Food Security, Food Sustainability, Local Food availability, Supporting small farmers

Sometimes, you can’t see the pumpkins for the trees

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I’m still looking. But, as with any wicked problem, you need to refine and rephrase the problem as you go. I’m now working with the City of Richmond and Richmond Food Security Society, funded by VanCity Envirofund to look at the feasibility of a food hub in Richmond. But it presents some interesting problems.

Food hubs in Western Canada haven’t often worked well, at least the few that have been tried. There are a number of hoops to go through and failure is the best teacher. With the help of experienced food distribution expert, Darren Stott, I’m talking to farmers again. But the questions are different. We’re avoiding saying “food hub”. The question isn’t, “can we make a food hub work”. The question is, “how can we make distribution and sales easier for smaller mixed-crop farmers so that they can make a decent living”. I’ve talked to some keen folks, and I’ve talked to some who are dog-tired from trying to push the same rock up the same slippery slope.

What we hope to get is the answer from the farmers themselves. And whatever answer it is, the farmers need to embrace it and own it and make it work. We’re aiming for next steps come November.

If you see my pumpkin, can you let me know where it is?

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Food Security, Food Sustainability

Asking for Expert Input

Small, local mixed-crop farmers are a dying breed. The average age of a BC farmer is 59 years. Despite the great urban farming efforts of good people like Sole Food Street Farms and Fresh Roots, making a living as a farmer is not sustainable under current conditions. Small farmers are not making enough money for the food they grow. They have second jobs, and the farm keeps losing money.

What that means is that we depend more and more on big factory farms growing massive swaths of monocultures to be our only source of food. Think about it. Living off chemically fertilized, chemically pest-protected food that is harvested under-ripe and shipped thousands of miles. Then think about that one virus — that one pest that beats the chemicals and thrives.

Our food supply is neither secure or sustainable.

My name is Casey Hrynkow. I’ve been working on a food project for the last 6 months called Dangling the Local Carrot. My ultimate goal with this project is to find a way to make local produce more accessible and affordable in Metro Vancouver.

I am at the point where I have begun to consider the idea of a Food Hub for Metro Vancouver. This would be a place for produce to be collected, sorted, washed, bundled and shipped out to customers. It would be a place with a commercial kitchen to use during the growing season and to rent in the off season. During that off season, farmers could come in, share ideas about the next seasons’ planting and get new training in technology and business.  If you are familiar with the planned New City Market, I see this concept as slightly simpler and, perhaps, a piece that fits with the Market. I have yet to speak with anyone at Local Food First, but will follow up this week.

As my project (at least within the Leading by Design Fellows Program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco) is drawing to a close, with a presentation due November 1, I am looking for expert input on some of my very rough ideas. If you are someone in finance, farming, food processing, food retail, food education, farm education, food wholesale, a restaurateur, a caterer or someone in government who knows about food distribution and/or farming, I would be so grateful for your input. You can find my 10-question survey here.

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Copyright Bert Aldridge and Heyday, Wellington, NZ

What I hope to present at California College of the Arts on November 1 is a business model for further development (see framework below). I know that the regulation and consultation around a project like this often takes years, so I am under no illusion that a perfected Food Hub will magically appear, but I see value in it, and the dozens of experts I have spoken to this far also see value in it. So, I will proceed and hope that the planets align. As a partnership with project already in development or going it alone, I think this carrot has legs.

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Food Security, Food Sustainability, Local Food availability

Trying to Find a Reason for Farming

It seems like trying to find a reason for the sun to come up. Farmers just do it. There is no logical or fiscal wisdom to deciding that it’s a really good idea to start getting up at 5:oo am, do back-breaking work until the sun goes down, have terrible cash flow and have to have a second job so you can pay your help and buy seed.

I have spoken to several farmers — some younger, some older. Some still have a fire burning in their belly, some not so much. But all truly care about farming and doing things right. They care about food and food security. They care about the planet.

It shouldn’t be this unrewarding (financially, at least) to grow the food that we all need. We shouldn’t have to bring in those tomatoes from Chile (please, don’t buy them!). As consumers, we need to be more focussed on supporting the local grower. And I’m looking for ways to make it marginally better for small-scale, mixed-crop farmers to stay in the business and feel the love.

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Food Security, Food Sustainability, Local Food availability

And…Pivot!

I spent all of this past weekend in my office mapping (NOT napping), thinking and reading. I am finding much more focus now. The fact is that small-scale farmers can’t afford to live on the income they make from farming alone. With that kind of carrot on the stick, there aren’t going to be a lot of people motivated to farm. Fewer local farms = less local produce = higher prices = more imported food.  And there I am, back where I started, eyes tearing with frustration at having to buy Mexican tomatoes.

Fewer local farms = less local produce = higher prices = more imported food.

So my target is distribution, with my “customers” being small-scale local farmers as primary and “retailers” as secondary (retailers in quotes as these can be anyone from the farmers themselves to smaller grocery stores). The distribution element has come up over and over again as one of the three biggest barriers to accessibility of local food, the others being education (farmers and the public for different reasons) and business acumen.

I will facilitate a workshop with some of the wonderful people I have interviewed over the course of the last few months. They are experts. They know the problem space. I will also include design students whose wide-open thinking can help pull people who are too deep in the problem out of their comfort zone. I will invite a couple of people with food logistics expertise to help inform things from a larger scale…and well see what we can come up with! I plan to work with the many research and facilitation skills I have acquired through the Leading by Design Program and the goal will be to generate as many possible business models as possible.

