LOCAL FOODS | AGRICULTURE | Modern Day Dust Bowl: One of the many reasons to grow and eat locally

 

By Brianna van de Wijngaard —

 

Williams Lake Food Policy Council

As many of you now know, California and the surrounding region are having some hydration issues. They have been experiencing extreme drought conditions for the past three years, but it all came to a head in 2014, with projections for the worst drought on record, and the governor declaring a State of Emergency on January 17, 2014. The declaration cites four primary sources of low water levels: the California mountains snowpack (which normally provides about a third of the water for California’s farms and cities) was at approximately 20 per cent its normal average; the state’s major reservoirs were at their lowest levels; major river systems including the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers have significantly reduced surface water flows; and, groundwater levels have dropped significantly.

The aforementioned river systems feed into the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, comprising the Central Valley of California. This valley contains the world’s largest patch of Class 1 soil, receives almost 300 days of sunshine a year, and produces almost a third of all produce grown in the US, including the world’s #1 supply of canned tomatoes. Over 230 different crops are grown in this valley alone, many of which are grown for export.

Vancity recently released a report that highlights the vulnerabilities in BC’s food system, in light of the recent drought conditions in California:

What makes this situation unique for British Columbians is our level of agricultural production compared to our consumption. According to the report, “in 2010, 67 per cent of B.C. vegetable imports came from the U.S., over half of which were produced in California.”

Additionally, “vegetable crop production [in BC] fell by 20.4 per cent between 1991 and 2011,” even though Canada is the world’s fifth largest agricultural exporter. Apparently, one of BC’s top two agricultural commodities is dairy products, but one rarely sees BC dairy widely available on the shelves: it comes mostly from Quebec and Ontario.

So, in BC—and likely most of Canada—we produce a lot, but we consume relatively little, locally. We use a lot of arable land to grow products not meant to be eaten, and we export most of it, such as flax seed, canola, pulses, and durum wheat, (of which Canada is the largest producer) or it is manufactured into other consumables. We then import produce from California, even if we can grow it here—for example, 95 per cent of all broccoli and 74 per cent of all lettuce imports in 2010. It’s just no different than any other industry: agri-business makes more financial sense than farming in BC, and the rest of the country.

But it may not for much longer, for the everyday consumer. The Vancity report predicts we may see significant price increases at the till for some of those same California-born vegetables, such as broccoli and lettuce. BC has already seen produce price increases of between 5.7 per cent and 9.6 per cent from 2013 to 2014, and if these trends continue—especially in light of drastic drought conditions in California—we could see 25 to 50 per cent price increases on produce imports. Seven dollars per pound of broccoli is the looming threat.

Luckily for us, we can grow many of those things here. We just don’t, or we don’t grow as much as we could. We can grow broccoli and lettuce and tomatoes and even lemons! (Ok, maybe only about three lemons). It just hasn’t been as reliable, varied, and cost-effective as importing these items.

 

These prices are averages. Because local supply, demand, seasons, and costs vary more than for larger retail markets, prices reflect that. Local broccoli, for example, ranges from $1.95-$3.95/lb during the season. Head lettuce from $2.50-$3/each, and tomatoes from $2.50-$4.50/lb. So on average, local prices are not that different.

 

The table above compares costs between similar produce items from most of the major grocery retailers in Williams Lake, and average prices from local producers (when in season). All prices (other than local) were observed on the same day (Sunday, November 8, 2014):

In addition, this is compared to produce from 4,000 km away, and non-organic: I will often observe, for example, an Earthbound organic bunch of kale at the grocery store, (which is from the Carmel Valley, in California) for $3.29, in the middle of July. Local kale abounds this time of year, and averages about $3/bunch at the farmers’ market. It will also last in your fridge for two weeks.

What could be the most interesting dichotomy of this particular situation, however, is that research is showing no signs of this drought slowing down. That it is not due to climate change, but one of a series of historical droughts in the region that can last for hundreds of years. In other words, California may not be in a drought: it may be coming out of a 150-year wet spell. The only catch is that never before have we been so dependent on a globalized trade system for our food.

As for BC, we need to consider solutions to this dependency in the very near future. Increased storage capacity, season extension, and support systems for lower-income households come to mind, as well as simply getting used to less variety (ie: no more lemons all year), and fair wages for a better product, instead of piecemeal wages for a lesser product.

We can do it: we have the land, the income (Canadians spend an average of 10 per cent on food), and the climates. We just need people to grow it and to eat it.

If you want to know more about local food options, such as markets, seasonal box programs, community garden plots, and workshops, get in touch with the Williams Lake Food Policy Council at foodpolicycouncil@hotmail.com.

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