January 28th, 2021

January 28th, 2021

So here it is a week later and I’m still strapped to an office chair for at least half of every day getting things sorted out for 2021. 

We try to have our seed orders figured out and placed by the end of January each year to give us time to adjust to the inevitable substitutes and shortages.  Before we order seed we need to have our plans for the year mostly finalized.  It can result in a lot of head scratching, comparing and projecting.  The pandemic doesn't seem to have had an effect on the supply of seed except that the local seed suppliers are running out of some varieties because the demand from homeowners planting their own garden has exploded.

The vegetable seed industry is as global as industry can get.  Good quality seed is essential to start each growing season.  Lower quality, cheap seed will only cause losses in the end.  Each  vegetable crop has its own perfect climate and, for that reason, we get seeds from all over the world.  Seed companies will also grow the same variety in more than one location each year to hedge against possible weather related crops failures.  The seed packages have country of origin labeling from places like New Zealand, South Africa, Israel, the EU, Peru, etc.,etc.,….even sometimes from Canada!  One could dream of growing all seeds locally to have the ultimate in food security but the fact is that the advantages in global production have, so far, always outweighed the risks.  The advantages of using top quality and hybrid seed are big enough that no farmer could stay profitable on any scale without using them.  To protect all that high quality seed we have a 20 foot steel (rodent proof) shipping container that is insulated to prevent rapid temperature swings and has a dehumidifier to keep the seed as dry as possible.While on the topic of seed I should mention a little bit about hybrids and GMO’s. 

To my knowledge there are no GMO vegetables being grown in Canada.  There are lots of what we call “field crops” (cereals, oil seeds, feed grain corn; which is utterly different from sweet corn and popcorn, soybean, etc) that are genetically modified in some way, but not veggies.  It’s a very good example of how consumers have used their voices and buying power to alter the industry in their favour.  There was one variety of GMO sweetcorn offered for sale in Canada about five years ago but not a single Canadian farmer would buy it.  A big win for consumers!  Bottom line; if you buy locally grown vegetables you don’t have to worry about GMO’s.

Hybrids, on the other hand, happen frequently in nature through cross pollination of different, but closely related, plants.  Often the more diverse gene pool of the offspring is more vigorous than either of the parents.  We call that “hybrid vigour”.  When humans step in the process literally involves controlling what pollen from the male part of the flower of one biotype gets to fertilize the female part of the flower on another biotype.  Unnatural selection of sorts I suppose.  So; hybrids have happened in nature for millions of years and have been widely used for the last hundred years or more to improve traits like flavour, yield, storability, and nutrient content.  There is definitely still a place for open pollinated varieties and in some cases they are every bit as good as any hybrid and a much easier to get seed from.  For that reason the seed is almost always cheaper to buy so farmers will generally use non hybrid seed varieties when they can.  Crops like beans and peas are almost always open pollinated.  

Depending on what the seed breeders and farmers are trying to accomplish the resulting hybrid could be better for you or not as good for you as a consumer.  If the only criteria used in selecting new hybrids are high yield, processability and storability the new variety may be adding to the trend of decreasing nutritive value that has been happening for the last 70 years or more with the industrialization of agriculture.  At Elmridge when we select vegetable varieties to grow we are mostly selecting for flavour which is, strangely enough (or not…), linked with nutrient content.  Generally the better it tastes the better it is for you. From an evolutionary point of view it’s kind of like the plants have trained the animals.  What we consider tasty has subtly evolved over time because those who liked the taste of more nutritious plants were able to pass more of their genes (including the genes that made them like a certain flavour or texture) on to the next generation.  Of course, the modern processed food industry and the fact that we can access way too many calories way too easily, has completely turned the whole thing on its head.  Most of us are hard wired to love sugar and fatty foods…..and so we have the battle of the bulge.

The level of crop diversification becomes very obvious when the seed orders are complete and the number of items comes in at well over 100.  Three years ago the order was over 130 items but this year I think we have it down to about 90.  The driver behind this de-diversification is the ever increasing level of government regulation and the ever shrinking margins.  Growing a little bit of many many crops made good sense 30 years ago when, by far, our main market was the Halifax City Farmers Market in the old Kieths brewery.  Labour costs were lower then, compared to retail prices, and the level of government regulation was only a tiny fraction of what it is now.  

Disclaimer:  I am fully aware that it may seem like I spend a lot of time complaining or ranting but I am doing my best to just tell it like it is….most of the time:-)

Labour costs that are increasing much more rapidly than produce prices force us to look at mechanization.  Mechanization only works if you have a certain critical volume of each crop.  And mechanization of each crop requires different specialized machinery.  For that reason we have to choose which crops to grow more of and which crops to leave to someone else.  For us it has meant a scale up in crops that we can justify mechanizing like carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes and beets.  This can also be an advantage to other small growers who want to sell naturally grown product because they can concentrate on other crops while allowing us to supply these crops for less than it would cost to grow the crops themselves.  Crops that are hard to mechanize or just aren’t mechanized by anyone in this area we continue to grow as we have in the past (tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, peas, etc.).  Still other crops that we struggle to grow well without the use of pesticides we have cut back on to what we can retail ourselves (like Brussels sprouts, peppers and dried onions) or completely outsource (like turnip, most cabbage, cauliflower, berries etc.).

And, of course, there’s the bureaucracy.  We are very close to the point where we are expected to trace each individual seed from the minute it hits the ground until it lands on your dinner plate all in the name of food safety.  The costs are stupendous and the complications, enforcement horror stories, and headaches endless.  It works against diversification and the resulting financial stability that diversification can create.  It is applauded by the big grocers and certain consumer groups who will both benefit; one by looking good for applauding it (99% of the food safety costs fall back to farmers and processors) and the other by feeling like they have some sort of protection from something they no longer understand; food production (we all fear that which we don’t understand).
Some government oversight is good and will improve the safety of the food we eat, mainly because the huge industrial food system creates unhealthy, stressed plants in the field and increased transit and shelf times that give dangerous bacteria a chance to flourish.  

Incidentally, almost all of our food safety problems come from outside of Canada.  Literally 99.99% (and, very alarmingly, many of the safety issues involve traces of banned pesticides or unacceptable levels of pesticides that are highly regulated in Canada).  For that reason I think extending the high levels of documentation to the smaller local growers (and yes, Elmridge Farm is quite small in the grand scheme of things) is just another nail in the coffin of local food production.  As a percentage of gross sales the cost of food safety regulation is many times higher for diversified farms than larger monoculture farms.  The worst part is that the gains in true food safety are so small I doubt they will ever be measurable.  There has to be a better way!

Well, time to roll the dice, lock in our seed orders, and dive into 2021.

Keep eating your veggies.