Monday, January 21, 2008

Farming in a closed bubble

Kate-Andres-Toal wrote in “Support our farmers by buying local”, (St. Catharines Standard, Jan.17, 2008) that “we’re in serious trouble, folks”…there’s a food “crisis” a-comin’, where we’ll be “faced with empty fridges and dead communities.” This is because we don’t support local farmers: “Another farm gone, another development we don’t need built over rich soil we can’t afford to waste.”

This is the fearsome, alarmist tone for the rest of the article. What, hasn’t Toal heard of Jim Bradley’s Greenbelt? Is she saying that Liberal legislation is NOT working…or is she saying it’s weak?! The farmland, according to the Liberals, is 'protected’! But, the farmer and the actual farm…? That’s a story the Liberals should tell us more about.

“Without local farmers, there will be no local food, and that means no future for our communities”, Toal states. Oh, come on.

“Society is blind to it,” she quotes a farmer saying. “Every time we buy strawberries from California or cheap tomatoes from Mexico for the sake of convenience, we are intensifying the problem,” Toal preaches.

Wow: so "convenience" is not a satisfactory consumer choice for Toal? How about buying for the sake of taste, or quality, or variety, or price, or even plain availability, for that matter?

Locally grown bananas and oranges aren’t available in Niagara. [Unless Al Gore, David Suzuki and Stephane Dion (the Gorzukions), pick up the pace of their airline flights so as to speed up that man-made global warming of theirs]

If a Mexican tomato is well-priced and better tasting than a local cardboard tomato, should we forced to buy the tasteless one? (or vice-versa) We do have to compare, as they say, apples to apples: seasonality, availability, variety, etc. Then there is the perishability factor of fresh produce, vs. the value-added factor of processing and packaging such produce for sale at a later time, or in a different place. And of course, there’s always the whim of the local weather…

In 2007, when early California strawberries arrived at the stores, they were wonderful, very tasty, and well-packaged in a see-thru breathable closed clam shell. As the season wore on, the Ontario berries then also arrived, of course, mostly locally grown. The difference was amazing: the Ontario berries were paltry looking, many of them squished in their green cardboard open-top containers, which spilled all over the display and the floor, leaving them half-empty. The berries were also dirty-looking, unwashed, caked with field mud. And, most amazingly, the Ontario berries were MORE expensive than the imports from thousands of clicks away.
Toal asks that we redefine what is “necessary”: “do you really need strawberries in January?” .
Toal treads on totalitarian terrain, fielding fancies of food fascism.
If consumers want strawberries in winter - so what? Should we be forced to buy whatever bruised offerings get thrown our way? Should we be limited to eating only local products? The self-righteous and the indignant will have another Mother Earth cause to rally about on this...yet the debate has been going on for decades in Niagara.

I’ve seen people waste money buying supposedly “organic” local cherries only to discover that they had white worms. I’ve seen farmers who could not find, let alone afford, farm workers…work that’s utterly unthinkable and beneath respect for a snobbish Ontario majority. Imported labour does our work!
I knew a hobby farmer on a once-typical small Niagara fruit acreage of grapes, apples, plums and pears; a lot of work went into maintaining those vineyards and orchards. No-one but the closest family - and reluctantly at that - would bother to come help for the harvests as they occurred throughout the year.
Yet when the farmer visited friends in the city, they would always say 'oh did you happen to bring a bushel of pears with you'?! As if the fruit was gown, tended, and picked expressly to be transported to the city, brought to their door, and then given away!!
Though the fruit would have been free to any friends who bothered to come and spend several hours picking, even that was not an incentive. Not wanting to see the orchards and vineyard go wild, the hobby farmer maintained them for the pleasure and the stewardship; most of the fruit was never picked. It just wasn't worth it, even free.

Protectionism and profitability is a two-way street. When your goal is to ban/restrict/overly regulate imports by trade intervention - you might find that your exports are treated in kind – if not in one industry, then in another.
Has Toal considered the terrible toll of her touted tyranny?

Not every local person has a penchant for Niagara ice wine, for example, although it is top-notch. So should we limit - or better yet, outright ban - its export to other areas? We certainly can choose local products, and be loyal to a certain individual extent. It's not a new concept. We should have choice as consumers, in our marketshare. But we have to innovate and build on our strengths. So, we need to find successful export markets; sustainability based on this "locavore" fad is quaint, but unrealistic. How local is local? Why a hundred km radius? What happens when the government decrees it to be fifty km, then, eventually, you’ll be limited to eating the politically correct diet which grows only in summer just in your backyard, where you can't even trade with your neighbours?? You can’t have a healthy economy within a closed bubble.

We need competition, not protectionism. Much of the Greenbelt lands sit “protected”, yet under used. What is that worth?

The same day as Toal’s article came out, William Watson wrote (in “Close more farms!”, National Post, Jan.17, 2008) that “'Buy local' is just the latest bid for protection from our tiny, shrinking agricultural sector.” Watson wrote “In absolute terms, half a per cent of GDP [which is what farmers actually sell] is a lot of economic activity. But it’s hardly the economic cornerstone – the vital lynchpin – farming’s advocates so often proclaim it to be.”

Watson even lists seven reasons not to grow our own food.

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