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Slow Food's Growing Pains

Want to eat local? You'll have to get in line.

Bryan Zandberg 27 Dec

Bryan Zandberg is on staff at The Tyee.

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Short on supply.

If you're one of those people who has the next week's winter farmer's market pencilled in on your calendar, you've probably already learned to contend with the stampede.

"The demand for local produce is skyrocketing and there is nothing we can do to stop it," says Tara McDonald, pointing to the record-breaking sales her organization, Your Local Farmer's Market Society, is chalking up once again this year. When all is said and done, her three markets will likely have sold two million dollars of farm-fresh goods in 2006.

Eating locally has become something of a micro-craze: in 2005, shoppers snapped up an average of $10,000 worth of edibles an hour at the bottle-necked bazaar in East Vancouver, which, like its counterpart at Riley Park, has become hectic and overcrowded.

But while fans of the 100-Mile Diet are justified in seeing the trend as cause for jubilation, the once-folksy weekend affairs have grown too big for their britches. A look at what it will take to expand the markets shows that McDonald, who's dead-set on heaping up this city's dinner-plates with as much home-grown goodness as possible, has her work cut out for her.

Canada's organic growers declining

The rising interest in eating local and eating healthy has to contend with a national decline in organic growers and a dependence on foreign food, according to a recently released Canadian Organic Growers report. The study showed that while demand for pesticide and GMO-free food is up 20 per cent a year in Canada, more than 90 per cent of organics come from the U.S. or overseas. Not only that, but the number of organic producers is actually declining in Canada.

B.C., the nation's organic anomaly, showed "strong growth" in 2005, according to the report's author, Anne Macey. But even though the number of organic farms in the province was up 9.5 per cent over 2004, it's unlikely that trend will continue.

McDonald says many of the vendors in her society -- many of whom are or are becoming organic -- are looking to retire soon, and wondering who will take over when they do.

"This is really a very critical issue and a turning point in British Columbia," she says.

At 62 years of age, long-time organic vegetable producer Susan Davidson puts irony of the problem in perspective with the following: "We've come a long way in 20 years," she explains. "Now we've got a ton of people that want to buy local, we've got a few bits of land that we've protected, and we've exhausted all the farmers."

Davidson isn't interested in trying to sow more acres and cash in on the local eating fad. She's hoping instead to recruit young people into the co-operative agricultural lifestyle she's enjoyed over the years.

"I want to grow more farmers," she says simply.

Real estate pressures and the shrinking availability of farmland are two factors that weigh on her mind. As developers pry more and more farmland out of the Agricultural Land Reserve, it stands to reason that the shrinking acreage left over will become too expensive for new ranks of local growers to buy.

Meat processing bottleneck

There are other worries local markets have to contend with, according to Laura Telford, who works at with Canadian Organic Growers: another snag is a dire lack of processing facilities, especially for meat.

According to Telford, demand for organic livestock grows between 40 and 60 per cent a year. Supply, however, lags far behind: "People cannot find organic meat and they are asking everybody for it."

Jennifer Cunningham, the sole lamb vendor at any of the farmer's markets in Vancouver, says she has to pull a lot of strings just to have her animals butchered.

Getting animals into a slaughterhouse is nearly impossible for smaller operations like hers, a 2000-acre ranch north of Kamloops. And processing her livestock got that much harder with a recent provincial decision to force all animals sold for public consumption to be slaughtered at licensed facilities rather than on farms themselves, as they used to be. This puts more pressure on existing plants, says Cunningham, and means the likelihood of seeing new specialty meat vendors crop up at Vancouver markets pretty slim.

"A lot of the processing plants aren't set up for feeding local," she says.

The costs at the organic plant she uses in Salmon Arm are high. Testimony to the sheer scale of modern industrial agriculture, she has to pay an $80 fee per lamb, in part so the entrails and offal can be trucked off to Alberta. The reason: there are no licensed incinerators in B.C.

Given financial and bureaucratic disincentives like these, Cunningham says the premium prices Vancouverites will pay are the only thing that keeps her way of life alive.

"If we didn't have that, I would have been out of agriculture a long time ago."

Limits to local markets

According to several surveys they've conducted, McDonald says at least 15 to 20 per cent of Trout Lake's clientele make a weekly trip from their homes on the west side of the city, which is something she wants to change.

"Our mandate is really to establish neighbourhood farmer's markets, so that people can walk or ride their bicycles," she says.

Kitsilano, Dunbar, Kerrisdale and Marpole have all sent requests to McDonald, asking her to bring markets to their communities.

