"When we buy local, organically grown food or eat our own, we are endorsing: high quality nutrition; food security; soil saving and enriching techniques; energy efficiency; and fewer trucks on the highways; stronger, more stable local economies; a nd the preservation of a sustainable environment.."
Most of us would agree with the above statement. Buying locally grown, organic food makes good sense economically, environmentally, and socially. In spite of this, if you looked in the refrigerator and cupboards in a typical Maritime kitchen you would find that over 90% of the food there was produced outside the region.
The industrialization of agriculture coupled with improvements in transportation have made it possible for food production to become specialized and concentrated in areas where production costs are lowest. But the true costs of food produced by input-i ntensive agriculture are not factored into the price. No cost is applied to the environmental damage from agricultural production systems which rely on high inputs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The burning of fossil fuels to move food great d istances and the damage to roadways from heavy trucking are also not accounted for in the cost of food. The luxury of cheap food today is an illusion that we will eventually have to pay for.
Food processing companies which have evolved into transnational corporations have taken over the marketing of food. These transnational corporations (TNCs) have no allegiances to communities or countries. Their sole basis for decision making is profi t. In the rush towards 'corporate concentration' in the global food system, the economies of whole countries have been devastated. This process will continue as long as governments support globalization through trade agreements like NAFTA and the GATT. Globalization is generally espoused to be a positive trend by the media and government, but there are many individuals challenging this view. These people are fighting the negative effects of globalization in their communities by supporting local food ma rketing systems.
One such local marketing initiative is the Speerville Mill, located in Debec, New Brunswick. Stepping into Speerville Mill you enter an idyllic place where dedicated people, wholesome food and a supportive community make the world go 'round. Light st reams in the windows illuminating millions of little particles - floating flour - from the most recent milling. Stu and Todd, who run the place on a daily basis, are themselves lightly dusted. Stu explains the various processes - cracking, grinding, sif ting, hulling, rolling - energetically waving his arms to show how the grain moves from one level to another.It seems incredibly complex to the novice visitor - yet is so simple and straightforward. Wheat is stone ground to produce whole wheat flour.
In other mills the wheat is processed with steel roller mills; all the bran, shorts, middlings and wheat germ are sifted out then the remaining flour is bleached. Some of the bran is added back for so-called whole wheat flour. If that weren't enough , there are also 21 different government approved food additives that can be added to processed flours - including chalk.
Many additives in processed flours are necessary given that these products are often transported long distances and sit around in warehouses, stores and people's houses for long periods of time. Stu Fleischhaker, the main instigator behind Speerville M ill, proposes an alternative vision; it would be a bioregional approach to the food system in which food producers, processors, and consumers operate as much as is reasonable within the Maritime region. The grains are all grown locally, and the milled pr oducts are all sold locally. Because of the short distances involved, no additives are included in any of Speerville's products.
One of the founding principles of the Speerville Flour Mill was to provide a market for the grain grown by local farmers. Why? Less than 1% of the Maritimes' available cereals and flour products are actually grown and processed in this region. Accord ing to the mill's mandate: "it is critical socially, environmentally, and economically to encourage both the production and processing of local grains". This becomes important given that now "the average distance between where food is produced and the co nsumer is over 1500 miles...and 30% of transport trucks on the road today are carrying food." The mill's pamphlet further states: "the sanity of shipping our money away, poisoning our environment and risking the security of what's left of our local food system is questionable."
The Speerville Mill was first organized in the mid-70s as a community-based cooperative, but actual milling did not begin until January 1982. The Mill was soon serving markets up and down the St. John River Valley. By the end of the 80s markets had e xpanded to include most of the Maritimes and Northern Maine. Although the mill will not be expanding its markets any more geographically, there are plans to expand its buyer base within the bioregion. Initially, the mill only produced stone ground whole wheat flour, but now produces a variety of organic and conventional grain products and certified organic rolled oats, which will be introduced into the Co-op Atlantic grocery chain in 1994.
The high quality of the products, and the understanding that they are supporting farmers in their region has developed a loyalty among a growing number of Speerville Mill customers. The hard work and dedication of everyone involved in the Speerville M ill, are making the vision of a viable, local grain milling operation become a reality.
