Author and food activist Michael Pollan states, “The wonderful thing about food is you get three votes a day. Every one of them has the potential to change the world.”
After spending the day in Chatham-Kent, I realized that we are completely disconnected with where our food comes from and how it arrives on our plates. We take our food system entirely for granted. Food sustains us, and yet our current food system is unsustainable.
As someone who chooses a vegan diet not only for the sake of the animals, but for the sake of the environment and my own health, I’m particularly interested in exploring this issue. I spent the day with Paul, a farmer from CK Table, as well as some local farmers and food advocates from Chatham, Ontario. CK Table (Chatham-Kent Table) is a food movement developing plans to foster a self-sufficient local food economy in southwestern Ontario.
No matter where you live, buying local food from your own farmers is one of the best choices you can make for your health, the local economy, and our natural environment. Forming relationships with local farmers allows you to know the precise methods that are used to grow the food that you’re eating to nourish your body. The best choices for ourselves and our planet involve buying plants that are grown organically or farmed ecologically.
Ecological farming is based on using healthy soil to grow crops. Soil that is rich in nutrients and minerals can grow plants that are also rich in nutrients and minerals. These farmers use their own knowledge of the land to deal with pests, weeds, and plant diseases rather than spraying chemical pesticides. For instance, a farmer might choose to rotate their crops each year to reduce the risk of infection. Furthermore, pests can be controlled by introducing natural predators to those insects. Many family farms use combinations of conventional and ecological approaches.
Organic farming only uses an ecological approach. These farms follow certain practices and are inspected each year to gain an organic certification. These farmers must not use any synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically engineered seeds. Organic farmers reject genetic engineering as highly risky and entirely unnecessary. They also do not wish to give corporations (mainly Monsanto) control over their seeds. The best ways to avoid eating GMOs are to purchase organic foods, avoid processed foods (mostly with soy, corn, and canola ingredients), and to buy foods locally and directly from the farmer who does not plant genetically modified seeds.
Buying food directly from farmers helps our own economy and supports our local farms. It seems pretty obvious, right? Well, the majority of the food in Ontario supermarkets is not sourced locally. As the larger grocery stores demand large quantities of food at the cheapest prices, food that is grown in other countries is generally favoured over local produce. The reality is that farmers are facing an income crisis. Even though Ontario has over one half of all of Canada’s class 1 farmland, farmers make up less than 1% of Ontario’s population. Less than 10% of Ontario farmers are under 35 years old. We are slowly losing our local farms and if we don’t start to support them, we may lose them altogether.
When we purchase food straight from the farmers, we can ask the important questions about how the food is grown. Is it sprayed heavily with pesticides that damage our soil, our waterways, our insects, our wildlife, our bees, and our planet? We can purchase food from farmers that avoid using pesticides. Putting these harmful chemicals into our bodies is not good for us, and it is not good for our planet. Also, purchasing local foods means that the plants and produce were not trucked in from thousands of miles away. Ultimately, this results in less greenhouse gas emissions and less air pollution.
And perhaps most importantly, have you ever tasted food fresh from the farm? Have you ever eaten a fruit ripe off the vine? Eating fresh food tastes the best!
The main challenges for most people include convenient access to fresh foods and farmers, and the cost. Shopping local doesn’t always mean more expensive. In fact, it makes more sense to buy directly from a farmer at a stand or a market – you’re eliminating any middle man or big box store with a huge overhead. The more people that buy locally, the more cost effective it will become. By supporting our own farmers, we are investing in our own economy and ourselves. By making educated decisions regarding our food purchases, we are making thoughtful choices that can result in nourishing ourselves with tastier foods. The larger ramifications of eating healthier include feeling more exuberant in daily life, and potentially reducing the risk of future chronic diseases. By doing some research in finding local farmers and markets, you are investing in yourself. I think you’re worth it! Michael Pollan’s proclamation definitely holds true: every meal is a vote.
Have you ever heard of Chatham-Kent, Ontario? Unless you live nearby, chances are you’ve barely heard of this rural community, or you know very little about it. Well, here are a few facts to get you started. Chatham-Kent is:
- The number one producer of tomatoes in all of Canada
- The number one producer of carrots in all of Canada
- The number one producer of seed corn in all of Canada
- The number one producer of cucumbers in all of Canada
- The number one producer of pumpkins in all of Canada
- The number one producer of green peas in all of Canada
- The number two producer of sugar beets in all of Canada
- The number two producer of Brussels sprouts in all of Canada
- The number two producer of field peppers in all of Canada
- The number two producer of asparagus in all of Canada
Needless to say, the people of many urban centres are fed by the farmers of Chatham-Kent! However, urban centres are growing and young people are farming less. Local farming is declining as people purchase more of their food from overseas producers. Chatham-Kent may be the leading growers of lots of fresh produce, but for how long?
