When I was a kid, my Mum returned to her agricultural roots and got into natural foods. She went back to making jam and jelly, pickles and home canning. What that meant was that when the strawberries were ripe in the fields, some of us would go and pick them at a pick-your-own berry farm. Then some of us would help her make jam and freeze individual bags of berries for the winter. She’d make strawberry parfait for desert at Christmas dinner; nothing tastes quite as magical as a fresh strawberry when the snow is on the ground. Throughout the summer and fall, we’d take trips to the Peterborough Farmers’ Market to buy various kinds of produce that she’d store in the cold cellar in the basement, freeze, can or pickle.
I too have developed the habit of preserving the summer and fall bounty, putting food away when it’s in season so I don’t have to buy expensive imports in the winter. I’ve made jams and pickles. I’ve canned (which is to say bottled) peaches, plums and apricots. I’ve frozen blueberries, strawberries and cherries. And I’ve done other experiments, some of which weren’t successful. I feel like I’ve got it down to a science now. I know how to process things for the best results for my taste.
One of the things my mother taught me was to buy locally. That was part of the reason for going to the Farmer’s Market. These were Peterborough area farmers. By buying directly from them, we were supporting local farmers and the local economy. It also meant we were cutting out the middleman retailer and that meant saving money. You could buy produce that was fresher and for a lower price than you could in the supermarket. And although we weren’t thinking about it then, it also meant that the produce was only driven a few miles, minimizing pollution and the cost of transportation.
But things are different now and in the big city. If you time it right, at the peak of the growing season, usually you can find baskets of locally grown produce at the grocery store at a reasonable price. I don’t know what happened this year. When I went to buy strawberries, the first local crop I look for, I discovered that I could buy Californian, even Californian organic strawberries, at the grocery store for considerably less than I could buy locally grown. Keep in mind that gas prices are through the roof and there’s been a lot of talk about how the price of imported produce was going to skyrocket as a consequence of increasing transportation costs.
A new Farmers’ Market was established in my neighbourhood this summer. I thought, great! I’ll be able to get locally grown produce at a reasonable price. Wrong! Their prices, not just for strawberries, but for all produce, was double to triple that of the grocery stores! What gives? I sent e-mails to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Greenbelt Ontario and Farmers’ Markets Ontario to see if they had an explanation. All were very supportive of my efforts to buy locally, both for economic and environmental reasons. The rise in price, they pointed out, was due to the rise in fuel costs. This still doesn’t make sense to me. Surely the rise in fuel costs would effect US growers too; surely it costs more to ship produce 3500 kilometres than 50? Taxes and wages are higher here than in the US; but hasn’t that always been the case? Why would that cause a sudden sharp increase this year?
All espoused the virtues of buying local produce because it’s fresher and mentioned that consumers are willing to spend more for freshness. One actually noted that consumer demand at Farmers’ Markets is in some cases outstripping supply. Now we’re getting somewhere. The most telling response was from the representative of Farmers’ Markets Ontario, the people who sponsor this new local market. He stated that they “rely on freshness and the ‘market experience.'” Ah, now we have it. We’re not in small-town, rural Peterborough anymore; we’re in the big city where people have more money. We can charge a little extra because city folks are happy to pay for the experience, although a few booths in a downtown parking lot isn’t the market experience I remember. He stated that their farmers work really hard; I’m certainly not disputing that, but so do farmers everywhere. Farming, even with expensive gas-run machinery, means long hours and enormous physical demand. He also cited that some of their farmers drive 200 kilometres or more and this means their profits are very low. Wait a minute, 200 kilometres? I though I was buying local produce. While that’s closer than California, it’s also further than the 100-mile diet suggests (it’s about 125 miles).
I kept looking for a place where I could buy locally grown produce at reasonable prices. And I finally found it. I discovered a small family run green grocer several blocks away. Here, I can buy local produce at the kind of prices I think it should be and considerably less than either the grocery store chains or the new neighbourhood Farmers’ Market. How is this possible? I figure this small store is selling everything at its regular mark-up and they must be making a profit. They’ve been there for years, first as an Italian family run business, now as a Korean family run business. So what’s the difference? They’re not responding to the hype. It’s become fashionable and politically correct to buy local, to support local farmers, to buy products that haven’t done so much environmental damage through transportation. I figure big chain grocery stores and now the Farmers’ Markets are cashing in on this trend by increasing their profits. It’s the only reason I can see for the disparity in price.
Some of us have been buying locally and consciously for years. Now that it’s become fashionable, it’s harder to continue this practice. The only way a green revolution will work is if it’s affordable for everyone, not just the elite with deep enough pockets. So yes, buy local, buy green, but don’t do so blindly. Look for reasonable prices too. Support the small mom-and-pop green grocers. That’s the only way the chain stores and Farmers’ Markets will get the message that although we want to buy green and support local, it also has to be affordable.
© Catherine Jenkins 2008