For some, eating locally is a new concept. For others, it’s back to basics
Andreae Callanan grows lettuce in pots on an outdoor shelf, to keep it away from slugs. — Photo by Andreae Callanan
For Andreae Callanan, eating locally is less a philosophy and more her Newfoundland upbringing.
“I grew up learning about the foods that were available locally in terms of stuff that could be foraged, like mint and dandelions,” said Callanan, who does a lot of her own vegetable gardening and foraging.
It started out as a hobby but grew as she became more interested in issues like food security.
“We produce so little of our own food here in Newfoundland, and if something catastrophic were to happen, it would be very easy to run out of food, especially produce, so I like having that skill, knowing how to grow things on my own.”
Growing her own vegetables gives her the ability to have foods not easily available locally, said Callanan, such as Jerusalem artichokes, broad beans and sorrel.
In many ways, said Callanan, making it easier for people to grow their own food or buy locally produced food is just a return to how things were done not all that long ago.
“People aren’t producing their food the way they used to even 50 and 60 years ago,” she said.
“It wasn’t uncommon, even just outside the city, for people to be growing a great deal of their own vegetables. That’s sort of changing, but at the same time it’s becoming more organized. There are people working very hard to connect the producers with the consumers.”
The latest development is the production of the Buy Local! Buy Fresh! Avalon food map, which lists 28 farmers and producers and their contact information, making it easier for consumers to find locally grown food.
Christine Snow, the executive director of the Northeast Avalon Regional Economic Development Board, said they produced the map to feed residents’ growing interest in buying locally produced food.
“It’s often been really difficult to find out where you can buy, what’s in season, local farmers and so forth,” she said.
“What the map is designed to do is provide the locations of the different farms on the Avalon Peninsula, the type of food products that they grow, the seasons, where you can buy them and so forth. So it’s all designed to make it really easy for a local resident to find a local food product.”
Snow said it wasn’t just consumer demand that sparked the production of the map, but complaints from producers about their difficulty in finding labour.
“We started to do a piece of work around what some of those demographic challenges were, and as part of that process, the whole idea of the need for farmers wanting to promote their food products, and at the same time we were doing that, there were concerns coming out from the general public around food security, food sustainability, and the need to source our own foods.
“There have been a number of times over the past number of years where, if the ferry fails to get across for a couple of days and you go into the supermarket, the racks are bare.”
Dennis Butler, owner of Denison Farms, a third-generation operation in Kelligrews, said his farm has grown as Conception Bay South has grown, and he’s seeing more and more people asking for locally grown and organic food.
“We’re getting a lot more knowledgeable on what the effects of chemicals does to our bodies, that would be my assumption of it,” he said.
“Back years ago, there was all sorts of chemicals on the go. DDT I can think of right off the bat. Done more harm to the environment and probably to us, and we didn’t know the difference. So people are more educated on chemicals now.”
Butler said he’s also seen Newfoundland’s growing season slowly extend, making it easier for people to have fresh local vegetables year-round.
“I start selling now in the first, second week of August, right up until early January,” he said.
Mike Rabinowitz, owner of The Organic Farm in Portugal Cove, said the demand for local food has always outstripped his supply since he started 14 years ago. One of the big challenges facing Newfoundland farms is the sometimes erratic climate, he said.
“It’s been a horrible two summers, and last year was worse than the year before,” he said.
“The year before, we got the heat in July so everything managed to make it. Last year it didn’t come until mid-August, and hardly anybody was able to do squash, tomatoes and beans outdoors.”
Some places in Newfoundland are better than others for growing, though. He said the temperature in Portugal Cove-St.Philip’s is milder than St. John’s, just 12 kilometres away, but the soil is almost non-existent.
“Most years we don’t have a lot of trouble with anything but corn, and last year it was a disaster for us,” he said.
“Some people in more protected areas, with better soil, managed. We also didn’t get any large onions last year, and if we had better ground or we started them later than we did, they might have made, but we didn’t have any big bulb onions.”
Callanan, who is also a member of the board of Food Education Action-St. John’s, a volunteer organization concerned with food sustainability issues, said the Northeast Avalon economic development board is doing excellent work to connect producers with consumers, as are direct-selling organizations like the St. John’s Farmer’s Market.
“We don’t have that same sort of community connection that we used to. There are so many people living in St. John’s who aren’t from here who don’t know what the outlying communities are like, and there’s not as much communication as there would have been.”
The focus on sourcing food locally is also making its way from the grassroots up into the restaurant industry, with several places in St. John’s focused on using Newfoundland ingredients as often as possible. Bacalao co-owner Andrea Maunder said it’s getting easier and easier to do so.
“It’s certainly less challenging than it was the first years. We spent four months before we opened trying to make connections with people to get local product,” she said, citing the work being done with the food map and groups like Food Education Action-St. John’s as creating a network of local producers and consumers.
“Our challenge in the beginning was looking in the phone book, seeing ‘Dan’s Farm’ and we didn’t know what Dan raised so we’d have to call and try to make connections, see if people have enough that they could supply us, No. 1, and whether they’d be willing to sell to restaurants. Because some farms are quite happy to set up their truck on the side of the road and that’s as much as they want to do. So it took us quite a while to establish those relationships, and now there’s a lot more infrastructure.”
While it’s getting easier to source more food within the province, Callanan noted that it’s still impossible to live completely off locally produced food.
“There are huge gaps,” she said. “Sugar, flour — your staples. The staples are still coming from outside. There’s no grain production on any scale that I know of. There’s a few people who happen to have beehives who can make their own honey, or the odd person who’s tapping maple trees who’s got a supply of maple syrup. But in terms of baking staples, that’s huge. There’s no coffee, there’s no tea, there’s no chocolate, no mangoes, no bananas.”
Callanan doesn’t see a time when people in Newfoundland will be able to survive just on what’s produced here.
“I’ve got three children and one more on the way, so I’m not feeding a family, soon to be a family of six, solely on things that I’ve grown in the backyard or bought locally, because the costs are quite high.”
Due to economies of scale, it can sometimes be more expensive — as counter-intuitive as that sounds — to eat locally, which Callanan thinks is a factor preventing the spread of a local-eating philosophy.
“I don’t think those costs are inflated, I think that’s honestly what producers have to charge, but because demand is still so relatively low, the costs remain high,” she said. “It’s the volume. If grocery stores are bringing in massive numbers of strawberries or tomatoes from Mexico or Florida, the numbers that they’re bringing it make it that they can keep their costs relatively low, but for a small-scale producer who has a little spot of land in Portugal Cove or St. Philip’s, their costs are still quite high, and they’re not producing huge amounts of food.”
She said she hopes that if more people become interested, costs will come down.
“There are opportunities for community gardening. The Rabbittown community garden is an excellent model of people gardening co-operatively, and it’s in a low-income neighbourhood and it’s exactly the sort of access that people need,” she said.
“We need more and more of these gardens. Right now, the local foods movement is very much limited to people who can afford it, and that’s a huge problem.”
She added that it’s funny how things have changed.
“Fifty years ago, it was the people at the lowest end of the economic spectrum who were producing their own food and eating local food, and now it’s completely changed around, and all of the imported stuff — it’s like the farther away it comes from, the cheaper it is. And the closer it is to home, the more you’re going to end up paying for it.”