I’m looking forward to this. I want to see small-scale mixed farming grow the thrive in and around Metro Vancouver. I’m hoping I can be part of the solution.

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Food Security, Food Sustainability, Local Food availability

Backing Up the Truck

There are so many issues around making local produce production and supply work.

I’ve been frustrating myself looking at how to get local produce to consumers. Maybe I need to rethink this? My issue at the very start of this project was distribution and I think I’m coming full circle. First of all, what is local? That is a thesis question on its own, but I think working with a 100-mile circle around Vancouver is good start, and Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon already broke that ground. As a reminder, I’m not advocating going without oranges and pineapples if you want them,  but simply not buying food that has been grown thousands of miles away when we can grow it here. It hurts our economy and it hurts the small farmers who grow local food at significant personal cost. It puts that food in trucks which dump carbon into the atmosphere and the time it takes to get it here leeches nutritional value from the food.  ‘Nuff said about that.100 Mile RadiusI want to make local food more accessible and more affordable. So what does accessible mean? Is it convenient? Is it available close to home? And what about affordable? Compared to what? Imported tomatoes from Chile? Subsidized produce dumped here from thousands of miles away? Is that affordable? To a low income family — damned straight it is! On the hierarchy of needs, it’s eat first and worry about the world a little later.

ThinkingSeptember14OneAccessing local produce in North America is — tragically — a first world problem. But I don’t think that should make it a choice only for higher income families. So, how do I connect these local farmers with markets without adding costs to them?

What pre-existing distribution models can I borrow/piggy-back on to make this work? I’m working on that…

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Food Security, Food Sustainability, Local Food availability

“…if you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta.”

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Food deserts. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. South Central Los Angeles is one big food desert. What is a food desert? It’s a place where you have lower to lowest incomes, fast food outlets everywhere and a not a fresh fruit or vegetable in sight. Ron Finley lives in South Central. He is an artist and, obviously, a big idea guy. He started using city land to grow food and his story is awesome. Here is his TED talk from this past February.

I’m thinking now about how to make gardening more gangsta. We need more local produce. That is becoming clear in my research. We need more to increase supply to meet the growing demand, more to increase competition and keep prices realistic. A challenge I’ve discovered is to how to make it sustainable to be a farmer. If farmers can’t earn a decent living, we won’t have any farmers. How do we balance that decent living with food prices that average people can pay?

“Funny thing about sustainability is that it has to be sustainable.”

Urban farming is a huge piece of the puzzle. It grows food that is accessible to those who need it, often at no cost to them. It teaches youth about where food comes from and what it takes to make it happen. As Ron says, “if a kid grows kale, he eats kale”. I love what Ron is doing. Fresh Roots and Sole Food Street Farm are doing similar things in Vancouver.

Food security is what we call a “wicked problem”. It is like a hydra with whipping tentacles everywhere. It will take people like Ron Finley; Ilana Labow and Marc Shutzbank from Fresh Roots; and Michael Ableman and Seann J Dory from Sole Foods to contribute to slaying this beast. I hope to add my shovel to the battle.

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Food Security, Food Sustainability, Local Food availability

Is Local Just Too Gucci?

I’m starting to realize that, because people want locally grown produce at a groundswell-movement level, it has become a luxury of sorts. Why? Are some people perhaps taking advantage of the demand to push prices up? Not to be too “mother earth” about this, but we are all human beings on a planet that is beginning to groan with the weight of supporting all of us and our acquisitive natures.

Maybe there needs to be less “what’s in it for me” and more “what can I do to help out”? People for Good is giving it a shot. It seems a bit vague right now, but there are people willing to put their money where there hearts are.

When I lost my husband in March last year, my world fell apart. But Ray and I were never the kind of couple that let tragedy get in our way. I wasn’t going to be that kind of widow. I felt inspired by my loss. I felt motivated to make something better out of it. And that’s why I’m working on Dangling the Local Carrot. I will do many more things like this, but this is my “training-wheels project” to learn some of the skills to make change happen.

What concerns me at this point in my current learning curve is that what attracted me to working on this project is a cultural meme — and people have jumped on it like a fat kid on a Smartie to find a way to make it hugely profitable. Local is the new “gold standard” and, just because it’s local, it’s a lot more expensive.

But why does it cost that much more when it gets to an urban farmer’s market where people will trample each other for cute little pattypan squashes?

I had a fabulous talk with Linda Delli Santi, Executive Director of BC Greenhouse Growers Association this afternoon. She gave me a quick flyover of what the greenhouse business is all about. She’s had a lot of hands-on experience, having run her own greenhouse farm for years. It’s not simple. You need to consider that land and labour are both expensive in North America. Granted, the greenhouses make incredibly good use of the land they use, growing up instead of out, but it still costs a lot to get a tomato to pop out of them. I don’t argue with the fact that, for so many reasons, it costs more to grow something locally than it does to bring it from Mexico. But why does it cost that much more when it gets to an urban farmer’s market where people will trample each other for cute little pattypan squashes?

My goal is to find a way to make local produce more accessible and more affordable in Metro Vancouver.

I repeat that to myself every 1/2 hour to remind myself of what I’m doing. It’s so easy to get lost down a rabbit hole doing research like this. If I want to find a way to make it more accessible and more affordable, that means finding a way to green some of the urban food deserts and, if not to make local less expensive, then to make it no more expensive for people who can’t drive to it than for people who can.

I can’t change the law of supply and demand, but there has to be another (well many others, actually) way to crack this local hazelnut. It’s not Gucci. It’s just a nut.

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