Food Security – Shoulder Check

By April 12, 2020 Fresh Ideas

Food Security –

         We’ve recently written about the quality of the produce we can buy locally in February/March.  Truth be told, we all know that it’s ‘impossible’ to grow our vegetables in Nova Scotia year-round.  But is it?  There are some suppliers of locally-grown year-round produce in the Maritimes, and it’s a ‘growing business’.

         ‘Local by ATTA’ is a Hydroponic produce farmer in Dieppe, N.B. (http://www.atta.ca/), and they’re supplying several local restaurants with Hydroponic Lettuce year-round.  Phil Hatcher, (https://verylocalgreens.ca/) of Dartmouth is doing something similar, in two shipping containers.  It’s pretty cool:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hocG2gPO-PE.  Locally grown lettuce and edible flowers in downtown Dartmouth.

         Both of these companies are highly-sophisticated producers of hydroponic food.  As described by both farmers, Hydroponic vegetables are delicious and locally available in their respective urban centres.  The production of local, year-round greens eliminates a couple problems we’ve run into recently:  Quality and Predictability of an adequate supply, at a reasonable price are major issues for us.

         Remember when the rail lines were blockaded? This caused a supply issue.  Remember when Romaine Lettuce was recalled over and over again because of e-coli contamination?  That’s another supply-issue.  Waste, Carbon Footprint, and Ethical Production are also important factors that should not be overlooked.

Waste:  I have never written about it but the waste we pay-for in our vegetables (lettuce, for example), say 20%, means that in order to have four usable clam-shells of lettuce, we need to buy five!  The price that we pay for products isn’t the ‘price-tag value’.  It’s that we pay ‘the price-tag value’ for the item, knowing that we will likely throw away 20%!  So, the ‘price’ for usable produce can be upwards of 20% higher than price-tag because we have to buy more (20% more) in order to satisfy our quality requirements.  Lettuce, Beans, Carrots, Peas, Peppers, Onions, Parsley, Thyme, Rosemary, Cilantro, Tomato and Garlic are the main ‘losses’ that ‘need to be’ calculated into our budget.  

Carbon Footprint:  Let’s say there are no blockades or limitations on shipping, we still have to buy our produce items from places that are warm enough to grow them year-round.  In some cases there are indoor, heated greenhouses, but we know much of our food comes from climates where crops can rotate almost year-round.  Let’s pretend the items come from the southern USA, at best, in a factory-greenhouse.  They still need to be grown under controlled lighting conditions (like UV LED’s), with heat, air exchange, etc, and then cleaned and packaged, boxed-up, shipped to distribution centres and then ultimately to us.  By the time we get lettuce in March it has likely travelled north from Mexico, while we rush to get down to Mexico.  It’s not cheap to ship things like lettuce.  It can’t (shouldn’t be) crushed, and there’s only so much that can fit on a truck.  That’s why it costs $7.99 -$10.99 for greens in March.

Ethical Production:  Under the covers, with little mention of it until recently, the southern US economy is built on the backs of millions of migrant-workers that are paid so poorly, by our standards, that it’s a dirty little secret.  How else can the southern USA grow crops, harvest, and package them, ship them 3000 km, and still sell them at what we consider a reasonable price?  It’s not because they’ve embraced high-end technology.  Manual labour is still required to operate machinery, hand prune, and sometimes harvest vegetables and fruit.  If you’ve imagined there is some great technology at play to make everything more cost effective, you’re kidding yourself.  There is some of that, sure, but not as much as you may imagine.  Television is sure to show some farm operations where it’s high-productivity technology that is the advantage, but it’s propaganda.  We only have to look as far as our local fruit and vegetable operations to see our dependence on migrant workers.  I am not sure of the labour laws, but I’m sure we are following them.  Hopefully between the provision of travel, housing, and a minimum wage we are treating people better than in the southern USA.  I saw, first hand, the ‘informal employment programs’ for migrant workers when I worked in California’s wine country many years ago:  People being picked up on a street corner and working as ditch-diggers for $10 a DAY plus lunch.

Right now there is a police blockade between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick due to coronavirus.  We are essentially detached from the mainland.  Transport trucks are still allowed through, and the Port of Halifax is still operating, albeit under significant restrictions.  Greenhouses are about to get ‘geared-up’ to provide us with great locally-grown produce.  Does that seem like enough? 

For us it does not.  We’d like to have a little more control over our supply-chain.  Food security is a major concern.  It’s not just a matter of quality but for the above reasons, we hope the government can provide incentives to help people start small farms, preferably year-round.  In order for that to be effective, though, we need to make it a priority to purchase food at a reasonable price (cost of production + company growth + profit) from people who are willing to do the work to make it, locally. 

In the first two examples (Local by ATTA and Very Local Greens), the entrepreneurs took massive risks and hit a steep learning curve to start their business.  The opportunity in our current climate, is to provide incentives, training, and backup supports to get more small hydroponic vegetable farms growing, in order to increase our collective self-sufficiency.  To that end, we are starting a small pilot project to grow hydroponic lettuce on our property in order to fully understand the hurdles to making this work.

Dan Corbett

Author Dan Corbett

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