Food inglorious food


When my forebears, fresh off the boat from Scotland, settled in the vicinity of Guysborough, N.S., on that province’s far eastern shore, they new a little something about everything that was crucial to survival in the late 18th Century.

They could wield an axe, build a house, milk a cow and, maybe most importantly, till, sow and reap the soil – which was saying something given that the ground was, and still is, 80 per cent boulders.

I am often struck by the sheer number of things we’ve forgotten how to do; how much practical knowledge has leached away over the centuries, decades, even scant years. I was skippering my own sailboat alone when I was 11. I’m not sure I could do that today – not, at least, without a refresher course in knot tying and dead reckoning.

Still, the one ancient task my wife and I have been determined to reintroduce to our small branch of the family is that of growing stuff to eat safely and well. We would call this ‘farming’, except we actually know a few farmers and, let us assure you, we’re no farmers.

We do, however, maintain a small south-facing plot in our Moncton backyard where, in the spring, summer and a good portion of the fall we grow potatoes in rotation, carrots, peas, beans, broccoli. Out front, we cultivate tomatoes and peppers.

None of this will be especially surprising to anyone who lives and works in and around a small city in Canada. Private and community gardens are springing up like efficacious weeds almost everywhere you go, and the trend continues to grow. I suspect there are good reasons for this.

Late last year, just in time for Christmas, the CBC reported on research from the University of Guelph’s Food Institute that estimated, “the average Canadian household spent an additional $325 on food (in 2015). On top of that, consumers should expect an additional annual increase of about $345 in 2016.

“Since 81 per cent of all vegetables and fruit consumed in Canada are imported, they are highly vulnerable to currency fluctuations. They are pegged to increase in price by four to 4.5 per cent in the new year. ‘It means that essentially families will have to spend more without many options, unfortunately,’ says Sylvain Charlebois, lead author of the university’s sixth annual Food Price Report.

Other organizations contend that food prices cannot be untethered to murky global forces that human civilization has, fairly recently, unleashed upon the world. Says Oxfam Canada’s website: “Droughts, floods and storms have played havoc with harvests over the past few years, and climate scientists predict the problem is only going to get worse. Some experts feel that the financial crisis that swept the world beginning in 2008 also had an impact on food prices. Investing in the rising price of food seemed to make it a safe bet.”

Finally, “crops that once were used for food are now used to make what is known as “biofuel, primarily ethanol and biodiesel. A full 40 per cent of the corn crop in the United States, and a similar percentage in Canada, now ends up in cars instead of stomachs.”

Whatever are the reasons for the escalating cost of food, the most prudent response, it seems to me, is to grow as much of your own stuff as you can (organically, naturally).

My wife and I might even double-down on the arable land we tend this year. After all, the old Guysborough homestead is good for more than the rocks in its ground.

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