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Why is an apple from New Zealand cheaper than one from Shediac?

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

Why is an apple from New Zealand cheaper than one from Shediac?

Published Thursday December 17th, 2009

Time & Transcript

Where Grand Lake nudges against the great St. John River is an area of flat lands composed of fine soils built from silts carried down river and deposited by thousands of years of floods -- floods still endured today by the people who live on the interval lands of the river.

Though farming still takes place today, this area was once a great centre for the growing of vegetables that were loaded on boats headed upstream to Fredericton and downstream toward Saint John and the communities along the many indentations of the lower St. John River system. The soils are easy to work, with few stones and rich in nutrients drawn from throughout the entire watershed of this large river. These are among the most productive soils in Canada.

Along the shores of the Straits of Tormentine, where the shadow of Prince Edward Island can be seen on clear days, conditions are ideal for the growing of apples. The warm water flowing south from the immense St. Lawrence River moderates winter temperatures and prevents many of the late spring freezes that injure the delicate apple blossoms at more inland sites. In a not too distant past most farms grew apples that fed their local communities and growing centres like Moncton.

The flat windswept marshes of Tantramar near Sackville have deep soils and a water table that lies just below the surface, so that even in dry years water is available to crops. These conditions made possible a thriving farming community that grew cattle and shipped hay throughout the region and even to markets in Europe. Today only a few barns remain, leaning weathered remnants of the hundreds that once held the precious crops.

These are just a few examples of the agricultural and horticultural richness of our area. They are also examples of how much has changed over the last century. With the advent of cheap fuels and refrigeration techniques it became possible to ship foods across continents. Areas like the vast San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys of California began shipping produce by rail, truck and airplane to virtually every community in North America. While initially this transition had only a moderate effect on local growers, more recent developments have put tremendous pressure on our traditional food systems.

As production and mechanization increased in the larger growing areas, farms increased in size to a point where, today, immense corporate farms dominate the markets of North America. The availability of inexpensive labor both in North America and Asia, coupled with huge oil and gas production and subsidized road and rail systems, has created a perfect storm for smaller farming communities that could not compete.

One can argue that the present system is an example of skewed economics. How can it be possible for an apple from New Zealand or lettuce from California to be cheaper than an apple from Shediac or lettuce from Maugerville? It baffles the mind. The answer is not simple. Certainly cheap energy, and therefore cheap distribution cost, is the major factor but a demand has also been created for fresh produce throughout the year, driving the importation of foods that are out of season locally. Our relative wealth has enabled us, as well, to demand exotic foods from far away places.

The large retailing giants of the food industry will buy from sources that provide goods at the best prices but also can guarantee consistency of supply throughout the year. This puts small local producers at a great disadvantage. All these reasons have contributed to the slow dissolution of our local agriculture and the systems that have traditionally distributed food here.

Why is this a problem? Farmers can find other work can't they? Isn't this an example of efficiency driving the organization of society? Certainly we can go to the supermarket and purchase, at a very reasonable cost, thousands of items from around the world. This is great, right?

Perhaps, but there are inherent weakness in such a system. The disintegration of local farms means the loss of the infrastructure that once delivered food from those farms, but more importantly it means the loss of knowledge that disappears with those farmers. How many children today can tell the difference between a carrot and beet seed?

If conditions were to change dramatically, for example, if fuel prices rise dramatically or political or social conditions become so unstable as to threaten the distribution of food from present day sources, where would our food come from? Food security is certainly the most important single factor holding society together. Without food, we perish.

We speak of self-sufficiency yet we seem to stray further from it each day. We rely more and more on large centralized systems to deliver such vital systems as our energy and our food. It behooves us to begin thinking of ways to enhance our self-sufficiency and perhaps the most important is insuring we have a source of local food.

We should ask if the time is not right to encourage a renaissance of local agriculture. This is not a simple task. It involves initiatives by provincial government, local municipalities and most importantly the public. Each decision we make about where we buy our food has an impact, both economically and socially. We need to invest our dollars in our local producers. Such investment stays within the community and helps strengthen them.

Lastly we need to encourage young bright minds to become farmers. Despite views to the contrary, working with one's hands does not translate to drudgery. Farming is complex and fascinating and there is little that can compete with the satisfaction of seeing your work result in crops that feed yourself and your neighbours.

* Bob Osborne is the owner of Corn Hill Nursery Ltd., a member of Landscape New Brunswick, an author, farmer and gardener. His column appears each Thursday.


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