Day 2, pm – Food: Today, Tomorrow, Together Conference

After lunch, I was finally able to move from the auditorium into the more small-group friendly rooms for the day’s second breakout session. Titled “The Capacity of the Alberta Food System”, I was disappointed that the content didn’t actually provide more information about the capacity of the Alberta food system.

Candace Vanin, an agrologist with the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation, Administration, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada provided some interesting facts:

  • 8% of land in Canada is suitable for food production, with over 80% of that farmland positioned on the prairies;
  • Edmonton has a fairly good agro-climactic zone (rated 2H on a scale of 1-7, with 1 being excellent for agricultural activity), and has 143 frost-free days due to the geographic “bowl” the city is situated in; and
  • there are 170 census farms in Edmonton, and that 80-90% of all broccoli, cauliflower and beets in Alberta are grown in the Edmonton area.

Paul Cabaj of the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal talked about the results of a survey he conducted, but didn’t have anything particularly of interest to contribute except a mention of a social enterprise project. Apparently a group in Edmonton would like to start a greenhouse on the lands around the Alberta Hospital site to sell half of the produce to local restaurants, and use the profits to be able to provide the rest of the produce to low-income families.

Someone at the end of the session asked the obvious question – “What is the capacity of Alberta’s food system?”, and while neither presenter had an answer (partly because the answer would change yearly and be completely hypothetical), local economist Mark Anielski, who had participated in a panel discussion earlier in the day has estimated that Alberta would be able to support less than 10% of its population on its current agricultural production.

The last breakout session of the day was my favourite of the entire conference – the “Realities of Farming” offered two producers the opportunity to talk about their firsthand experience. Gene Brown, a small rancher with 170 cattle, was so honest and so well-intentioned that I wished that more people could hear him speak.

He talked about some of the changes they had implemented on their ranch over the last few years to make their farm more environmentally sound, including rotational grazing and water pumping. They also adapted some methods to reduce the stress on animals, like utilizing plastic nose paddles for seven days prior to separating the calf from its mother (meaning that they cannot receive milk from their mothers, but they have the security of being by their side for a week longer), and planting shelter trees along the side of their farm that borders the highway. Gene was very positive in his assessment of their farming business, saying that it was a lifestyle he would not give up, as it allowed him to be close to nature, and have flexible days. He closed his presentation with this: “Of all the crops we’ve produced, the ones we are most proud of are our children.” Aw.

Gwen Simpson, of Inspired Market Gardens was up next. She heavily emphasized how difficult it is for farmers to make a living in the current climate. She provided an example of her counterparts at Sunshine Organic Farm, who only make $2 per organic, pasture-raised chicken, and that doesn’t include the wages they have to pay to employees, insurance, certification, or transportation to farmers’ markets. Other notable facts:

  • Alberta lost 7.1% of their farmers (since which year, I didn’t note down). The average age of a farmer in Alberta is 52, and in the last 5 years, the province has lost 25% of farmers under the age of 35.
  • Canadians surveyed by the OECD ranked communication and health the #1 and #2 things they would be willing to pay top dollar for. Food ranked #11.
  • In 1988, 1.44kg of pork cost $6.88. In 2002, 1.46kg of pork cost $9.54, with the difference collected by the retailer and the processor, and not the farmer.

Gwen introduced the idea that perhaps farmers should be seen more as our doctors, as what we eat has a direct impact on our health. She noted that people should be willing to pay more for good food, especially if one considers proper nutrition as a means of disease prevention.


Gwen Simpson

We had another open space discussion prior to dinner, but for the life of me, I can’t remember which group I huddled around – being reliant on the notes in my Moleskine is a detriment to some extent.

I returned from dinner refreshed and ready for the final portion of the evening – a lecture from Carol Off, journalist, host of a CBC radio show, and author of Bitter Chocolate, a book that exposed the human rights violations of the cocoa industry. Immediately after her presentation, I was a bit disappointed with what I thought was a lack of content, but now, a few days later, I think it was a well-rounded case study of a commodity, peppered with people that she met throughout her visit to the Ivory Coast to investigate the situation.

“Food is the biggest story of our time,” Off opened. She gave a brief history of cocoa, and how it eventually became a prized commodity in the Western world. Her lecture then centered around the three factors that in her opinion led to the destruction of modern Africa and cocoa production: the greed and corruption of Africa’s leaders, the Structural Adjustment Programs heralded by the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, and corporate amorality by the multinationals that now “own” cocoa, and are able to drive down the price with their monopoly. On this last point, she explained, as farmers cannot afford to pay their employees because of the low rate they receive, they turn to the cheapest labour available – slave labour of children. Sadly, she even saw mothers purposely sending children into the Ivory Coast from neighbouring Mali – mothers that were hoping that being employed in cocoa plantations would guarantee them food they would not otherwise have. She herself does not eat anything but fair trade chocolate, or chocolate that contains cocoa sourced from anywhere but Africa, and reminded the audience, “When you take a bite of chocolate, just remember who’s life you’re eating.”

