Sunday, April 25, 2010

Digging, weeding and getting ready

Environment Canada forecast a warmer and drier spring than usual for most of Canada. As a result, I'm planning to plant out most things fairly early this year. I will probably do so around the time of our average last frost: May 9.

There haven't been many posts on Green Tenant of late. It's been a very busy spring, with a lot of writing and editing. You might enjoy a couple pieces I did for the Globe & Mail. One was on brewing and the environment. There's a lot more to be said, and rest assured that it's a subject I'll revisit here. Best part of the story was learning afterward about some of the beers I'd overlooked. Last week, I was at C'est What? and had the chance to try one of those small brewer's organic beers. It was the Lug Tread lagered ale from Beau's. Refreshing, a bit hoppy and, if I recall, maybe a bit citric. Refreshing, enjoyable and an unusual beer. Try one if you can. A more recent story for the Globe was on solar energy, which has become a controversial subject in my home province, as well as a fast-growing industry.

I've been digging, raking and weeding today. Right now, the three larger planting beds are ready, with only one smaller bed to go. Most surprising was what's sprouted out there. I expected a few onions, which I'd left from last year because they were too small. There were also a couple garlics.

Unexpectedly, there's a large and healthy oak leaf lettuce, five or six red mountain spinach (which didn't do well last year, but look healthy so far) and thousands of giant red mustard green seedlings. One or two mustard green plants will be more than enough, so the rest will have to come out (Toronto folk are welcome to them).

The seeds I started indoors are doing very well, so I have high hopes. To see what I'm planting, you can check out this post. This week, I'll be direct seeding fava and purple beans, peas and a few other things.

In case you're wondering, the picture at the top is not of my hollyhocks. I haven't planted those yet. That one is from my mother's garden a couple Octobers ago. My hands are far too dirty to be taking pictures today.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Locavore: is local agriculture feasible?

Right off the bat, I have to say that I approached Sarah Elton's new book, Locavore: from farmers' fields to rooftop gardens--how Canadians are changing the way we eat, with some reservations.

I know Elton and frequently enjoy her writing and CBC Radio broadcasts about food. But I have an uncomfortable relationship with the local food movement. There's a lot to admire about the locavores—their commitment and attention to food, their enthusiasm (even if sometimes bordering on zealotry), the way they innovate and change urban landscapes.

At the same time, it's frequently an elitist movement. Most working-class people can't get to the farmers' markets, often held during working hours. I love my vegetable garden, but only can tend a plot of its size because I work from home and can go weeding when cubicle farmers are taking a smoke or coffee break. Local organic food also tends to cost more. It's usually worth it for the quality, but that quality is all too often a luxury that many cannot afford.

What sets Elton's book apart is that she is clearly aware of all this. She's also frustrated with some of the more ridiculous approaches, such as the 100-Mile Diet (which is a fantastic read, if not a feasible lifestyle choice for those of us who have long, dark winters).

Is Locavore worth reading?
After a didactic opening, Elton plays to her strength with good storytelling. The book is essentially a travelogue, one of the most popular and successful genres in post-millennial publishing. She mucks about on farms in New Brunswick, Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. She relates real stories about real people and real communities. They're communities that have seen their agricultural markets change and disappear. More importantly, she introduces us to the visionary people who have seen ways to adapt to new realities without abandoning their agrarian roots.

The book is well researched and surprisingly positive. It moves at a steady pace, and it's plain that the author had an editor who was good at keeping the narrative unmuddled by essays. There were, as I recall, only three points during which Elton slipped into essayist mode, and they're well spaced and worthwhile.

Is industrial agriculture sustainable?
There are two fundamental questions the book needs to answer. The first is posed on page 74:
What's more pertinent to the discussion is whether industrial agriculture is sustainable. The larger question the food miles debate demands of us is whether a global, industrial agricultural system is the best way to feed the planet. Can humanity continue to farm this way into the future, extracting the same yields without destroying the integrity of the environment?
It's a great question, but one which anyone picking up the book has probably already answered for themselves. "I'd hazard a no," Elton writes. She provides a quick summary of the problems with the industrial food system, but not a thorough investigation of them. To be fair, that's not the purpose of the book. Many, many books could be, and have been, written on industrial agriculture, food quality and quantity, and the environment. This book is about an alternative system.

Is local agriculture feasible?
This is the real question. Can we grow food closer to the markets? It's not a food miles question, and Elton provides a good discussion of why the issue is more complex than simple food miles. She points out that local food can be worse for the environment in some circumstances. She also, quite fairly, points out that there are things we simply cannot grow where we live, things which, like chocolate, some people just won't give up.

The book succeeds because it presents examples of how we can produce food differently. She explores local farmer's cooperatives that bypass the supermarket system and how these have helped farmers change the way they think about crops. She talks about heirloom crops that can bring flavour, texture and variety back to our tables while using fewer chemicals. She discusses the benefits and potentially huge environmental costs of greenhousing. The book shines because it's a travelogue of fresh agricultural ideas.

Ultimately, however, there are big questions that remain unanswered.

The big one for me is one Elton herself raises: Urban agriculture is great, but how can you get enough calorie crops in a place like Toronto?

The local food opportunities suggested seem to all focus on market gardening: growing high-profit crops like salad greens, rather than staple foods such as grains. It's the one question that nagged at me as I finished the book on a flight back from New York earlier this month.

And it's a question I look forward to asking Elton when she joins me and other environmental journalists at the pub on Tuesday night.