Monday, 12 August 2019

The Meaning of Farm to Table

Declining Number of Fruit Farms in Niagara Region Affect Supply

A lone tree reaches across the expanse of a Niagara-on-the-Lake field

Whenever I eat a fresh peach, cherry, plum, nectarine or pear in Niagara in the summertime, I notice how much better it tastes than the fruit I buy at home in Toronto stores, just an hour and a half's drive north.

If Niagara fruit farms still exist (which I found they do) why can't we purchase their produce in the urban outlets in Toronto? When I tried to find out more, I found a great list of fruit farms in the Niagara area, as well as another helpful resource about where to pick your own fruits and vegetables in the Niagara region, but no real explanation of why this natural wealth isn't part of the major distribution networks supplying our urban supermarkets.

Grapes on the vine in the July Niagara-on-the-Lake countryside

It turns out that many of the various fruit orchards that filled the Niagara countryside have become endless rows of grape vines. If the larger Niagara fruit farms were supplanted by the needs of the grape-growing and winery industries in the Niagara peninsula, I don't remember hearing who made the decision. Why can't we have both the Niagara winery and fresh fruit industries succeeding side by side? Was there ever a public consultation about it?

When I was growing up in Niagara Falls in the 1970s one of my favourite summer jobs was strawberry-picking at Tregunno Farms. I would ride my bike the 20-odd kilometres along the Niagara River Parkway to Niagara-on-the-Lake and hit the fields with my fellow fruit-pickers, eating as many strawberries as I could while I worked. Happily, Tregunno Farms is still in the same location and managed by the fourth generation of the family. But now their main crops are peaches and grapes and they are trying to grow plum-apricot hybrids currently shipped to us from the U.S.

One of the many palatial wineries that dot the Niagara-on-the-Lake countryside

Food Giants McCain, Saputo and Maple Leaf Helped Grow Canadian Food Sector

The more I dug for information on who is really in charge of the quality of fresh food available to put onto my family's table, the less I found out it was a story of small or medium sized business success. A couple of years ago a Globe and Mail article described the Canadian food industry sector as being the largest manufacturing industry in the country in terms of sales, surpassing auto parts or high-tech gadgets and achieving sales that quietly passed that of textiles, paper, machinery, and aerospace combined. It goes on to describe how "giants like McCain, Saputo and Maple Leaf" helped the sector to expand over the past decade and keep growing even in the recession when most other sectors slumped.

I'm still trying to find out what farms exactly, are producing our local food. According to Statistics Canada, 70% of our food comes from our own country and only 30% of the food we eat comes from somewhere else. A full 80% of meat and dairy products and 76% of breads and cereals are produced here, and imports account for 40% of all fruit, vegetables and fish we eat.

When I looked at the Farm and Food Care Foundation, I found Sobey's, Ontario Pork, The Centre for Food Integrity,  and Cargill writing and distributing consumer-friendly brochures from the voice of Canadian farmers. The messaging was that "big corporations have not taken over Canadian farms, and more than 97 per cent of Canadian farms today are still family-owned and operated." But the brochure did not stipulate the most important point: What percentage of our food do these family-owned farms actually produce?

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