. Sometimes there are 35 or 40 people perched on chairs, stairs and boxes. Small children are passed from lap to lap, eating off whatever plate is nearest until they fall asleep and are tucked into bed or a corner. We eat at two, then go for a walk in the hills above the pasture, the children playing Poohsticks from the bridge over the river. We walk back and eat more, filling the last corners, and everyone goes home as the sun goes down.

Skye Glen (Source: Immo Kanada https://www.immo-kanada.de/de/immobilien-in-kanada-nova-scotia-grundst%C3%BCcke/Cape-Breton-9%2C7-Hektar-gro%C3%9Fes-Waldgrundst%C3%BCck-am-Skye-Glen-River)

Skye Glen (Source: Immo Kanada)

Last year, the Year of the Flood, the roads were so bad, only a handful of people could make it and those who did had leftovers from the 25-pound turkey forced on them to take home. This year, because of a family situation, I can’t do it. I will be away. I am trying not to think about missing this anchor to my farming year.

Yes, I know the changes needed in our food system are complicated. The solutions can’t be found by making exotic commodities of strange local specialties. But we could start, by once in a while (or even more often) eating food grown on land we walk on, prepared by hands we know, in the place we belong. Eat less, eat better. Buy simpler, cook more. Honor the work that feeds us all.

 

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Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.

 

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