Devorah Kahn, however, is skeptical that the popularity of the Trout Lake market could be repeated. Kahn, co-ordinator of Vancouver's Food Policy Council, says neighbourhoods like Kitsilano already have lots of competitive food stores that cater to local eaters, places like Capers and Choices.

Some vendors, for their part, balk at the idea of partitioning Trout Lake or Riley Park. The owners of Little Qualicum Cheeseworks, for example, say they couldn't manage to set up shop at any other locations because they can't afford more staff.

"We simply couldn't spread ourselves any thinner," says Nancy Gourlay, on the phone in her parlour in Parksville. Catching ferries, loading vehicles, setting up and selling at two of the three Vancouver markets (which are staggered so vendors can operate at both and thus keep clients closer to home) is already a logistical tightrope for Gourlay, who prefers a high concentration of clients to running around to five different places.

Hot products

They don't exactly grow cheesemakers on trees these days, either. Which means that if McDonald does manage to create new markets in different neighbourhoods, each new locale will be hard-pressed to find the kind of big-ticket vendors -- the ones who sell things like grass-fed beef, goat's cheese and organic mutton -- that at present are the main attractions. Not willing to miss out, people make the drive to Trout Lake.

McDonald knows the problem all too well, and is determined to resolve it by convincing B.C.'s producers to effect a shift in the regional economy and "bring things back home."

"BC's producers are very much set up for export right now. So it's going to take years to kind of bring the contracts back around to the local market," she says.

McDonald has met many producers that would be happy to supply restaurants and households here in the Lower Mainland, but doing so requires extensive planning.

"People have to re-strategize," she says, since it takes time to restructure things like land use, contracts, crop rotations, barn-building, machinery, and land acquisition.

Legal limbo

Switching gears from export to domestic markets also requires certain assurances that the local market is stable and reliable, says McDonald.

Farmer's markets currently operate in a state of legal limbo, which may make convincing more growers to come on board a tough sell.

"Even though the markets have been going for 12 years, we operate via a special events permit at all of our venues," says McDonald. Year in, year out, she has to justify the raison d'être for the markets at city hall just to win the necessary approval.

"In any given year it could be removed, it could be shortened, we could be physically moved," she says. "And we may be at a number of our locations because they are Olympic development sites."

Both the Riley Park and Trout Lake markets are in fact being shooed from their current sites by construction for 2010; the former for a curling facility and the latter a skating rink.

If the mere thought of Vancouver 2010 induces slight pangs of nausea or even dread for many in the city, McDonald, by contrast, is hoping to leverage the Olympics in order to entrench the markets as a Vancouver institution. "To become a part of the city's landscape," she says, adding in the next breath that continual news of 2010 cost overruns has her worried about that dream becoming a reality.

Olympic dreams

Assuming it does, what would that look like? Once they can secure permanent locations, the society will raise enough money to build covered structures at each market, starting with Riley Park, which has such a building in the works under the 2010 master plan for those grounds. The structures would be multi-purpose and free for public use most days of the week. They'll also ensure customers don't have to run for cover during the downpours that kill market days at present.

But for structures to go up at existing and new markets, McDonald will need to get a couple of things accomplished at city hall. The first is to convince the parks board that farmer's markets are a justifiable use of public green space. The second, more difficult, project is to pass a legal framework that would give the society the right to set up markets in certain areas, like schools or parks.

The latter, according to Kahn, is highly unlikely.

"Currently there is no real mention of markets in any of the zoning by-laws" she says. Changing them, however, would be "a very big piece of work," likely 20 years in the making. But she can see why the society views the permanence issue as key to get them to the next step.

"Farmer's markets being able to be used on any zoning would ease that concern," she says.

Shopping 'intensity'

Re-zoning headaches, bureaucratic hurdles, aging growers, shrinking farmland and the promises of an over-budget Olympic committee: the farmer's market society has an up-hill battle ahead of it. In the meantime, expect line-ups and maybe even a little un-Canadian elbowing as you jockey for some rare prize at the city's farmer's markets over the weekend and into next summer.

Davidson, on one hand both delighted and thankful to be earning a living from the wave of interest, says she's also a bit worried that the local eating movement is becoming a victim of it's own popularity. At Vancouver's winter markets, the high number of people can feel a bit like a crush of consumers.

"It's nobody's good time having that kind of intensity happening in what is supposed to be a slow-food movement," she surmises. "It's almost on the edge of becoming anti-social."

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