Faraway food production

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      High energy and land costs raise the stakes for B.C. farmers.

      From the air, you can see the arms of the lower Fraser River wrap around Westham Island before spilling into the Strait of Georgia, carrying billions of particles of suspended silt out to sea. Lighter than its salty North Pacific counterpart, the muddy river water rides atop its oceanic cousin, sometimes cutting a brown path right across the strait to the shorelines of Mayne and Galiano islands, a 45-minute ferry ride away.

      The silt eventually settles out, drifting slowly down to the ocean bottom. But back where river meets ocean, thousands of years of freshwater transport following the retreat of the last great glaciers have laid down layer upon layer of silt and sand particles, allowing land to emerge from what was once ocean stretching as far inland as present-day Hope.

      Until contained by dikes, the lower Fraser’s rich lands were a constantly shifting series of islands. Fecund as they were, though, they were risky to farm and homestead due to the constant threat of flooding. The construction of dikes in the late 1800s changed all that, sparking a century-long surge in modern agriculture.

      Over the past several decades, however, British Columbia’s rapidly urbanizing Lower Mainland region has cut dramatically into the province’s limited agricultural base. Skyrocketing land values have driven the expansion, resulting in more and more pressure to convert lands from pasture to pavement. Which is one reason why, from the air, Westham jumps out. With the exception of a lone truss bridge completed in 1912 and spanning the waters of Canoe Pass to the south, Westham is cut off from the suburban world around it. Renowned as the stop-off point for thousands of migrating snow geese and other birds, it is also all farmland and actively farmed.

      In evolutionary terms, islands are where we have witnessed the most fantastic die-offs and emergences of unique animal and plant life on the planet. They are both extremely vulnerable to change—human-induced or not—and capable of the most extraordinary recoveries. They are also, literally and figuratively, places where ideas germinate and take root, with the success of Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon’s book The 100-Mile Diet being a case in point. Within the confines of an artificial construct—a circular “island” with a 100-mile radius and Vancouver at its centre—how easy or difficult would it be for the resident human population to sustain itself with the local production, distribution, and consumption of food? Much, as it turns out, may depend on what we learn from the experience at Westham Island and elsewhere on the rural-urban divide.

      That we “eat” a lot of oil is without question. As Smith and MacKinnon note, citing an Iowa State University study, the food we consume “now typically travels between 1,500 and 3,000 miles from farm to plate”, with the distance increasing in the 1980s and 1990s by about 25 percent.

      Without doubt, there are enormous implications for our warming world as we move foodstuffs farther and farther. There are also economic consequences, as highlighted in recent weeks when oil prices temporarily broke past US$100 per barrel, a psychologically important event that many energy analysts believe signals the beginning of an inexorable climb in fossil-fuel prices as we approach peak oil. Higher gas prices mean higher costs to bring goods to market.

      But transportation isn’t the half of it when it comes to oil and most present-day food production, as Sharon Ellis will tell you. Seed costs are climbing because of both the distance the seeds are transported and the fuel used to grow them, whether it’s the fuel burned in the machines that cultivate the land and bring in the crops or the petroleum-based fertilizers used in so much present-day crop production. Ellis is the fourth generation in her family to farm on Westham Island or nearby farmlands in Delta, and she grows a lot of pumpkins. A package of just 100 Prize Winner pumpkin seeds costs her $42. Five years ago it was $30, and back just 10 years ago the sticker price was half what it is today.

      “I’m way more careful with my planting now because the seeds are so expensive,” Ellis says, adding that the costs have risen commensurate with the sheer number and variety of crops grown on the farm. Her pumpkin and squash varieties alone number 35 or more in any given season.

      Rising fuel costs also loom large in other ways. The rapid rise in production of hothouse tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers in B.C. was predicated on heating massive greenhouses with natural gas. But continental gas reserves are declining, prices are generally tracking upward, and in the absence of construction of liquid natural gas terminals on B.C.’s coast that would bring gas from Russia or some other gas-rich region here, pressure on North America’s remaining natural gas reserves will continue.

