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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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September 28, 2009


Deconstructing Dinner on the East Coast

A crash-course on east coast food and agriculture reveals many threats and opportunities to local food production in the Atlantic provinces.


Jon Steinman


It's now been over a week since I descended onto the east coast for an ambitious 7-location speaking tour throughout Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.


With only two more events to go, the trip has been quite an eye-opener.


Most startling is a noticeable lack of awareness among eaters here of some pivotal issues threatening the future of Atlantic food production.


The most unknown of these concerns is the future of Atlantic beef. With only one federally-inspected slaughterhouse serving the three provinces, it poses quite a concern that the plant has yet to make any money since it opened in 2002. While its capacity is quite high as far as slaughterhouses are concerned, it appears the operation is no match for cheaper product coming from the massive plants in Alberta and Ontario. With the major grocery retailers in the provinces purchasing the majority of their beef from the west, it's also no surprise that the Atlantic plant is under constant threat of closing or being shut down.


Nova Scotia is also a major producer of blueberries - a food that has, up until recently, provided a healthy financial return to farmers. This past year, however, was the worst on record, with blueberry prices dropping from $1.10/lb offered two years ago to $0.35/lb at this year's harvest. Blueberry farmers rely on approximately $0.55/lb to break even.


The seafood sector is also not in the best of shape. Prices paid to lobster fishermen are at a 20-year low and on September 1, heavy rainfalls contributed to high levels of polluted surface runoff into coastal waters with Fisheries and Oceans Canada responding by introducing temporary closures of the harvesting of most shellfish.


As is often suggested as part of the Deconstructing Dinner radio shows and columns, the best response to alleviate the challenges that food producers face is likely a community-driven one. And so it was refreshing and hopeful that the Province of Nova Scotia hosted Deconstructing Dinner at their bi-annual Celebrating Communities conference where I shared this message at what such a crucial time.


The theme of the conference was "Growing Together" and food was a central focus throughout the three-day event. Nova Scotians involved in community development from every region of the province were in attendance and without a doubt would have departed the conference with a new or refreshed appreciation for food as the foundation of community.


Conference organizers introduced a unique activity to create a sense of community right upon arrival. Delegates were greeted by a farmers' market located right in the conference centre itself. We were provided with vouchers for small samples of Nova Scotian products including honey, maple syrup and some unique cheeses among other foods and products. After engaging in short conversations with the producers there, it reminded me of just how amazing farmers' markets are as an important community-building experience.


When the conference wrapped up, I hit the road to meet some of the innovators in Atlantic food and agriculture.


The first stop was the farm of Andrew Kernohan in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia. Two years ago the Truro, Nova Scotia based Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada partnered with Kernohan to test the viability of pumpkin seed oil production. Through the assistance of a recently immigrated Austrian oilseed producer, Kernohan gained access to a specially bred variety of seed ideal for oilseed production. Unfortunately, of the three locations chosen to test the crop, the Parrsboro location didn't offer the appropriate climate. I now have a small bag of seed that I'll soon encourage farmers in the Creston Valley of B.C. to test out where the climate appears to be more favourable. Kernohan is also growing grains for local consumption - a unique endeavour in the Atlantic provinces.


Kernohan is one of over 30 farmers in New Brunswick, P.E.I., and Nova Scotia who are cultivating grains for the Speerville Flour Mill - another exciting small-scale business that is maintaining a notable presence in an otherwise industrial-scale food system.


Driving down a country road in rural New Brunswick, coming across the Speerville Flour Mill evokes images of how food production used to be - but Speerville is far from a museum. Their custom designed and sometimes antique equipment is processing regionally-grown organic grains for distribution throughout the Atlantic provinces.


Brothers Todd and Tony Grant donated a few hours of their time to share their story, their struggle and their deep seated passion for ensuring more localized production of food can be preserved. As we sat beside their portable wood-fired oven that they use to promote their products, it became clear that these guys will bend over backwards to ensure that the farmers supplying them with grains will be around the following year. Speerville is an example of a how concern for the welfare of farmers does not have to be found through a CSA (community supported agriculture) or at a farmers market but can be practiced among independent privately-owned business too.


You can expect an upcoming Deconstructing Dinner feature on Speerville featuring interviews with farmer Andrew Kernohan, Todd and Tony Grant, and a tour of the inside of a unique small-scale organic flour mill.


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