Farmers Need You as a Foul Weather Friend
A Cape Breton Perspective
by Emily Rosta
What does it mean to support local food at times when food supply is reduced?
Severe weather conditions can disrupt the food supply at both local and global scales. Most of us are all too familiar with the fluctuating prices and availability in our local grocery stores.
As part of my role with the Pan Cape Breton Food Hub Co-op, I’ve spent the summer travelling across the island to meet and chat with farmers. Being someone who lives exclusively on the “consumer” side of local food, I am excited to share what I’ve learned while exploring the “producer” side of the food chain.
This year, poor weather has limited the selection of fresh produce being sold at the Food Hub throughout June and early July. Understandably, I’ve seen this result in disappointed customers. However, despite their disappointment, people continue to be dedicated to buying local.
While lack of variety early in the season can reduce the colour and flavour of summer meals, the financial implications felt by farmers can be potentially devastating. Hotter than normal temperatures over the past few weeks have created growing issues for certain vegetables and made it difficult for farmers to keep animals cooled and watered.
For my first stop, I visited Beautiful Hill Farm in Mabou, Cape Breton. Here, owner Rhonda Kaine noted that the region always has a tough growing climate, but crop losses this year have been greater than usual. She showed me an entire section of field covered in a white sheet. She has named this the “crop burial ground”. Given that Rhonda and her husband already work extra jobs to make ends meet, this type of loss cannot be easy. Overall, Rhonda stressed that difficulty finding employees in her area remains her greatest barrier. This lack of manpower is continually threatening to shut-down her farming operation.
Most recently, I’ve chatted with Mary Bent, owner of Mary’s Garden in Ainslie Glen, Cape Breton. Having maintained her garden for forty-four years, Mary was able to comment on the long term impact of climate change. Her biggest concern? Less severe winters combined with cooler June temperatures have caused the striped cucumber beetle to become a constant presence in her garden. Although Mary was once known for her squash, she now struggles to produce a few each year due to crops lost to the beetle.
Fortunately, many producers in Cape Breton were eager to tell me about their creative solutions to combat the changing climate. For Mary Bent, the answer has been purchasing ducks to control the striped cucumber beetle. I was impressed by her dedication to avoiding chemical pesticides in her garden.
Len Vassallo, owner of Blue Heron Farm in Gardiner Mines, Cape Breton, decided to build a walk-in fridge using steel door cut-outs. Len says this has been crucial to maintaining the quality of produce harvested during the hot summer months. Len also uses steel cut-outs to build cold frames. At Blue Heron Farm, employee Sara Roth told me that their use of crop diversification and succession planting has greatly protected them against major losses this season. Nonetheless, Sara & Len agreed that their crops were still several weeks behind the previous year.
As consumers, we too can think of creative ways to support local farmers during challenging seasons. This year at the Pan Cape Breton Food Hub Co-op, we’ve seen our customers increasing their purchases of local meat and preparing unique vinaigrettes to dress-up their salad greens.
When someone joins a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), they agree to buy-into the risk associated with farming. However, as supporters of local food, I suggest that we all “buy-into” this attitude, regardless of whether or not we are members of a CSA. How to do this? I recommend talking to your farmers, expressing your support and appreciation for their struggles, and volunteering to help build greenhouses or covering crops. You can continue to shop at farmers’ markets, visit restaurants that serve local food, or check your grocery store for local items. Keep buying what IS available and most of all, be patient!
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