KISS — Keep it Small — Sweetie!
KISS — Keep it Small — Sweetie!

KISS — Keep it Small — Sweetie!

9 min read
Written by Theresa Schumilas

My experience in talking to eaters is that most people are naive about farm scale. When we talk about supplying local vegetables (for example) most of us conjure up images of families out in a field pulling carrots and putting them into bins and washing them in a sink. Or we think of someone hoeing a row of potatoes or walking down a row and planting seed into tilled soil. There are birds singing, butterflies fluttering, bees buzzing and in the distance a rooster crows and a cow moos….

In short — we imagine things at a small scale. Of course we do. It is the scale we live at and the scale we most easily relate to. It is also the romantic scale — the scale of people communing with nature. No noisy equipment. No industrial washing and packing lines. No giant walk in cold storage. No tractor trailers backing up to loading docks……. Indeed, most of us don’t really understand the scale of operations through which our “local” food comes to us.

Following our food can be sobering. So let’s think about…. PUMPKINS (tis the season). How does that perfect pie pumpkin get to your table?

A quick glance at the 2011 farm census (something I do in my spare time) tells us that there are 1,016 pumpkin farms in Ontario, with a total of 3,658 acres planted in pumpkins. (They don’t separate out the pie pumpkins from the jack-o-lantern type.) While that might seem like a lot to most of us — in fact, pumpkins are a pretty minor crop in comparison to others. Although — given the popularity of agri-tourism with pick-your own pumpkin patches and fun stuff like throwing pumpkins out of cannons — Stats Canada says that pumpkin growing is on the rise. Who knew?

Of course you might go right to a small farm and pick up a pumpkin (good for you) but if you are one of those convenience addicted shoppers who picks one up at a grocery store (unfortunately that is most of us), you might think about how it got there. Indeed, the great pumpkin does not rise out of the pumpkin patch and fly to a store near you on its own steam.

Pumpkin farmer Pete (we’ll call him that because my partner’s name is Peter) ordered pumpkin seed from a commercial seed supplier back in January, and he didn’t have to struggle too much about which variety to plant. I just looked up a commercial supplier who specializes in the cucurbit family (which includes pumpkin) and found only 12 pie pumpkin varieties available in commercial quantities — even though there are thousands of varieties in existence (an example of the decreasing biodiversity in our food supply). So Pete picks a pretty pumpkin and waits while the snow flies.

In spring, Pete prepares his soil — which very likely includes fumigating it to get rid of soil borne diseases and applies nitrogen (fossil fuel derived) fertilizer using a snazzy new tractor attachment calibrated for this very purpose. If Pete follows the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ recommendations, he applies 65kg of nitrogen (N) per acre when he plants, and another 45kg of N per acre once the pumpkins start to grow. Then, using another piece of equipment, Pete seeds his field. He might in fact, plant the pumpkin seeds into plastic mulch which is rolled out onto his field with yet another piece of equipment. And — considering the vulnerabilities in weather we experience, Pete will likely have an irrigation plan for his pumpkins — likely a drip system (laid by yet another piece of equipment) that also delivers that fossil-fuel based fertilizer to the little plants as they grow. Now Pete feels pretty good — the pumpkins are off to a great start.

Pumpkins of course, need pollination. Pete will likely work with a beekeeper and put some hives in his field. He will then endanger these same bees by following his government’s recommendations and applying fungicide every 7 days along with a number of other recommended insecticides listed in the provincial vegetable crop “protection” guide. (Why are we protecting the vegetables and not the bees or ourselves, I wonder?) He will do this with — you guessed it — another piece of equipment. Pete knows that pumpkins are actually not very bothered by diseases and pests — but consumers will pick over all the pumpkins in the supermarket looking for perfection — so he will try to deliver on that.

Finally the day comes when the perfect pumpkins need picking, so Pete puts more steel into the field. With a yield of 5,000 pie pumpkins per acre — Pete will hire workers to pick his perfect pumpkins and load them into large bins. In the end, (assuming Pete is an average sized commercial pumpkin grower based on census data), Pete will have about 200 large bins of pumpkins — maybe around 90 tons (if my math is right). They will be washed — likely with some kind of anti-bacterial or anti-fungal wash — and cured. To do this, Pete will hold the pumpkins for 10 days to 2 weeks at a temperature of 26°C-29°C and a relative humidity of about 80% in a climate controlled room. After the curing period, he will move them to a different storage space and store them in a single layer with good air flow in between at a colder temperature of 10°C and a relative humidity of 70%-75% — at an energy cost I could probably calculate if I had the time or interest.

