Sunday, July 18, 2010

Locavore: From Farmers' Fields to Rooftop Gardens, How Canadians are Changing the Way We Eat

By Bryan Lavery

I am an ardent reader of Sarah Elton, food columnist for CBC Radio’s Here & Now, who writes regularly for the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s and the Atlantic’s Food Channel, and is also an informative blogger and tweeter. Her new book, Locavore: From Farmers’ Fields to Rooftop Gardens, How Canadians are Changing the Way We Eat, was officially launched at the Green Barns Market in Toronto at the end of March.

The New Oxford American Dictionary selected locavore, a person who seeks out locally produced food, as its word of the year in 2007. Since the term locavore entered the culinary lexicon, it seems to be on the tip of every culinary-minded person’s tongue. Originally, the term was coined in San Francisco by Jessica Prentice, for the 2005 World Environment Day, to describe consumers who choose locally produced foods over other high-carbon-footprint options.

As the emphasis on local food, sustainability and terroir continues to gain momentum across Canada, Elton’s book champions the movement away from global food production. Elton writes with a steady focus on Canadian farmers, producers, cheese makers, chefs, restaurateurs, farmers’ markets, and the regular “Janes and Joes” who are creating sustainable alternatives to agribusiness and the current global food system.

With the premise that food is the foundation of our culture, Elton allows the readers a behind-the-scenes journey into the local-food movement and an overview of Canadian terroir and the collective culinary sensibility of a nation. Elton travels the back roads from the Maritimes to Vancouver Island, making her the quintessential culinary agritourist, and allowing us a close-up analysis of a burgeoning new local-food order. Meticulous journalist, part culinary zeitgeist, and urban farmer, Elton resides in downtown Toronto with her husband and two daughters.

According to Elton, “Our farmers’ markets are not only hopping, we have more than 500 across Canada.” We also spend about $1 billion at them each year. Although the number of farmers has been on the decline for several decades, a more noble-minded younger generation is moving away from urban areas to the countryside to get back to the earth with sustainable and organic farming practises.

Imagine my surprise when I read that La Sauvagine, a soft cheese that won a raft of awards in 2008, and which I have touted in these pages, turns out not to be a handcrafted farmstead cheese and the very essence of Quebec’s terroir. Instead, Elton reveals that it is actually a mass-produced cheese made with cheap stand-in ingredients instead of fresh milk. The “artisan” featured on the packaging, Alexis du Pont, is nothing more than a counterfeit farmer. Elton also imparts that the unregulated term “artisan” is becoming increasingly trite and meaningless. Major corporations eagerly smack this warm and fuzzy marketing adjective on an increasingly long list of industrial products to deceive unsuspecting consumers.

Locally, Jo Sleger is a well-known farmer in Middlesex County, whose company supplies about 55,000 boxes of produce a year to upscale restaurants and grocers, mainly in Southern Ontario. Sleger specializes in organic greens, which he cultivates year-round in greenhouses, using soil plugs that are nourished by a hydroponic system. Sleger has been growing lettuce in his greenhouse since 1987, when he was only twenty-one. Elton takes her readers on a brief tour of Jo and Pauline Sleger’s organic operation. Elton poses the question, “So are greenhouses the missing piece in this puzzle? Are they the answer to getting us from October to May? Could greenhouses be a way to entice everybody — and I mean everybody, not just those committed to reducing their food miles at all cost — to buy local?” Interestingly, Locavore also tells us that nearby Essex County has the largest number of greenhouses in North America, with 87% dedicated to vegetable production.

In June, I had the opportunity to speak with Elton face-to-face at London’s Central Library. In person, Elton comes across as being neither an elitist nor a purist — her approach is even-handed and pragmatic. But she also tells her audience that she has had to rigorously defend her views and her opinions on locavorism since her book tour began. Speaking to an audience of about 100 people, many farmers and members of our local food community concerned about the global food chain, Elton revealed that an innocuous-looking cookie with a mile-long list of ingredients was the catalyst that instigated a profound change in her relationship to food. This is the same engaging story, told at the beginning of Locavore, that lead Elton on her local-food journey across Canada.

One of the many lively discussions at the Central Library centred on the decline of small rural abattoirs. Historically, there were hundreds of small abattoirs in Ontario, but due to stringent government food and safety regulations, these small abattoirs, which service the local and sustainable meat market, are being forced out of business. The abattoir operators are unable to keep up with the red tape and paper work, nor can they afford the upgrades and renovations the government now requires of their facilities. The problem is that if they go out of business, there won’t be sanctioned facilities for local farmers to have their meats slaughtered. This means that the consumer would be forced to buy exclusively from the factory farmers. The National Farmers’ Union has organized a campaign to save the abattoirs; and local farmer and Executive Secretary for the N.F.U. in Ontario, Karen Eatwell passed out postcards to the audience with a letter of protest.

Fortunately, the trend to buying and eating local is showing no signs of declining. Instead, the fruits of our local terroir are quickly becoming a patriotic trademark of Canada’s best tables. Elton offers a good case for the premise that a strong greenhouse industry might be the answer to building a sustainable food shed in Ontario. So, if you read one book this summer, do yourself a favour and read the immensely enlightening Locavore.

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