Buying locally to save our rural economy; Learning lessons from across the country in Nelson, B.C.

Lise Elsliger. Here. (Saint John, Fredericton and Moncton edition). St. John, N.B.: Oct 29, 2009. pg. A.10

 

(Copyright (c) 2009 HERE - Fredericton)

When listening to Jon Steinman recently at the Dieppe Farmer's Market, he could appear like somewhat of a dreamer. He speaks of a world where many concerns facing our industrial/globalized food system - a system where local farmers are continually losing business to larger corporate businesses - can in fact be controlled. And he has decided to make it a mission in life to educate people on the subject. His radio Show Deconstructing Dinner is heard in 37 radio station as well as on the web with listeners across North America.

The kind of community he is talking about has become a reality in the town of Nelson, BC, where he lives. They have created the Kootenay Country Co- operative, that is completely run by its members and only sells their products.

Steinman explains that a food secure community is one in which "all people at all times have access to nutritious, safe, personally appropriate and culturally accessible food produced, procured and distributed in ways that are socially and environmentally responsible."

As far as rural economy goes, it simply involves a system in which local farmers are not excluded from the equation in the sale of fresh food.

A native of Toronto, Steinman studied hotel and restaurant management at the University of Guelph as a bachelor of commerce program.

"One thing that really struck me at that program was how disconnected our school was with the agricultural college which is also at the University of Guelph," he says. "Of how disconnected those of us who are either eating or managing food are from those of us who are growing and producing food."

Among his many projects, he sits on the board of directors of a store that he talks about as an example of a community getting together for sustainable local economy. This is a grocery store in downtown Nelson where he lives, and the Kootenay Country Store Co-operative is an independent cooperative and the largest of its kind in the country, which is quite surprising given there are only 10,000 people in Nelson. So it's not part of a chain like Atlantic Coop. It pulls $9 million of revenue and employs over 60 people in the community.

"We're speaking about 8,000 members," he says. "Every year sales go up. Huge sales growth. The store has no debt, which is quite surprising in this day and age. I believe grocery stores can be the economic engine of a community. It also maintains a buy local and buy organic policy. So if there's a local producer producing food you can almost be guaranteed that this will be on the shelves of this store. Almost all of the food on the store shelves is organic. We have what we call transition products, so instead of Kraft Dinner we have Anny's macaroni and cheese."

There's a deli in the store that provides prepared foods. Salads and take home foods are all prepared by local producers, so the store is also acting as an incubator of local businesses.

What local farmers think

Noting that we have two farmer's markets in the Greater Moncton Area, Steinman feels that these markets are important tools we have in support of the local economy. "Farmer's markets I think are the faster growing sector of our food economy right now. They're popping up all over the country. So that it's one of many models of how we can increase local production and support farmers."

What do the farmers themselves think?

Leopold Bourgeois, a local farmer from Cocagne who sells his product at La Fleur du Pommier at the Dieppe Farmer's Market, attended the conference.

"Things are going well at the market." he says "Thank God we have the markets for local farmers in the Moncton area, both the Moncton and the Dieppe one. It helps us a great deal to sell our products. There are a lot of things that we can distribute in smaller shares like carrots and tomatoes. Everything we can produce we bring here and people are happy to buy it.

"Market allows them to sell directly to the client. In the corporate market there are so many people in the chain that here is nothing left for the farmer. We have cooperation with co-op Atlantic around here that helps a little. They try to support local farmers.

"At least we have a good support from the public. There is still a lot of work to do. We're trying to put together at the Dieppe Market a store that would be open all week. It will probably be done within a year."

He says that he has seen a drastic change in the public's interest in buying locally.

"We've been selling at the Moncton Market for 30 years and for the last four years at both markets. But 25 to 30 years ago only a small minority of people came to the market. In the (recent) years there has been a drastic increase in people who buy at the market."

Paul Gagnon, from La Springbrook Farm, sells lamb, eggs, pork and chicken at the Market as well. He also attended the conference.

He feels that it is crucial to offer food that is local, fresh and good. Not food that comes from everywhere and we don't know what's in it.

"If people knew what is put into their meat. Food shouldn't be treated the same way as nuts and bolts, cell phones and computers. Food is what goes into your body. Food is what keeps you healthy or makes you sick. And food is a primary need. It shouldn't be industrialized and globalized in any way. Whenever that happens there's always something negative.

"You can't have 10 acres of corn growing in one field without having is sprayed to death. You can't. It's physically impossible. There are places where they grow rice, in vast quantities. They ship it to other places and they kill the price. Because you can do it cheaper with bigger machines and corporate power. But there's an imbalance. The only thing that makes it work is the chemicals and sprays that they use. Without the chemicals and the sprays you can't do that. Nature doesn't allow it ... In 1950s three quarters of what we ate was grown around here. So it's not that we can't."

Is it better today than it was two or three years ago?

"Yes. The tide of interest and the tide of consciousness ... of what you're eating and your health and all those things is just growing and growing. The young people, they don't believe in that system. They know Costco and the big outfits ... they believe they're not really good. The people who are over 65 still believe in that system. But what is important for the younger people is for them to be more knowledgeable. But it's really refreshing to see that they know that mass food is not healthy, while the older generation still tends to think that if it's cheap it's good."

Interested in knowing more? Jon Steinman's radio shows can be caught online at www.deconstructingdinner.ca or visit Kootenay Country Store Co-operative at www.kootenay.coop