      “It doesn’t take much for B.C. hothouses to lose their comparative advantage because of higher energy costs,” says James Vercammen, professor of food and resource economics in the University of British Columbia’s faculty of land and food systems. “I’m noticing that more and more with the production of cucumbers and peppers. Three or four years ago, you’d go into any store and they were almost always from hothouses in Canada; now they’re from Mexico.” It remains to be seen whether or not alternative heating sources can be commercially viable for the massive greenhouse operations, Vercammen adds. In the meantime, expect less local production in the generally darker and colder winter months.

      Ellis’s farm, Westham Island Herb Farms, isn’t confronted with such problems. In contrast to the 40-plus-hectare farms that carve the island into a series of square and rectangular plots of green, yellow, and brown, her operations are confined to about six hectares. The farm name is a double-entendre. To the paying customers—and there are a lot of them, nearby residents and restaurateurs alike—who come by the farm to buy bunches of fresh basil, thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley, and cilantro, the word Herb in the farm’s name is self-explanatory. But to Ellis, the name is a way of paying homage to her grandfather, who provided the inspiration for her father, Gordon, and later her to get into the family business.

      Staking the future on embracing diversity in the vegetables, fruit, and herbs she sells, Ellis has carefully cultivated a clientele that places a premium on supporting organic, locally grown produce. The customers themselves defray her fuel costs by driving to the farm gate to get what they want.

      “It’s something that farmers and consumers should promote: that food is not being shipped a thousand miles to your dinner plate,” Ellis says. But as attractive and seemingly easy as it is to embrace the “grow local, buy local” philosophy, it is no panacea for farmers working on the city’s edge. Proximity to market turns out to sometimes have as many minuses as it does pluses. “We’ve got 50 acres down the road that’s going to go for $5 million,” Ellis says. “Try buying that and all your equipment. It’s crazy. And it’s all because you’re so close to the city.” She adds that “the only way” many farmers remain in business is because the business stays in the family.

      Ellis believes that Westham Island may buck the trend of urban creep onto farmland precisely because it is an island and close to the city. Any proposals to hive off tracts of it for new housing, commercial use, or industrial parks would quickly become public knowledge and likely trigger widespread opposition. A case in point is Barnston Island. Like Westham, it’s an alluvial island ringed by the Fraser River, but it’s upstream, closer to Surrey. Among Barnston’s most visible agricultural enterprises is the organically certified Avalon Dairy. The company has cleared large parcels of the island for hayfields. In July 2006, the Agricultural Land Commission denied an application that sought to remove 78 percent of the island’s 567 hectares from the Agricultural Land Reserve, a precursor to industrial development. The removal, had it proceeded, would have been the single largest withdrawal of agricultural lands from the protection afforded by the ALR, which was established by provincial legislation in April 1973.

      But while Barnston received a reprieve, other islands, more figurative than real, are being plucked from the ALR at a disturbing rate. A 2006 report written by Charles Campbell for the David Suzuki Foundation noted, for example, that although the total amount of land in the ALR “has remained fairly consistent” throughout its 35-year history, the reserve has shed 35,000 hectares of farmland in the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, and Okanagan regions, precisely those areas with the largest cities and suburbs in the province. Those losses were allegedly offset by the inclusion of newly designated ALR lands. But the lands in question were generally in the north and often in the distant Peace River country, a region far removed from the Lower Mainland and possessing soils that, although suited to grain and hay production, are far from those of prime farmlands.

