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May/June 2007 – Who Weeds?

I’m convinced that the people who make the most money from the local food movement are the ones who rent out auditoriums. The number of meetings convened to discuss local food, food miles, food charters and the like is not only dizzying but it is increasing at such a rate that it makes me think the movement spreads via rhizome, like bindweed. With local food meetings taking place in sensible Saskatoon, the movement has completed the journey from the loopy margins in BC, where it has been stewing for years, to the sturdy heartland.

Everyone is talking local food—or, pardon me, local food systems. Buying eggs from a roadside stand is that formalized.

While the local food movement is almost all for the good, I have concerns that it is top-heavy with theoreticians and light on do-ers. Too many bishops and not enough parishioners, too many conductors and not enough musicians.

Specifically, I wonder, who is going to grow all this virtuous, nourishing, community-saving food? Who is going to weed, water, hoe, spread manure and do all the other sun-baked, scorchy, broken-fingernail, unpleasant jobs that go into transforming a seed into a geo-culinary expression (aka carrot)?

Certainly not speakers at a conference on legal issues in food production that I recently attended at the University of Victoria. Organized by the Environmental Law Centre, it featured a number of strident, enthusiastic speakers, most of whom looked as though their relationship with food went as far as the retail side of the stalls at the local farmers market. There was an utterly incomprehensible presentation on fair trade coffee, and another by a professor on indigenous food production in developing countries. Part conference, part emotional rally-point for local food values, the event was imbued with the delusional coziness of a 19th century Anglican fundraising tea on behalf of overseas missionaries: lovely to support the evangelical effort; wouldn’t want to be in the malarial jungle.

Nor was there a lot of practical advice in comments made by a nice man who spoke at a local food event here in our own community. Credentialed with a MSc in Environmental Policy from Oxford, he outlined the ways the local food movement is marching ever forward. These included a film being made on local food and a cooperative event between The Land Conservancy (TLC) and something called the Community Farms Alliance (CFA) which, in turn, was promoting something called the Agricultural Community Commons in BC (ACCBC). Let me get this straight: TLC/CFA/ACCBC? Sounds like an alphabetical pile-up on the 401!

According to a report on the meeting, the “ACC aims to get land dedicated in perpetuity for agriculture, and then to run programs with partner agencies (financing, education, assistance with zoning changes etc) to enable prospective farmers to cultivate that land on a long term basis.”

While all this is laudable, it does little to help our local farmers market, which is ailing for lack of producers. It does little to help the growers in Boissevain, Man., where I was recently, and where I heard that labour shortage is plaguing farmers. Ask the organizers of farmers markets across the country what their most significant problem is, and they’ll tell you it is finding regular suppliers of local food. They need people who grow and sell, not yet more people to map out regional food strategies.

As a society we’d rather plan and talk rather than stoop and weed.

Understandable, but worrisome too.