One of her suggested “solutions” to the problem was empowerment – of the cocoa farmers (to be able to organize, and to be aware of the true value of their product), and of us. She introduced the idea that would be rampant on day 3 of the conference that people need to stop viewing themselves as “consumers” – “The power to change lies with citizens and not consumers,” she said. Citizens can force the government to legislate the needed change – for example, introducing a bill that bans companies from importing cocoa farmed by children (in 2001, Senators Hawkin and Engel in the U.S. tried to pass what is known as the “Cocoa Protocol” to have done just this, but cocoa lobby forced their request to become voluntary only).


Carol Off

I was pretty beat by this time, but stopped in the cafeteria area to sample some included wine (from enSante, who, I am happy to announce, were granted an extension of their farmgate license and will be allowed to sell their wine at farmers’ markets this summer!) and cheese (from Sylvan Star Cheese, among others).

Day 2, am – Food: Today, Tomorrow, Together Conference

I did my best to try and blog on Friday night, but it seems my threshold for processing information was 10 hours. My cold didn’t help matters either, but now I have some catching up to do.

At any rate, the theme of day 2 was “what’s happening on local, provincial and national level”, and I think the committee did a great job of organizing sessions that addressed this topic. I started off the morning with a full thermos of coffee, the cinnamon bun I received yesterday at the Taste of Alberta, and a keynote by Elbert van Donkersgoed, Executive Director of the Greater Toronto Area Agricultural Action Committee. He talked about building blocks of a sustainable food system, with emphasis on farming just outside major cities – apparently, the value of production per acre is higher for farms closer to the city. Van Donkersgoed spent the initial few minutes deconstructing the notion of a “locavore”, and using statistics from an Ipsos Reid poll and a survey, tried to prove that though the locavore craved convenience, they are not just a passing fad. For example, 42% of Canadians reported in the poll that they had purchased locally-grown food in the last six months, 70% of the Royal Winter Fair patrons surveyed said that they change their diet seasonally, and 63% of the Fair patrons claimed they buy food based on where it comes from as opposed to the price. I was sceptical of these numbers, if not only because I think people respond to such question with the answer they think is “right” as opposed to the one that best describes their habits.

Van Donkersgoed argued that the business of farming needs to change to accommodate the rise of the locavore. He said that seasonality must be emphasized (to the point where consumers cannot get enough of the sun-kissed taste of a just-picked strawberry), consumers need to be educated on how to store fresh produce properly, and the structure of the food value chain (where supermarkets are currently the gatekeeper) must change.

He talked about Occombe Farm Store in the UK, which sells the produce of 40 local farms within 50km of the store. Situated on a conservation authority, residents can visit the farm not only to fulfill their shopping needs, but to reconnect with the land. The Edmonton Regional Tourist Group has organized opportunities for people to visit Edmonton’s countryside, but I agree with his point that urban sprawl must be reduced in favour of preserving (and ideally, increasing) the farmland around metropolitan centres.

It didn’t occur to me until he reiterated his points on Saturday afternoon, but van Donkersgoed was the only speaker that I heard over the course of the conference that wasn’t beating the drum of extreme change. Most of the speakers called for extreme shifts in thinking and practice, but for the majority of the population out there, such change just won’t happen. I’m glad van Donkersgoed expressed a more realistic (and small step) approach.

Our food-filled breaks began with a locally-sourced yogurt parfait – the yogurt was from Lacombe’s Bles-Wold Dairy, granola from Highwood River’s Highwood Crossing, and rhubarb and apple from enSante Winery. The granola, I should mention, was absolutely delicious.

Following the break, we reassembled in the auditorium for the first of three “open space” discussions. Attendees who had burning ideas were asked to lead table discussions and record the key points that had been brought up on flipchart paper. This was a good idea in theory, but with over 200 people in the room and only 6 volunteer leaders, needless to say, the groups were a little larger than they should have been.  Also, I could just see Mack shaking his head at the flipchart pages, and scolding that a wiki should be used instead. Apparently, the ideas will be collected and sent to all participants eventually, so hopefully some good will come out of them.

Wall of ideas

My first breakout session of the conference was called “Tensions in Food Security: promoting local food versus poverty”. Some points of interest:

  • 9.2% of Canadian households in 2004 were described as being food insecure, 2.9% of those being severe cases;
  • food banks, running on a supply versus nutritional need basis, fail to provide dietary adequacy, and their charitable model of program delivery makes it difficult for people to express unmet needs; and
  • the importance of food sovereignty and the need to “decommodify food” (Cathleen Kneen, of Food Secure Canada).


Valerie Tarasuk, Cathleen Kneen and Sherri Chisan wait for their turn to speak

Lunch consisted of a great mix of dishes – roasted bison au jus from Stettler’s Carmen Creek Bison, coleslaw, roasted potatoes and glazed parsnips and carrots from Edmonton’s Sunfresh Farms, a hearty bean casserole from Grainworks, barley fruit salad with barley from Progressive Seeds, bread from Bon Ton Bakery, and pastured butter from Bonnyville’s Johnson Family Farm. I felt bad for the chef at the bison carving station, who had to serve all hungry attendees, but he did a great job being patient with the demand. My favourite dish ended up being the glazed parsnips and carrots – simple but delicious.