      And the trend continues. The ALC’s Web site (www.alc.gov.bc.ca) lists three separate proposals to remove lands from the reserve, all in the south of the province and all in proximity to major settlements. TimberWest Forest Corp.—one of the largest private landowners in B.C.—has asked the ALC to remove 165 hectares from the reserve so that an industrial park can be built near the Campbell River airport. The Tsawwassen Golf and Country Club has asked the commission for a ruling excluding 11.5 hectares of land for purposes of building “an integrated golf course and residential community”. And a 25-lot “rural” housing development lies behind a proposal by Ivey Estates Limited to remove 82 hectares of designated farmland near the town of Ladysmith.

      As shredding of farmland proceeds, it becomes harder to see how dreams of a 1,000-mile—let alone a 100-mile—diet are to be fulfilled on a large scale. Ellis, for one, notes that in her time farming on Westham she has witnessed profound changes. Her dad and granddad used to plant corn, peas, and other crops destined for canning, largely because major companies like Royal City operated depots in the Lower Mainland, including one on Westham Island. The depots were there because Royal City and others enjoyed economies of scale. But 20 years ago, as less land was available for—or planted in—those crops, Royal City pulled the plug, leaving Westham behind. Similarly, Nalley’s used to make potato chips at a factory on Annacis Island, where mayonnaise and pickles were also produced. Delta and Vancouver had factories processing and packaging frozen French fries. All are gone, as companies headed south in search of lower labour costs. The health-conscious among us may be inclined to say good riddance, but each loss represented a ready buyer of large quantities of harvested crops, placing further financial constraints on farmers on the urban-rural divide.

      Worker Bert Owen (left) and Sharon Ellis’s grandparents, Herb and Ruth Ellis, didn’t face rapidly rising gasoline prices.

      Terry Michell is the fifth generation in his family to till the rich soils of the Saanich Peninsula since his great-great-grandfather arrived in the region in 1868. Today, lands farmed by the Michell family spread across a flat valley bottom west of the Patricia Bay Highway and up and over a distant hill to the ocean on the other side.

      Michell Brothers Farms is among a handful of major farming operations left on the peninsula. Only 30 years ago, there were at least 50 such farms, including 15 dairy operations, major vegetable and fruit growers, and even the odd cattle herd. Southern Vancouver Island was also once the province’s biggest wheat producer. But today, grain crops of any size are a rarity, particularly in the southernmost Capital Region.

      Michell blames much of the demise on steadily declining profits for farm products of all descriptions and skyrocketing land prices. Today, although much of the peninsula retains its bucolic character, it doesn’t take long to see that it is often a faí§ade. A drive down side roads from the highway takes you past beautiful houses lying well back from the road, with the occasional wrought-iron gate at the foot of a long driveway. The fenced acreage may contain a barn housing a horse or two, but once-productive fields lie fallow.

      There’s no shortage of people with lots of money looking for new housing, it seems. And, as Michell observes, many of them eschew a million-dollar-plus home on a small lot with an ocean view for a few hectares and a hobby farm, with heavy emphasis on the word hobby. “You can buy seven or eight acres for $700,000. I’ve even seen 25 acres for $950,000. So if someone has the money, the price of farmland is pretty cheap. The land remains in the ALR, but it’s not being utilized.”

      The Michells have maintained a viable farm business through growing crops year-round and by striking a balance between selling directly to customers through their own retail outlet and working diligently with the region’s remaining large growers through a co-op that markets crops to local supermarkets—in particular, Vancouver Island–founded Thrifty Foods. The company, which operated 20 stores in B.C., recently sold to Sobeys Inc., a national company with 1,300 grocery stores across Canada and annual revenues of $13 billion.

      The Michell family grows pumpkins, strawberries, raspberries, sweet corn, carrots, parsnips, beets, lettuce (iceberg and romaine), summer and winter cabbage, leeks, peas, beans, and onions. It also plants hay for the local equestrian centres and maintains an orchard of 2,200 trees producing Jonagold, Fuji, and Liberty apples.

      About 60 percent of the sales value of all goods produced by the Michells is realized through the family-owned store. However, by volume, only about 30 percent of what the farm grows sells there. The rest is destined for retailers. And in that regard, Michell counts himself lucky to have had the opportunity to sell to a large and, until recently, locally owned grocery outlet—an opportunity he banks on continuing.

