Thursday, September 23, 2010

Galen - you're the face I want the answers from

Dear Galen Weston,

In mid-March 2008 I sent a letter to you in which I suggested that President's Choice should buy out CanGro fruit/vegetable processors.

At that time, the company - after a series of ownership flips - was on the brink of closing its last processing plants in Ontario. They did close and there are no such, anymore, in Ontario. That spring, fruit growers in various regions of Ontario had to really scramble to find alternate markets for their produce. Some just quit - pear orchards are gone. Producers are gone. People were out of work.

I have no idea what your financial circumstances were at the time. Maybe you simply didn't have the money to buy a processing plant that would have done a lot of the good things you wrote about in an article you'd written for the Globe and Mail (Retailers are wasteful and must change, Feb. 2007). Your assistant told me you never got the stuff I sent you. And when I sent it all again, she didn't acknowledge. I was kind of ticked then ... and it looks like I'm still ticked. (I probably even still have the e-mails, but right now I'm not inclined to track them down.

Now, when a shopper goes into your stores - and because you are the face of Present's Choice I extend you to Loblaws and Superstore and all the others owned by your family - the brand names of Del Monte, Aylmer and Ideal - that used to have some Ontario fruit in their tins - are now all filled with stuff from far, far away.

I realize I can't blame you for all the food problems we have in Ontario and Canada .. but you're the Face.

So, let's come to now and your current commercials.

I'm really grumpy about your eat fresh, Ontario produce promotion on television. Not because I don't want good, fresh, Ontario produce and financially secure farmers, but because good fresh, Ontario produce isn't in your stores.

Traditionally, Ontario has been an apple producing area. My nearest ValuMart has no Ontario apples whatsoever. There seem to be - at most - three things brought in as specials at any one time, for one week promotion - not the length of a growing season.

And the thing that frosts me most right now is the plastic packages with President's Choice herbs - a few sprigs that cost about $3.00 each. Mint, Rosemary and Bay leaves come from Columbia. Chives come from Israel. Basil comes from Hawaii. Poor wee leaves.

Galen! In my garden, all three types of mint are invasive weed. Chives - in the onion family - reproduce themselves beautifully too. Rosemary and basil are both annuals in our climate. Rosemary is easy to grow from cuttings and basil will grow to seed stage in a southwestern Ontario gardening season. I've never grown Bay leaves, but I bet they could be grown in Ontario, if only in a greenhouse setting.

So, these 5 herbs could be grown in Ontario, augment the variety of crops on farms and give employment. As mentioned, there's a $3.00 price tag on the piddly quantity ... but what's the unrecorded price of plastic packaging and shipping in terms of fossil fuel? And what's the cultural cost to the people of Columbia?

And don't bother to tell me that people need fresh herbs all year 'round. No one needs fresh herbs all year 'round. That's what drying is for.

Oh yeah ... and was it one of your family stores where I saw the Peruvian asparagus that's destroying watersheds in that country? (I've been in a lot of stores lately because I've been helping a friend with shopping)

Do you realize that Canada is a food insecure country ... like Pakistan right now ... but we don't even know it?


Why's Woman

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Book notes: Teaming with Microbes

Good morning,

Working in a bookstore, I get to see all sorts of books that I never get a chance to read! Living near a library, same thing. I live with the illusion that skimming the inside and back covers, reading introductions and last chapters, and looking at illustrations will somehow be better than nothing ... since I find it so difficult to sit down and concentrate on any one book through several chapters these days.

Things run across lately include:

Teaming with Microbes: the organic Gardeners' Guide to the Soil Food Web (revised edition) by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis. Timber Press, 2010. This must be an actual text book. And just the photographs are fascinating. I'm just at the level of being able to spell mycorrhizal fungi, an entity that lives at the interface between plant roots and soil and somehow helps to ... do something important. The pictures are fascinating.

and ... this reminds me that just yesterday I pulled out some Eclipta plants and the roots were covered with funny green 'stuff', which we determined to be aphids! And my husband went online and discovered that they had been put there by ants so that the ants could harvest the "honeydew" they created and eat that. One of the roots did have an ant clinging to it as well.
Chris told me that after a few hours the aphids, which at first seemed too soft-bodied for aphids (and was why we weren't sure what they were) got a bit harder after being in the sunlight outside, and then all took off! Escape from prison. this was a really weird discovery!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

excerpt from The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time,
I rest in the grace of the world,
and am free.

Wendell Berry, excerpt from poem "The Peace of Wild Things"
quoted in Yoga for a World out of Balance: Teaching on Ethics and Social Action by Michael Stone

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Flood in southwestern Ontario? Start your garden

Greetings all,

When the floods started to hit Pakistan, I admit that I tried not to read the news. Not because I don't care about the people and their losses and developing illnesses of body and spirit, but because I kept having visions of dead animals floating through village streets, underwater masses of food crops tangling and writhing above waterlogged soil, and the microscopic agents of life in the soil being drowned or burst and - altogether - dead zones. I thought about seeds not being produced from this year's crops, in an area that depends on its own seeds. I worried about how imported seeds wouldn't be suited to the locale. I wondered about the local seed banks (individual farmers and rural cooperatives). The reality is probably worse than anything my imagination can visualize; I should perhaps be grateful for lack of imagination.

