Monday, December 6, 2010

Humouring the Hunter/Gatherer

Let’s face it. There is something evolutionarily compelling about shopping for a bargain or a pair of pants that fit great, or some other trinket that we haven’t yet realized that we need. Some folks hate to shop. I am not one of those folks. I don’t care for really posh, expensive stores because the things in there usually seem excessive to me. However, where there is a possibility of a deal, my hound’s nose kicks in and I am off for the hunt.

At one time or another I seem to have silently challenged myself to find the best price, for the highest quality thing in the least amount of time. There is even an efficiency factor attached to my compulsive shopping, for crying out loud! I also despise packaging and waste so I usually find myself buying things second hand to give someone’s rejects another life while temporarily saving them from a landfill. This also helps avoid the transport and packaging associated with buying new (and hopefully some of the chemicals that off-gas from new clothing today).

I should clarify, however, that I do not seek the lowest price for my food. I will pay the most money possible if I have to and I will search far and wide if I can put a face to the product I am buying (the producer’s face that is!) and know the quality of what I am getting can't be beat. I do also try to minimize packaging and make sure everything goes to use.

Shannon Hayes and her Radical Homemakers would likely not appreciate this comparison but I’m going to venture to say that harvesting food from the land is a lot like shopping. The hunt for food and the quest to turn it into something useful is every bit as satisfying as the search for a bag full of goodies in the mall. The difference is that the food preparation option supports health for one’s family and hopefully the environment while the shopping option may be questionable in these regards.

Radical Homemakers are self-identified people that abhor consumerism and attempt to live their lives heavy on the currency of skills and resources, rather than money and stuff. It is so very true that we have lost a number of the skills that our grandparents possessed. We have come to rely on machines operated by electricity or fossil fuels and don’t quite know how to function without them anymore. It is also pretty standard to let someone else grow or raise your food. We’ve even gone so far as to allow most of our foods to be prepared for us. Many people I have come across don’t even know where to start to re-learn the skills of growing, hunting, preparing and/or preserving food. This is even true for some farmers that I know, including ourselves.

In addition, we have come to expect our food to cost very little and take no time to prepare. Just when it seems things couldn’t get easier, processed foods become even more handy or novel. We also don’t want to spend much of our pay cheque on our grocery bill. The percentage of income spent on food is around 10% in Canada which is a lot lower than what can be found in other countries (Italy is 23%; India is 53%) and about half of what it was 50 years ago. We are insulted when a food item costs as much as a tank of gas (even if it is a block of cheese that might last a few weeks).

I have witnessed first hand how appalled someone can get when a farmer wants $7 for a 7 pound pumpkin when the Giant Store up the way is selling them for $2. I have learned some things about getting that 7 pound organic pumpkin (or non-organic) to market. The ordering of seeds, the planting of seeds, the replanting of seeds when a chipmunk carries away all 2000 seeds, the transplanting, watering, fertility management, harvesting, storing at the right temperature, washing, weighing, pricing research, handling, transporting, signage and on and on it goes. I guess that any one of our squash or pumpkins is handled at least 5 times each before they become available to a consumer. There is also a percentage of loss either left in the field due to animal or frost damage or from handling or storage mishaps. The 7 pound pumpkin will also likely make you 7 pumpkin pies. Maybe some pumpkin seed snacks too. But where is the deal in this? How can this be an efficient way to spend your money when you can get it for so cheap elsewhere? $7 folks. That is what this farmer makes, before expenses, to bring you this pumpkin. Think about whether you would go through that effort for $7.

It also always amazes me how many people are willing to barter for their food from a farmer (who likely is living on an income below the poverty line) yet pay their lawyers and car mechanics without batting an eyelash. I’m sorry to say that many folks visit the farm (or even the market) in hopes of getting free food or at least a bargain on food. To be clear, there is no better feeling than to offer up our bounty to our dear friends or those in need and this we do by trying to donate at least 10% of what we grow to food banks etc. Turned around the other way, however, if I go to my doctor friend's house for dinner I certainly would not expect medical advice from her for free. It all lies in how little we have come to value food and the production of it.