      “The Thrifty’s warehouse is two miles from our farm. And in the surrounding area there are other farmers that Thrifty’s buys from. For Thrifty’s, here on the southern Island, it’s like a 25-mile diet when they buy from local farms. It just makes good business sense for them to buy our carrots, cabbage, parsnips, beets, and squash, and limited amounts of our corn, peas, and pumpkins.”

      Still, Michell says that although farmers and consumers alike benefit from foods grown and consumed locally, there are limits to what B.C.’s lands can deliver. Even if all that remains in the ALR stays available for crop production, much of it will not be farmed, at least not commercially. Operating costs are high. Profit margins are low. And fewer of today’s generation show an interest in picking up where their farming parents left off. Even if the younger generation bucks the trend, as two of Michell’s three children (Kevin, 21, and Nicole, 19) appear ready to do, it will do so against the backdrop of a province that may be incapable of feeding itself. In his Suzuki Foundation report, Campbell cited provincial Ministry of Agriculture and Food statistics, noting that “we grow the equivalent of about half of what we eat.” And only a tiny one percent of the province’s sprawling land base is considered “prime” for farming purposes. Then there’s population growth to consider. By 2020—the year the provincial Liberals have earmarked as when B.C. will have its greenhouse-gas emissions by one-third—Metro Vancouver’s population is expected to exceed 2.71 million, up seven percent from 2007. By 2030, it will break the three-million mark—a 24-percent increase.

      Like it or not, we will have to rely on foods transported from other regions, likely in bulk in trucks. From a greenhouse-gas-emissions perspective, that food transportation may not be as bad as people think. And it may not be so bad from a social-equity perspective either. Shipping berries from California or Mexico to B.C. may seem like a ludicrous proposition. But a full freight truck pulling into the bay at a big grocery outlet carries an awful lot of food, meaning the cost per unit to move the food is relatively low. “You could double diesel-fuel costs, but only add five or 10 percent to the costs of the product,” UBC’s Vercammen notes. And the CO2 footprint of that shipment might, on a per-unit-of-food basis, be smaller than that of, say, the organic produce delivered to individual residences by small van or truck, or the berries produced in a local hothouse heated at least part of the year by fuels that emit CO2 when burned.

      There are also all those farmers farther south and their largely itinerant work forces sending money home to their families in Mexico. Right now we need them and they need us, Vercammen says. And there’s the reality that despite steady demand for more and more local and preferably organic produce, a sizable portion of our population won’t be able to avail itself of that option and may actually need that produce from California.

      “I think you’re looking at a pretty small group of consumers that are prepared to pay premiums for food that is locally grown,” Vercammen says. “The niche can’t expand much more because the people that can afford the option are already in.”

      The other nasty reality for farmers is that acting on the oft-cited mantra of “adding value” to products—growing a fancy, purple-skinned, purple-fleshed fingerling potato, as opposed to the run-of-the-mill but perfectly edible Kennebec, for example—tends to show great initial promise before the advantages wither away like an overripe bean on a sun-parched vine. “All it takes is for the word to get out that there’s a price benefit and you almost immediately get oversupply and—boom—the prices come down,” the economist says, noting how B.C.’s ginseng crop quickly lost its lucrative lustre.

      In the midst of such challenges, however, there are emerging islands of opportunity, sometimes born of the simplest of desires: a craving for a locally milled flour used in a hard-crust bread, or a good glass of beer, for that matter.

      At a kitchen table in his home tucked behind his parents’ place on a hillside overlooking Brentwood Bay and the distant Mill Bay ferry dock, Michael Doehnel reaches into a cardboard box filled with plastic cups loaded with barley grains. The cups are labelled with names like Harrington, Ellice, Stein, Conlon, Stratus, and Unity and contain grains shipped from the three major Canadian cereal-crop seed-breeding stations in Brandon, Manitoba; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; and Swift Current, Alberta.

