Foodshed: Alberta’s Edible Alphabet – Interview with dee Hobsbawn-Smith

1. What does it mean to eat local? Why is this important?

I have a ‘concentric rings’ view of eating local as opposed to a set radius of distance. It ties in with the meaning of the word ‘foodshed’: a foodshed is a given geographic region’ s food, from gate to plate. So my concentric rings theory goes like this: Think of ripples spreading outward. If you can, grow a little garden. If it’s grown sustainably in your province, buy it in your province, especially meat. Then work outwards– B.C. for stone fruit and wine; eastern Canada for maple syrup; then North America for citrus and olives. The final ring is global, for those irresistible specialties-chocolate, coffee, tea, vanilla, dried figs and dates that simply don’t grow in Canada and that I don’t want to abandon. That kind of deprivation can lead to resentment! But things like fresh mangoes and pineapples are really best eaten in their own foodshed. And as for the year-round “global food whatever you want whenever you want it culture, food out of season,” well, it’s best to wait and eat it in my own back yard. Local food really does taste better.

So I don’t say we should ONLY eat local foods, just that we buy as much as we can from local producers, especially our protein sources which sit so high on the food chain and require so much water and resources to produce and to ship.

In real life, we spend our money on what we value.

Why eating local matters has many answers. Here are a few.

Local food is seasonal food. Food follows the rhythm of nature, a beat we find hard to hear in cities. And local food is more likely to be picked ripe, so it contains more nutrients. This really matters: fresh produce loses nutrients quickly. Locally grown food doesn’t travel as far as most conventionally raised food, and local growers are more likely to select heirloom species of plants and seeds, with more flavour than varieties that are bred for the transporter’s or wholesaler’s convenience. So genetic diversity is encouraged, an important consideration in an era when seed and chemical companies like Monsanto are working hard to control seeds.

For the number-crunchers, according to several studies, farms contribute more in taxes than they require in services, whereas suburban development costs more than it generates in taxes. On average, for every dollar in revenue raised by residential development, government must spend $1.17 on services, thus requiring higher taxes of all taxpayers. In contrast, for each dollar of revenue raised by farm, forest, or open space, government spends only 34 cents on services.

Local food reflects its place, or terroir. Minerals, soil, aspect, water quality, air-all are incorporated into plants and animals as an expression of their locale. We are, as Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin observed in the 1800s, the chief and complete sum of what we eat. If we consume food of our place, surely place is reflected in us.

And this too: buying food from someone we know gives consumers a chance to say thanks. Gratitude is a lovely seasoning.

2. How did you get interested in local food?

I am a farmer’s daughter, grand-daughter, great-grand-daughter., and an advocate, not an activist. I put my beliefs on the page and plate to enable people to make up their own minds; I think farmers and chefs are the real activists. At cooking school in France and in Ireland, I saw and ate and cooked foods from the back yard and the waters right off the coast. My mentor, Madeleine Kamman, took her students to farmers’ market in France during cooking school in 1985; during that trip I have recollections of her sniffing red currants at the market and casting a close eye on the locally made reblochon cheese on trips to local cheesemakers. Local was the norm for me. When I opened my restaurant Foodsmith in Calgary in 1992, I was lucky to have some local growers come to me. Then, after I sold the restaurant in 1994 and began writing and teaching, I also did farmgate tours. I had people asking me -in classes, during tours, by email to my Herald column days – where and who the good farmers were, and how to find what they grew.

3. What is the best way to access local food?

Buy raw ingredients, direct from the producer. Plant a garden, even if it’s just a few greens or a potful of carrots. Shop at a farmer’s market or local-foods store instead of the supermarket. Join a community garden, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or box program. Visit a u-pick farm.

4. Living in a colder climate, such as Alberta, how can consumers ensure that they eat local year round without compromising nutritional variety?

I’m no nutritionist, I’m a chef, but common sense suggests this: we live north of the 49th. That means we simply can’t get some local foods in winter. It’s best to eat in season, but also, to preserve the harvest-can, dry, freeze-to reduce winter dependence on imported foods.

5. In your book, you mention that the goal you had when writing the book was to “illuminate the faces and personal lives of farmers”. Why is it important to know your farmer?

There are many reasons knowing your farmer matters.
Studies show a multiplier effect– that every dollar spent on local food contributes $2.50 to the local economy, almost double what a dollar spent in a supermarket generates. What’s easier to understand is that selling direct puts eighty cents in a farmer’s pocket, as opposed to 10 cents when she sells to a wholesaler or distributor. Direct sales keep Albertan farmers on the farm. So buying local – especially if you buy direct from the farmer, at a farmers’ market or through a CSA-puts more money directly into the farmer’s hands.

Beyond that, I believe in community. It’s a big circle, and we are all part of the act of food. As Wendell Berry wrote, eating is an agricultural act. Eating and cooking and growing food are all communal acts: Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, calls consumers “co-producers”. In eating together, in sharing food, we support our community, and that is a rare and precious thing in an era of non-community in increasingly huge and impersonal cities.

The number of farms and farmers across Canada is on a steady decline, according to the latest Stats Can 2006-2011 figures (and figures for preceding years). The size of farms is increasing. The conclusions we can draw from those figures are not reassuring. If we do not support local farmers NOW who raise crops sustainably for the local market, we will not have as broad a choice or control over what we choose to eat in coming years.

I believe in the importance of choosing: I want to be able to ask my farmer how my food was grown, if it is being raised sustainably, if it is from non-GMO seeds, how animals are cared for, if they are pastured, what their diet is, if they are subjected to antibiotics, all those questions of provenance. Local food has visible provenance, and restores food to its ancient role as “food”, not “commodity.” Local growers can tell you details on what field and which cow. They can explain what animal husbandry practices they abide by, and exactly how and where our food is raised. As far as GMOs go, a 2006 survey by Decima showed that most Canadians mistrust genetically modified food as risky to consume, and mistrust the motives of corporations with a GMO agenda.

6. Given the laborious nature of running a farm, and the fact that running a viable farming business can prove difficult, how do we get young people to get interested in small-scale farming?

Good question.
A societal re-think about the importance of farmers to us, that’s all. Nothing too big. Well, really, a huge thing. Better pay for farmers-that may mean higher food prices. Offer more respect to farmers: it’s a career, not a cop-out. Provide networking and educational opportunities, including mentors and job-shadowing. Find ways to improve farm safety. Make our food production system safer and more transparent. Open and support small local abbatoirs and meat processing plants that kill fewer animals per day in more humane, safer, more traceable conditions.

Find ways to make access to farm land easier and less costly: could be leasing, or farmland conservancies that help match retiring farmers without inheritors to wanna-grow youth with no land.

7. Any words of wisdom to young farmers starting out?

Find a mentor who is successful; older farmers know lots! Specialize: find a niche and start small. Don’t automatically go into large-scale anything, especially if it means a huge debt load. Try to avoid the 2nd job syndrome: a farm has to be financially sustainable for it to remain viable in the long term. Charge what your time and work is worth. Investigate non-traditional alternatives like Slow Money and CSAs, where customers/clients are more involved financially. Network: join like-minded organizations like Slow Food to feel connected and share information: you are not alone.
Learn to market your food and yourself effectively, and become a person who is comfortable interacting with people. Learn how to tell your story in an authentic and engaging way. Everyone loves a good story, especially about their food. And please don’t call it a product. What you grow or make is food. It’s someone’s supper, not a commodity.



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