Harvest and Hunger: Amy Jo Ehman on local food choices

Hello! This is my first post on Vision of Earth. Glad to be here.

Mark Cazakoff

On November 9th & 10th, SCIC (Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation) hosted an event in Saskatoon called Harvest and Hunger (introduced in our earlier post: Harvest and Hunger: Brainstorming the future of the world food system). SCIC is an umbrella organization that represents a diverse range of international development organizations. If you’d like to know more about their organization, stop by their web page or like them on Facebook.

The focus of the event was very wide-ranging. The home page asks questions like: Where does our food come from? and Who has power in our food system, and who doesn’t? The Harvest and Hunger event provided a forum to talk about these topics, including presentations by a wide variety of speakers.

I took part in this event, and have been pondering what exactly to say about it for a few days now. The event itself is difficult to distill down, as it touched on so many different topics. So, I have decided to instead focus on my favourite speaker of the weekend, Amy Jo Ehman. Her talk was on the local foodshed, imparting some of the knowledge she’s gained about Saskatchewan’s food system.

Her book Prairie Feast is about her experience eating locally. Her hometown is Craik, Saskatchewan, home of the Craik Eco-Centre and a number of other advocates for sustainability. She also maintains a blog and writes a food column for the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.

A disclaimer: my own opinions on locavorism are still evolving. I currently believe that eating locally is often morally and environmentally inferior to eating products (and thus supporting producers) from less developed nations. However, I was more than willing to hear arguments in favour of eating differently.

Her story of why she decided to eat locally is charming. She knows a farmer south of Craik who raises pigs. So, one day, this farmer happened to offer to raise a pig for Amy Jo. And she said, why not? A bit less than a year later, when she got a phone call from this farmer asking her what she wanted to do with this pig, she was less certain. “A whole pig? I wouldn’t know what to do with it!” But, she felt committed, and so a pig she had. She received the pig, cooked up some pork chops for dinner, and her first words upon biting into her pork chop was, “Why is this pork chop so good?” And just like that, she was converted to eating locally.

Some years after this experience, Amy Jo convinced her husband to try eating nothing (excepting some beverages) but foods sourced from within Saskatchewan for a full year. Ever since her experience with her local pork chop, she had been buying much more of her meat locally. But this was a different scale of challenge, and would require much more knowledge of Saskatchewan farmers and produce.

She ran into a number of difficulties with this year-long attempt.

For one, this was back in 2005. “Locavore” wouldn’t be coined as a word until mid-2005, so she didn’t really have that kind of compact description. And the idea of eating everything locally was radical even in California, let alone in Saskatchewan. So, everyone she knew thought she was pretty strange.

Eating locally is nearly impossible to accomplish by one-stop shopping. Amy Jo drives into Saskatoon regularly anyway for work, so she would often stop off at their farmer’s market. But to buy her dairy, she would have to stop at a co-op, and then at one of a few butchers she knew for local meat. She would have to spend some time looking at the Saskatchewan Fruit Growers Association website, calling ahead to nearby growers and spending some time harvesting/picking crops and produce herself.

Winter was very difficult. She was forced to plan far in advance, pickling and canning for ages.

She kept running into areas where she just didn’t know if a local alternative existed. She had to do a lot of investigation to find out where some products were actually produced. Sifto salt, she learned, was produced in Saskatchewan. She had to buy her grain from an outfit down by Estevan. For dairy, for example, she called some of her contacts from her journalism days, trying to find out if there was actually a source of milk that would always be from Saskatchewan that she could purchase in a store. She knew there was a milk processor around the Saskatoon area, and found that the head office for this producer was now in Montreal. She called many, many times to this office in Montreal, attempting to find out if this processor sold milk in Saskatchewan, without success. Only through journalism contacts did she manage to discover that dairy products with the code 4015 on them were all produced at that facility.

Her problem arose out of the way our food system is organized, globally and in Canada. The food economy, like the rest of our economy, has adapted for minimum cost. In some cases, yes, the place where your food is produced is prominently displayed (oranges from South Africa), but this is very often not the case.

Let’s use some ‘Farmer’s Market’ brand brownies from my freezer as an example. With a brand like Farmer’s Market, you could be forgiven for thinking that they were locally produced (perhaps the chocolate in them was grown in a nearby greenhouse, you might think). It notes that the Farmer’s Market brand is a brand name of Loblaws Inc., which seems to have its head office in Toronto. It tells me on the back that “The Farmer’s Market(TM) brand is your assurance that we have searched far and near to offer you and your family great-tasting quality products and value you can count on.” However, note that it does not actually tell me where these brownies were baked, or where any of the ingredients are from.

I think my appreciation for Amy Jo’s story grew out of her pragmatism and honesty. She has a very realistic view of her reasons for eating locally, and was very informed on the topic of food.

She asked the audience for some reasons to eat locally. Some said that they wanted to support local farmers, while others agreed that local food just tasted better. Some wanted to avoid the waste associated with long-distance shipping. Some people also couldn’t support meat producers that might be supplied via factory farms, and needed to know that the animals were being treated well on the farms that they support.

One person suggested that the carbon footprint of eating locally would be lower. And, after taking down many suggestions, Amy Jo had a counterexample on this topic. She told an excellent story of Kenyan beans in the UK. There was some outcry against these beans by British individuals who suggested supermarkets should stock beans from British green bean producers. But since Kenyan growers produce their beans labouriously by hand, and growing is a much greater contributor to carbon footprint than transportation, Kenyan beans are better for the environment than their British counterparts.1

What does this mean for Saskatchewan eaters? Unfortunately, it seems to mean that there are no simple answers. There are a few things I can say for certain.

Know more about your food. You are a part of a complex web of food, and you are making choices every day that affect how producers will operate tomorrow. Tomatoes grown in a backyard next door are very different from tomatoes shipped a thousand kilometers. Grass-fed beef is very different from factory-farmed, corn-fed beef.

Find out what food can really be. The difference in quality between seemingly-similar foods can be substantial.

Know what you want from your food. You have many options, and maybe you wouldn’t want to be eating some of the food on your plate if you knew a little bit more about how it was made or where it comes from. Try a pie from a farmer’s market, compare the price to what you would pay from the supermarket, and decide if it’s worth it to you.

  1. Prospect Magazine: How green are your beans? []

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