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Farming just first step of local food system in Metro Van

What does a sustainable local food system look like, and how do we get there from here? Those were the key questions at a discussion on agriculture held yesterday in Vancouver.

The event, hosted by the Metro Vancouver regional district, was well-attended by organizers in the local food movement. The focus of much of the discussion was on preserving arable land in rural and urban areas.

Ensuring that agricultural land is available – and putting farmers on it -- are prerequisites to a local food system, but such a system isn't sustainable if farmers can't afford to stay in business.

"If you want to be employed and live in poverty, a good way to do this is to be a farmer," commented panelist Barry Smith, a land use planner.

Heather Pritchard, executive director of the Farm Folk/City Folk Society, said there are plenty of young people interested in urban or rural farming, but with high start-up costs and low returns they struggle to break in.

A new economic order requires better infrastructure to support small, local food production and transportation, said Brandon Owen, a culinary advisor for Neptune Food Service, a distribution company.

"There is an overwhelming response from B.C. chefs in terms of wanting B.C. local product," said Owen.

Farmer’s markets are a good way to directly meet consumer demand for local produce, he said.

"But I can’t just take a Ziplock bag of local peas to the chef at the Hyatt. In the industry, if there is any problem with the food we have to be able to trace it."

"We need to build infrastructure that can support local farmers."

This infrastructure needs to include everything from labeling, packaging and storing facilities for fresh produce, to value-added processing plants, said Owen.

Outside the food industry there are also "huge issues" around storage space for local produce, said Jason Boyce with Local Food First. It's a sentiment echoed by people involved with community food box and food bank programs in the city.

"Places like Toronto have an easier time because they have all this warehouse space downtown," said Boyce.

Candice Appleby, executive director of the Small Scale Food Processor Association, said with the influx of globalization much of B.C.'s food processing has moved off shore since the 1980s.

"There's no problem with the demand for local or regional products," she said.

"The growing opportunities are there…but you have to be able to justify the cost and benefits of building a plant. Farmers coming together is one option."

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