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July/Aug 2007 – Holding Up Our End

If the local food movement is to endure and not pass, like zucchini, paprika and Stockwell Day, as gassy fads, then small farmers are going to have to produce goods that are not just local but are also substantially better than those from large-scale (and distant) agribusinesses. Our livestock and crops must be raised/grown in demonstrably different circumstances and the food we sell must be clearly better tasting and more nutritious.

Why? Because the appeal of “local” alone is transitory, subject to relativistic arguments (just what is “local” anyway? To a Torontonian used to buying Italian flour, local could be rural Manitoba.). Furthermore, I suspect a close glassing of energy use on small farms will yield an answer many of us don’t want to hear. Namely, food produced locally isn’t always done so as efficiently as food produced on distant mega-farms. As I’ve said before, you can truck a single semi-trailer load of factory-farm chickens a long way before you exceed the fuel used by dozens of small farmers snorting around their fields in aging Massey Ferguson 35s and delivering basket-sized loads of local food in ill-tuned, gas-sucking pickups.

No, if small farmers are going to build lasting, profitable relationships with customers we are going to have to produce food that delivers all the taste, nutrition and other qualities embodied in the term “local.”

Based on my own experience raising and selling poultry, lamb and pigs, as well as comments from chefs and buyers, I think a minimum of three standards have to be satisfied to ensure above-normal quality. For one, livestock or crops need to have the genetic capability to be unique, like a heirloom plant or heritage breed. Otherwise, a producer is simply putting a high-performance kit on the family mini-van.

Secondly, the life of the animal or plant has to be rich and varied. For livestock, the feed needs to be nutritious and different enough to create a unique flesh and the animal has to have room to express its natural instincts—so pigs can root and wallow; chickens can scratch and peck; and ruminants can browse and bound through plentiful grass. For crops and gardens, the soil has to be rich, fertile and naturally healthy.

And finally, death has to be swift and largely stress-free. For livestock, high-end chefs and others concerned with food quality are increasingly focusing on the events leading up to slaughter (loading, transportation, holding) as well as the actual kill method. As one well-known, fifth generation sausage maker recently told me, a small farmer could raise a marvelous rare breed pig on the best of feeds but if it is stressed in transport and panicked at the slaughterhouse, “you might as well eat ham from the supermarket.”

Small farmers have been handed an amazing opportunity in the form of the local food movement. Let’s not botch it by failing to deliver what is rightfully expected.

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Congratulations to Small Farm Canada contributor Ray Ford. Ray’s feature in the March/April 2006 issue on purchasing new and used tractors has been selected as a finalist in the How-to category of the National Magazine Awards. Ray received a total of four nominations for this year’s awards. Impressive!