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Nova Scotia — Locavores' Delight

Homegrown ginger, tobacco, goji berries and more

by Jen Stotland

Ginger in Nova Scotia? You bet (Photo: Gerald's World).
Ginger in Nova Scotia? You bet (Photo: Gerald's World).

This is the first of our Just Us! Just Journalism! series of articles dealing with issues of food security, sustainable farming, fair trade and cooperatives in the Maritimes. We thank Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op for helping to make this piece possible.

K'jipuktuk (Halifax) — The energy industry is often in the news these days. From the threat of shale gas fracking, to news of controversial pipelines and tankers, from drilling in pristine Amazon rainforest to conflicts in Africa and the Middle East; the news is often troubling and can feel beyond any measure of personal control.

At the same time, we hear of our troubled Nova Scotian economy, and the imminent threat of climate change. According to the Food Miles Report, put out by the Ecology Action Centre in 2011, the food on the average plate in Canada travels from an average of 4,000 km away. In Nova Scotia, we only have about three days’ worth of produce on grocery shelves should our supply train be interrupted.

This is a remarkably unstable way to live. Our supply lines are tenuous, as we discovered during the 2009 truckers’ strike. It also funnels money out of our local economy and contributes to climate change directly by shipping, and indirectly by fostering energy-intensive farming practices with less local scrutiny. Such practices also concentrate wealth in the hands of distributors and grocery stores.

By eating locally, we can have a direct impact on our climate footprint and the local economy, and we can begin to remove ourselves from the unethical oil economy. And locavores don’t need to limit their palates as much as one might think.  

Farmers in Nova Scotia are beginning to experiment and extend the range of crops.  Halifax is in a USDA climate zone of 6A, which is actually hotter than much of Canada (USDA zones are measurements of how mild or severe winter temperatures can be in a given region). For example, our zone indicates winter minimum temperatures of around -18 C. Most of the more thickly inhabited regions of the country range from zone 3 (winter minimums of around -34 C) to zone 5 (winter minimums of around -23 C)1.

In the fertile and sheltered Annapolis Valley, independent growers are experimenting with a whole gamut of crops that promise to expand the ‘eating local’ experience beyond being simply the responsible choice. Nova Scotia is one of only three places in Canada, besides the Niagara escarpment in Ontario and the Okanagan valley in British Columbia, that can support fruit and vine orchards, and there’s more growing here than one might initially expect.

“I was raised on an organic farm,” says Domenic Padula, who, since 2008, has owned and operated Moonfire Organic Farm with his partner. "Though they wouldn't have called it that back then. We grow all our own vegetables. Part of my role is in stewardship of the land, educating people about what we are growing, feeding people. I'm really just addicted to farming, no other reason than that. I just love it.”

In the Autumn of 2012, Moonfire introduced locally grown ginger to Nova Scotia. Ginger, with its unique taste and health benefits, is one of the crops that locavores are often willing to bend the rules to procure. This despite the fact that most ginger on the supermarket shelves comes all the way from China, where allegations and confirmations of dangerous pesticide use are almost constant.

This year Moonfire Farm will also be growing lemongrass and okra as well as expanding to over 80 different heirloom and ethnic vegetables. In fact, Domenic says "the sky is the limit" when it comes to growing heat-loving plants locally with greenhouses. In the last five years he has seen more multicultural diversity in the Maritimes together with a demand for more ethnic foods.

Two years ago, Owen Bridge of Annapolis Seeds was able to grow what might have been the first ever crop of Valencia peanuts in the valley. Bridge, who has one of the greenest thumbs in the Maritimes, began Annapolis Seeds at the age of 18 after learning about the world of heritage seeds on Canada’s West Coast. His family offered to relocate from Qualicum Beach, BC, to the opposite shore of the country in the search of affordable farmland to support Bridge's dream.

Now in its fifth year, Annapolis Seeds carries all kinds of strange and wonderful seeds one might not immediately associate with Nova Scotia. Aside from a myriad of heirloom varieties of the more ‘common’ vegetables, Bridge also sells tobacco, soybeans, black, mung and adzuki beans, and a relative of the common lentil, the Ethiopian lentil. Best of all, Bridge grows all of his strains on his farm outside Middleton, so the crops are already Nova Scotia tested.

Climate change may indeed play a factor in the new crops popping up around Nova Scotia: Bridge notes that he tried for 10 years to grow a Canadian eggplant and only succeeded during last year’s prolonged drought. But it is the smaller scale businesspeople and government initiatives with an interest in the local economy that are potentially having a greater influence in our newfound crop diversity.

New crops with different properties are being propagated and developed all the time by local nurseries for open pollinated and heritage seeds such as Annapolis, Pumpkin Moon and Hope Seeds. These companies are also often plant breeders, and have become more and more important in pushing the envelope of cold-tolerance and species diversity.

Less hardihood breeding is done by multinational concerns, who, when dealing in the world of chemically-intense crops whose prices are protected through international trade agreements and tariffs, still find it cheaper and easier to simply import foods from further away.

Many nuts can be grown here, such as chestnuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, stone pine nuts, beechnut, butternut and heartnut. As for fruit, we can grow mulberries, pears, everbearing strawberries, autumn bearing raspberries, hardy kiwi, as well as goji berries, sea buckthorn, cherries, pawpaw, and red wine and white grapes. There are even rumours of a farmer near Annapolis Royal who will be trying out a hardy form of pomegranate that was developed in Afghanistan this year.

One thing is for sure, we have only begun to see the increase in potential for locally-grown tropical and subtropical species. During the age of globalization we've been treated to an unprecedented variety and array of botanical treats, and our desire for mangoes in the dead of winter is not going to go away anytime soon. But if our long supply chains should fail, and international shipping become a thing of the past, we are far from returning to the days of a corned beef and cabbage monopoly.

Jen Stotland is a professional gardener, permaculturist, and environmental and food justice activist in Halifax Nova Scotia.

1 You can learn more about USDA zones at http://www.planthardiness.gc.ca/
2 http://www.agribusinessweek.com/sweet-sorghum-a-new-smart-biofuel-crop/

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