So now the fun starts. Since your grocery store likely uses central desk buying — because of scale efficiency we are told — it won’t buy its pumpkins directly from Pete. The supermarket chain will want to get pumpkins for all of its stores from the same place. So even though it seems like Pete has lots of perfect pumpkins — he may not be able to sell directly to the supermarket. So his pumpkins will be loaded onto a transport truck, and driven down the highway to either the food terminal, or to a supermarket chain warehouse — and unloaded into another climate controlled (energy intensive) room which will keep Pete’s perfect pumpkins perfect.

Finally they will be sent out to the store you go to — and you can get the perfect pumpkin (for under $2.00 I bet) and make the perfect soup or pie.

So — you’ve bought “local” food — but how have you “re-connected” to anything? Other than battling for lane space with the truck carrying the pumpkins down the 401 — you have not made any contact with the process that brought you the food. Many of us want it to be different. Is that romantic notion of the small, low input farm viable?

Yes — as long as we KISS (Keep it Small — Sweetie!).

Most people are familiar with the concept of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). It is often referred to as the ‘darling’ of the local organic food movement because it allows us to reconnect with food in a much deeper way than fighting for highway space with a tractor trailer of pumpkins.

CSAs are projects where a community of people (usually referred to as “members” or “shareholders”) shares the risks and benefits of production with the farmer, and makes some form of minimum purchase commitment. (This is in contrast to what are often called “food box” programs — where the eater pays on a per-box basis and the organizer obtains most of the food from a distributor or food terminal — pretty much like your grocery store.)

CSAs are growing in number and diversity. Recent research on CSAs in Ontario reveals an estimated 200 such programs in the province return $7.3 M per year in sales directly to local farmers. These are small organic farms. Most CSAs produce on less than 3 acres and offer fewer than 30 shares. No one is getting rich doing this — 85% of CSAs sell under $50,000 a year. Plus, cost-comparisons show that the CSA approach can offer you a share of vegetables for less than what you would pay for that same selection at retail stores.

How can that be? The input costs are lower. There is minimal equipment, no loading dock and no expensive packing lines. Labour is usually paid in alternative ways (like bartering). Since you get the food fresh, there is no need to store it in climate controlled and energy gobbling rooms. The food doesn’t have to drive to Toronto before it comes back to Waterloo. There is no retail space that needs to be open every day of the week. No door-less energy inefficient refrigeration unit cooling both the produce and the room. No paved parking lot. No shopping carts. No weekly advertising flyers……….

But I bet you’ve heard that CSAs have waiting lists — and you can’t find one. Or maybe you don’t own a vehicle and can’t get to a farm? So — here is the beauty of the concept. It does not have to be started by farmers. YOU can start a version of a small CSA in your neighbourhood and eat free local organic vegetables to boot, in a few easy steps.

More math. There are approximately 175,000 households in about 100 urban neighbourhoods in Waterloo Region giving an average of 1,750 people per neighbourhood. That is a scale easier to think about than the mega half a million population in the Region as a whole.

You are one of those households — and you can set up an eater-initiated (versus farmer-initiated) CSA for a group of 20–25 other families close to you. It’s not much harder than selling Girl Guide cookies.

  1. Put up flyers and recruit 25 households as members
  2. Establish $25/week to start — and you can track that and adjust it as you go.
  3. Draw up a list of what vegetables you want — look at what is available seasonally to do that. Figure on 10–12 different items each week from mid June — the end of October.
  4. Contact one or two local organic growers (you can find a searchable directory here) and tell them what you are planning — and ask if they will grow those items for you. Lots of local organic growers are looking for additional markets. Do this early — in February — they need to time to plan for and grow your produce.
  5. Collect money from members up front so you have a float for the first payment
  6. Pick up the produce when it is ready — and bring it home. Time this so your members come while it is still in your car so you don’t have to do a lot of unpacking.
  7. Keep a courtesy share for yourself (which is your motivation for doing this).

Now imagine that 10 other homes in your neighbourhood (and all the other neighbourhoods) are doing the same thing. That adds up to 15% of the entire Region of Waterloo population eating local, organic, affordable, fair, real fruits and vegetables for at least 5 weeks of the year — with no added infrastructure, no salaried staff, no specialized equipment, no storage costs……..

I could go on (because I love math) and calculate the fossil fuels saved, the energy footprint, the pesticides saved, the dollars circulating among local farmers, the percentage of people meeting daily fruit and vegetable requirements, estimations of dollars saved to our health care system…..

And while I’ve got the synapses firing in your brain — imagine what could happen if a local food act — or other (Regional?) policy for example encouraged this just a tiny bit. Perhaps a tool kit could be developed that spells out all the details about how to do it? Perhaps an annual “feeders meet the eaters” meeting could be arranged so these eater-CSA organizers could meet with local farmers. Perhaps these eater-CSAs could be networked together and share marketing or rotate produce pick up and so on.

Of course — If you don’t see yourself as an organizer — you can join and existing CSA. My CSA (Garden Party) is registering members now for winter shares. Or you can search for other programs here.

It is all possible as long as we KISS .