What we have forgotten it seems is that food is one of the most important things in our lives. Without it we don’t survive. If we are blessed it is not only abundant in our lives, it passes through our hands frequently. I would even argue that our bodies (and the earth) depend on a healthy version of it: nutrient-rich, recognizable by the body as food. There was a study done where one group of rats was fed processed, cold cereal and the other was fed cardboard. Guess which rats lived longer? Basically, the rat’s bodies recognized the cardboard to be more like food than the cereal. How many things like this are we paying top dollar for in the grocery store that don't even register as food by a mammalian body? Note also that the cost of that box of cereal is also not questioned like the cost of produce at a farmer's market might be.

I also believe that it is important that our food is grown in a manner that is environmentally sustainable. If we do not take care of our air, water and soils, we diminish our ability to take care of ourselves in the future.

The thing that is still impossible to accept no matter how much Michael Pollan you read is that every single thing that we eat has an external cost that is paid by someone either in another place or in a later time. We cannot afford to keep gouging our futures and the land in far away places with the food choices that we make. Nor can our health or health systems sustain what lies ahead if we don’t turn a corner and seek foods that have been grown, handled and prepared in a manner that maximizes the food value within.

This ‘we’ by the way is me. Yes, me, the organic farmer that manages to supply more than half of our family’s total food from our land in addition to supporting the business of getting organic vegetables to local consumers. No matter how far I go to make the best possible food available to us, I am not even close to a sustainable model that would save the world. Not even close to where I need to be, in my belief. And that is before you ask what my clothes drying or driving habits are. This is just about food choices for now. So if you thought you saw a soap box in the above paragraphs, I’m afraid it is only a mirror. I am acutely aware that I am in a position to learn a new way of being in the world. Maybe even to teach it, if only by example.

For the past 7 years I have truly believed we were an arm's reach away from operating a food utopia of our own creation on our farm. But when I stepped back and looked at the bigger picture of food in our cupboards I realized that I have been blissfully ignorant. I am talking about the pasta, the flours, the dairy that I don't make, the baking supplies, the canned tropical fruits...

Realizing how much change is required to make food available to all of the people on our planet in a sustainable manner can be depressing. It may also require heavy denial. Or it may send you gallivanting about doing every little thing you can think of to make a difference. Likely your awareness will make you do all of the above.

Here I see a new challenge before me! A new deal to seek out. A test of my best efficiency. How much food can I grow, in how little time with how little output, all the while maximizing the number of people who are fed and minimizing the hidden environmental costs?

How can I make different choices in my own home that contribute to a better future for food consumption in my country? A little less fast food, fewer take-out containers, less processed, pre-packaged or pre-prepared foods, fewer things out of season or things that never grow in my climate (eg. bananas, avocados, pineapple), more label reading, less high fructose corn syrup, fewer empty calories, fewer foods entirely enticing because of their packaging or my childhood want for them.

I want to frequent fewer restaurants that pass food out through a window and more restaurants that make things from scratch on site from ingredients purchased locally whenever possible. I want to take more care to buy only organically produced foods or foods where I can find out about growing methods. I need to also ask questions about which certifications mean what and not make assumptions about anything just because it is common or trendy (ie. blue menu, for example is a salt mecca in my opinion). I need to be less gullible about food marketing messages, and be aware that some labels and logos may well be a big business' way of cashing in on food trends.

So I beg you now to take that shopping instinct and put it into a garden or some kind of food production, preparation or preservation. No matter how little land you have, you would be amazed what can grow in small spaces. Even if you can’t grow cucumbers, you can get them from a reliable source and make your own relishes. You will not be sorry. It is impossible to measure the satisfaction gained by your work. Get some chickens. Get a pig. Fight the bylaws if you need to. Borrow some guy's land that he doesn’t use. Grow in pots, on roofs, in containers of all kinds. Do what you have to do to stake a claim to the part of you that already knows in its bones what it is like to have direct access to phenomenal food.

This, my friend, is the deal of a lifetime.

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