An article in yesterday's Globe & Mail (below) is about Pakistan, but read through and substitute thoughts of Southwestern Ontario ... think about what a true flood could mean to our region, our agriculture, our ability to feed ourselves. The area hit in Pakistan is a larger area than Southwestern Ontario. SWOntario calls itself an agricultural region although only about 2% of people farm. We have become dependent on food imported from just about everywhere. We are not 'food self sufficient', as was Pakistan. We might have better (closer) systems that could come save us if the whole region flooded, but we would still have to have a total rebuild.

Before you remind me that the main problem with our Great Lakes seems to be dropping water tables, let me leap to irregular rainfalls, increased severity of storms, the too great rainfall that's going to cause perhaps a 30% reduction in the Saskatchewan wheat crop, and the just passed heat wave in Russia. Despite the best science and predictive modelling, we don't know much that we need to know about global warming and climate change' effects. I notice that addenda to the IPCC reports have to do with more severe problems than initially predicted.

My solution? Get your garden started. Right now. Plant something. Plant some perennial flowers for colour and beauty. Plant a tree for shade 20 years from now. Plant some vegetables. Yes, now. Mini pak choi will germinate now and be ready for stir fry for Hallowe'en. Beet seeds put in now will give you beet tops. Spinach or swiss chard seed will give you a small harvest this fall and will probably winter over and give you a spring crop. Ask everyone you know if they have seeds or plants to share. Share some of your own. Have I mentioned 'redemption garlic'? Even the imported stuff can be planted late October and give you food next year. Get yourself to the library or bookstore and start reading about gardens. Garden, garden, garden.

Best wishes to all,

Why's Woman

Flood hit Pakistan struggles to rebuild its food system from scratch
Jessica Leeder, Global Food Reporter —Globe and Mail Published on Tuesday, Sep. 07,

What happens when, over the course of a few short weeks, a country utterly loses the ability to feed itself? The monsoons that began flooding Pakistan’s bread basket in late July – a geography roughly comparable to the spread from Paris to southern Italy – have caused the most colossal wipeout of a national food system in recent history. As the staggering tally of lost land, food stuffs, seeds stocks, livestock and poultry continues, experts remain flummoxed over how to rebuild such a wholly destroyed system – there is no pre-existing road map for where to begin.
“They have to start from scratch or even below scratch,” said Luigi Damiani, senior emergency and rehabilitation co-ordinator for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in Pakistan.

“What is scary, what is really impossible to imagine, is the dimension. The secretary general of the UN [Ban Ki-moon], when he visited, said he’s never seen something like this,” he said.

With such an unprecedented scale of damage, what experts fear most is that, whatever path they choose, the effort will be ineffective. Before the floods sank one million hectares of agricultural land, drowned the nation’s poultry sector (six million birds were lost) and destabilized more than 14 million livestock, Pakistan was “food secure,” meaning it managed to feed itself, Mr. Damiani said.

Then, Pakistan was a net producer of wheat; farmers were in the habit of saving seeds for a handful of years. Although there wasn’t much money circulating in rural communities, many got by on subsistence agriculture. It was customary to borrow and trade with neighbours to meet extra needs. “Savings” were held in the form of large animals, usually goats, cows or milk-producing buffalos. But when the flooding began, affecting more than 17 million people, entire herds – and several lifetimes’ worth of savings – were washed away.

“My five goats and one cow swept away before our eyes,” said Bhooral, a farmer and father of four who, like many in rural Pakistan, goes only by one name. The 40-year-old managed to coax one goat, a cow and a buffalo to follow the Datsun he hired to ferry his family to dry land in Hyderabad. To pay the fare, he sold the buffalo. Now, living alongside other flood victims at the austere Sabzi Mandi camp, a former vegetable market in the southern Pakistani city of Hyderabad, the family has taken to stretching their meals into portions of eight. The extra food – made with donated rice, high-energy biscuits and enriched wheat – is doled out to the family’s starving cow and goat.

“If [farmers] were able to keep their animals, they are now starving. They don’t know what to feed with,” Mr. Damiani said.

Figuring out how to feed and vaccinate the animals that families such as the Bhoorals have managed to keep alive has become a top priority for the FAO, which is responsible for co-ordinating all the non-government agriculture-related organizations on the ground. (Officials are also beginning to worry about the spread of disease among animals that have been crammed, along with their owners, into urban camps for the internally displaced.)

The other immediate priority, Mr. Damiani said, is to try to salvage what’s left of the winter planting season. Although rains have abated, water levels have been slow to recede, spiking worries over whether farmers – if they’re able to find their way back to their land – will be able to plant wheat seeds or another substitution crop in time to grow anything.

“If we don’t plant now, it means the next harvest for wheat will be April or May, 2012,” Mr. Damiani said. That would mean two guaranteed years of food instability for both people and their animals at time when the focus should be on rebuilding the country’s animal stocks.

“You cannot just produce six million new chicks,” Mr. Damiani said. “To re-establish the system, it will take time.”

Rebuilding the country’s capacity to feed itself is also critical for Pakistan’s long-term stability. Officials fear that if agriculture is no longer a viable means of subsistence, the country’s rural regions will be permanently abandoned and a mass population shift will take place into Pakistan’s already-crowded urban centres.
“Can you imagine the social cost of something like this? Mr. Damiani said.

“Agriculture prevents all this and generates a little wealth in small communities.”