How can consumers combat globalization in the fresh produce trade? Norbert Kungl has an alternative. Norbert and Uta Kungl of Sunset Gardens in Bramber, Nova Scotia, grow 8.5 acres of vegetables on their 60 acre farm. Located on the windy coast of th e Minas Basin, about an hour and a half drive from Halifax, the farm features more than sixty varieties of vegetables forming neat rows between stretches of green manures. For three seasons the Kungls have been providing four buying groups with organic p roduce. Each family in each buying group fills in a Sunset Gardens order form and receives a basket of vegetables from a central drop-off point on a weekly basis. People join buying groups for all sorts of reasons. Some want organic food, others are c oncerned about freshness and taste; a few join because they want their food to come from a place where the land is being well looked after or because they are attracted to the cooperative and social elements of the group.
This marketing system is a form of community supported agriculture (sometimes called community shared agriculture) or CSA. All CSAs have a direct link between the farmer producing the food and the consumer. There are many variations of CSAs. Consume rs wishing to become closely involved in the production of their food may form a group which operates on the basis of 'sharing the harvest'. Sharers pay a certain amount of money at the beginning of the season in order to receive their 'share' of whatever is ready to harvest each week. Each customer's share is understood to be larger when a crop does well, and smaller if inclement weather, insects, or other factors dictate lower than anticipated yields. But if there is a crop loss, instead of a single far mer absorbing a $3000 loss, 100 shareholders lose $30 each. On the other hand, there are no additional charges for bumper crops. By creating such understandings, consumers begin to realize that they are not paying for the food itself, but for the true cost of producing it.
Paying for the service of raising food instead of buying food itself also helps smaller farms that might have difficulty with the requirements of orderly marketing. Some smallholders in Nova Scotia are catching on to this by selling 'shares' in their milk cows or offering to raise your quota of poultry for you.
Norbert Kungl's system does not involve the selling of shares in his harvest. Instead, every spring he borrows money to get the crops in and pays the debt off as soon as the money starts rolling in from sales. Although Norbert's customers are not tak ing the financial risk that shareholders in farms take, they still have a feeling of communion with the farmer and the land that is feeding them. This is engendered by the personal contact they have with Norbert every week when he delivers his produce, a nd by an annual barbecue at Sunset Gardens when they have a chance to see the place where their vegetables are grown.
There are several common lessons we can learn from these examples of successful alternative marketing approaches. Both Norbert and Stu started out on a small scale. They have focused their efforts on markets close by. They have a bioregional approac
h to marketing that focuses on developing markets within the Maritimes. The products being marketed are top quality; of high nutritional value and preferably organic. Contact with the consumer is vital to marketing success. Both Stu and Norbert have be
en successful in identifying the consumers who will be interested in their products: a consumer looking for healthy, locally produced food. They also make an effort to inform their customers about how the product was produced and how to use it. This con
tact builds up a sense of consumer loyalty towards the product. Finally, both Stu and Norbert have a clear vision of how they would like to see their business fit into the broader local economy in the future. They are committed to their ideals and dete
rmined to work towards them.
There is an alternative to the global food system; this is a locally based system of food production and distribution with the potential to solve many of our environmental and economic problems.
Written by Julia Cooper, March '94
From the "How to Live in the Real World" education kit, created by the Nova Scotia Environment & Development Coalition.
Scott, Jennifer. 1994. A Tour Through Alternative Agriculture In Nova Scotia. Written for the Nova Scotia Environment and Development Coalition.
Fleischhaker, Stu. 1993. Why eat bioregionally? Maritime Environmental Network Feb:11.
Fleichhaker, Stu. 1993. conversations.
Holtz, Fred. 1994. Conversations.
Jason, Dan. 1991. Greening the Garden p.172
Morgan, Sandy. 1993. Philosophy, job-creation help Speerville feel its oats. The Atlantic Cooperator October:19.
Various authors (Bre wster Kneen, Elizabeth Irving, Cathy Smallwood, Martha McClure, Alain Blondin, Joan Smith, Sandra Conway, Karol Okolita, Don Munroe, and Joanne VanAllen). 1993. feature issue on CSA Cognition Fall 14(4):11-26.