      Most residents of southern Vancouver Island don’t realize it, Doehnel says, but until 1947 or so, the east side of Vancouver Island, from the Comox Valley in the north to Victoria in the south, produced more grain than anywhere else in B.C. But as cereal-crop production exploded in the Peace River country after the Second World War, the Vancouver Island grain industry nosedived. The land in the province’s remote northeast was simply too vast, the transportation and grain-elevator network too great, for Island farmers to compete, even with their proximity to market.

      With a small research grant from the Island Agri-Food Initiative—a $1.67-million fund paid for by the provincial and federal governments and aimed at encouraging diversification of farm output on Vancouver Island and the nearby Gulf Islands—Doehnel is on a quest to figure out which barley varieties are best suited to a climate that is often wet for a considerable part of the year, then bone-dry in summer months.

      Doehnel, not a farmer by trade, has always appreciated good food and good beer. Years in the food and hospitality business as a waiter at nearby Dunsmuir Lodge ensured that. And when he caught the bug to make his own beer after striking up an acquaintance with the brewmaster at Victoria’s renowned Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub, he soon grew puzzled by why all the malting barley used to make the beer seemed to come from England.

      Through a series of field trials, Doehnel is trying to change that situation. Along the way, he’s also learned more about other grains—wheat varieties, for example—that will grow on the Island too. His research is part of a wider initiative that includes study of intercropping—the planting of grasses between rows of corn. The practice reduces soil degradation by cutting down on runoff following the corn harvest. The grasses hold the moisture and soil in place, later becoming food for grazing cattle or being used as silage.

      Through his work, which he modestly dismisses as “not rocket science”, Doehnel has learned that southern Vancouver Island’s climate is ideally suited to growing certain winter barleys.

      That’s good from a beer-making perspective because winter barleys tend to have more carbohydrates than proteins, and carbohydrates convert into sugar quicker and run clearer in the brewing process.

      Broadly, Doehnel has learned that of the two general barley types—two-row, with grains that fan out like a frond, and six-row, with a head of grains that looks more like a bud—varieties of the Canadian two-row may be better suited to southern Vancouver Island’s climate than varieties of six-row, which Doehnel’s trials have shown to be susceptible to plant diseases such as stripe rust and powdery mildew.

      In all, Doehnel has tested or is slated to test six barley types from Oregon, 31 from Canada’s Prairie provinces, and 17 from the United Kingdom. After all that work, the question will then be: what next?

      The Islander remains intrigued by the possibility that he one day could not only grow his own barley but brew his own beer. And he has the equipment to do it: a 500-litre stainless-steel brew kettle, a fermenter, and a hot-water tank. Nearby there’s a silo, and running from the silo downhill to a shed is a line of rope approximating the angle that Doehnel needs to gravity-feed barley seed destined for the malting shed.

      He could also lease farmland and grow barley for established Island breweries, or perhaps those farther afield. Or maybe he’ll try to develop a new barley variety. The possibilities are many.

      Along the way, Doehnel has become part of a burgeoning network of people seeking to resurrect the local growing and processing of heritage grains, once grown here and elsewhere nearby but today rarely seen. Out of their efforts new farming operations may yet emerge, islands of inspiration in a world pushing against the limits of sustainability.




      Jan 24, 2008 at 3:07pm

      Likely enough, eliminating agricultural subsidies worldwide would virtually destroy long-distance shipping of products. Yes, prices to the average consumer would go up. But that's to be expected when the average spent of food is less than 10% of annual income in this country, AND most of us live in urban areas where growing one's own food is not considered "important" by either muncipal governments, nor by the citizens ourselves.

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      Farm Girl from Saskatchewan

      Oct 16, 2009 at 10:03am

      Swift Current is in Saskatchewan, not Alberta.

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