Paul Hoepfner-Homme, 26, shows off his ripening cherry tomatoes, chard, zucchinis, and a myriad of other vegetables. It was only earlier this year that Paul converted a gravel parking space into a bio-intensive garden behind his rented apartment in downtown Toronto.
Three years ago, while in the midst of his computer science degree at the University of Waterloo, Paul had an epiphany while reading Daniel Quinnâe(TM)s Ishmael, a book that criticizes modernity and its unsustainable relationship to the environment.
“I couldn’t help but agree [with the book],” says Paul, who a year later would begin volunteering on an organic farm outside Toronto, inspiring the creation of his backyard garden and thoughts of starting his own organic farm.
Increasingly, Canadians are tuning into the organics movement. Studies commissioned by the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC) estimate that last year saw over $1 billion in total retail sales of certified organic products, with supermarkets seeing a growth of 28 per cent from 2005 to 2006 in the sale of organic products.
Gerda Wekerle, an environmental studies professor from York University, says the growth in the organics market has arisen for a variety of reasons, including the cost associated with fertilizers and pesticides required in industrial farming as well as environmental and health concerns.
But Wekerle, along with other critics, warns that the organics moniker has been adopted by the corporate agricultural industry as a marketing tool since “the environment sells at the moment.”Outfit retailers like multinational Wholefoods and Loblaws for example, rely increasingly on a smaller group of wholesalers who are owned by large conventional companies like General Mills and Kraft Foods. For these large outfits, âeoeorganicâe does not necessarily mean humane treatment for animals, nor does it mean regionally grown.
The corporate organic industry in many ways calls into question the original philosophy of organics: health and the environment. Produce loses its freshness and nutritional value through long-distance transport, and the environmental impact of long-distance trucking and energy for refrigeration is environmentally damaging.
The Food Security Movement
It’s people like Paul Hoepfner-Homme, who garden and purchase locally-grown produce, that Wekerle might say are part of what is called the food security movement.
âeoeThe food security movement has often focused on local and on the ground solutions,âe says Wekerle, âeoefrom urban agriculture and community gardening to seed saving and farmers’ markets.âe
âeoeThey have engaged local communities, social movements and NGOs and local governments. The focus has been on quality of life, quality of food and creating community. This has engaged people where they live.âe
This certainly strikes a chord with Katherine McCord, 25, who, along with her partner Luke and two other friends, is in her second season as an organic farmer in New Brunswick.
“We were reading a lot of books on food issues, and we were really surprised at how little people knew about food,” says McCord, of the time which led her to begin farming. “We started WOOF-ing [volunteering on organic farms] in British Columbiaâe¦ and we had thought about doing a garden project with a school.”
It was only when visiting her sister in New Brunswick, whose in-laws owned property that housed an abandoned farm, that McCord set in motion plans to create an organic farm.
Community Supported Agriculture
Organic farming is hard work, with little help from governments on initial start-up costs or support during the period of transition, where farmers wait several years before their crops can be certified organic. And then of course there’s stiff competition from the industrial organics sector.
In response to these pressures, (local) organic farms in Canada are using innovative ways of marketing their products.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is one form, where members of a community buy shares in the coming year’s crop, providing farmers with enough money during crucial months when seeds and other supplies must be purchased. This often means paying a little more for produce than you would at the grocery store.
“I think the emphasis on local is the new organic,” says McCord, explaining why people would support local organic farms by joining a CSA. “What I’m seeing is the local interest in agriculture taking off.”
This is certainly also true for Stacey Holland, 37, a volunteer at an organic farm just outside Toronto, who says that the CSA for Everdale, an organic farm outside Toronto that she volunteers for, is at capacity.
Holland, who has taken a leave from her position in sales at the CBC to volunteer at Everdale, and also plans to start her own organic farm one day, represents another facet thatâe(TM)s helping organic farms: volunteerism.
Worldwide Working Opportunities on Organic Farms
Although Holland was recruited to Everdale at a farmer’s market in downtown Toronto, most come to volunteer on organic farms through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an organization that helps connect volunteers to organic farms around the world. Volunteers learn about organic farming, and receive room (which ranges from a bed to a spot to pitch a tent) and board.
John Vanden Heuvel, founder of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms Canada, says he’s seen a large increase in membership.
“The last couple of years, we’ve been crossing the 2,000 barrier,” says Vanden Heuvel, “and this year we’ll probably hit the 2,500.”
Vanden Heuvel says he now has 650 organic farms in his registry, up from just 10 when he first founded the organization in 1985. He says word of mouth, both in gaining new member farms and volunteers, is the main mode through which his organization has grown so much.
“Many hosts that are serious organic farmers depend on the help, they can’t afford to pay for extra needed help,” says Vanden Heuvel. Many farmers, he says, have told him: “we wouldn’t have been able to get through the summer without WWOOFer help.”
The free help for organic farmers, he says, has even raised the ire of non-organic farmers who have to pay for extra help.
One unfortunate aspect of the organics movement in Canada is that it’s mostly accessible for those with enough income. Organic and local products are often more costly than industrially-farmed products. Taking time off to volunteer on an organic farm usually implies you have the means to travel and some kind of support when you come home. The initial capital in purchasing and starting a new farm is also a hindrance.
High end restaurateurs are also picking up on the local making it more of a luxury item. Well-known Toronto chef Jamie Kennedy sources most of his food locally and runs his own farm in Prince Edward County. At his downtown wine bar, one wall is covered by preserves from the farm, sending the message to the elite clientele that bioregional is in.
His message is that you cannot promote local foods by beating people over the head with messages about “ecological footprints” and “carbon emissions.” Instead you have to sell the local by “making it delicious.” Fine if you can afford it.
But there are initiatives that address accessibility. The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto, for example, “works to increase people’s access to healthy food in a manner that maintains dignity, builds community and challenges inequality.” Its services centre on how “food can bring people together to break down social isolation and improve their quality of life.” The operation of community kitchens and dining, urban agriculture and a food bank are strategies The Stop uses to promote the idea that food is a basic human right.
The provision of allotment gardens to high-rise dwellers throughout Toronto is another means to empower less privileged people to grow their own food.
Clearly, organic food is a complex phenomenon that needs close scrutiny. How do you define it? Who has access to it? Growing food locally is clearly one fruitful direction, though providing access to both rich and poor remains a challenge.