FarmStart Incubation Farm
FarmStart is a shining light for a younger generation of people that are interested in farming. We need young people to continue farming traditions so we can continue to eat! FarmStart is a registered charity that provides a new generation with the tools and support they need to succeed in becoming a farmer. Start-up farms are provided with access to land, equipment, mentorship, and business planning skills development during the first five years of their business. Starting a farm isn’t easy, but FarmStart makes it a little easier.
Paul from CK Table took us to the CK FarmStart Incubation Farm where organic okra is grown for Mama Earth Organics in Toronto. I’d never eaten raw okra before, especially right off the plant. It was really good! Raw okra is a bit crunchy, almost like a green bean.
It was great to learn about a program that provides grants for those interested in farming, but perhaps don’t know where to start.
Next, Paul took us to Kerr Farms to speak with Bob Kerr. We walked into one of his corn fields to discover the specialty corn that he’s growing for ChocoSol Traders in Toronto to make corn flour tortillas.
Bob has hundreds of acres of land using both organic and conventional farming methods. Kerr Farms is the biggest producer of organic asparagus and it can be found at both Loblaws stores and at farmer’s markets. He uses many ecological farming practices, such as rotating his crops and planting ground cover to nourish the soil. For example, Bob has planted red clover as a ground cover in the wheat field because clover makes nitrogen that will be released back into the soil. Next season, he will plant corn in that nitrogen-rich field. Bob informed us that the soil must be balanced in both minerals and nutrients, and a healthy crop does not get attacked as much by insects. His goal is to produce the most nutritionally dense food.
We walked through Bob’s corn fields where he grows both yellow corn and purple corn. The purple corn is used to make corn tortillas for ChocoSol Traders. Bob proclaimed that they are the best tasting tortillas in Toronto – I’ll have to try them! Purple corn could possibly be the next super food. It is high in antioxidants, has 20% more protein than yellow corn, and is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Purple corn is typically found in Peru, though it’s great to see that it can be grown here in Ontario, too. I’d love to see purple corn crop up in more local markets.
A Vegan Feast
We arrived back at our meeting place, which was the Retro Suites Hotel and Chilled Cork Restaurant. Please check out my full review of the Retro Suites hotel. Thank you to CK Table and Foodland Ontario for my stay.
At the Chilled Cork restaurant, we enjoyed a meal inspired entirely by locally grown foods found in the Chatham area. It was very fitting that the meal was completely vegan as we learned about fresh produce all day. The chefs created an unbelievably amazing meal and we were dined with the farmers, too. Some of the fresh foods came right from those farms, including tomatoes from Kerr Farms.
Here was our inspiring menu:
- Butternut Squash Soup with maple drizzle
- Arugula Salad with local tomatoes, walnuts, caramelized cauliflower florets, drizzled with a Dijon vinaigrette
- Agedashi Tofu – deep fried tofu in a kombu and soy broth (yes, the tofu was created completely from scratch using local soybeans! And it was the best tofu ever.)
- Kale rolls stuffed with mixed beans and sweet potatoes, topped with a tomato sauce, accompanied by roasted purple potatoes
- Dessert – Stone ground brandied peace shortcake with candied pecans
It was a feast for the eyes as much as it was for the stomach.
What Can We Do?
I learned a lot from my day in Chatham-Kent. If you’re interested in a more sustainable and eco-friendly way of living, it’s great to start with what you eat. Eating a variety of plants is amazing for your health. Try your best to source out local and organic choices.
While travelling around the world, it’s always fun to check out the local farmer’s markets. You can eat fresh, locally grown food, and save some money if you cook for yourself on your travels.
Try to dine at restaurants that emphasize fresh, organic, and locally grown food. Ask questions at restaurants, like where they source their ingredients. Is it local? Is it organic?
Engage in a dialogue with your loved ones about buying more locally grown foods. Go to a market together or even cook a meal using fresh produce with your family.
Check out the upcoming events that are hosted by CK Table to engage directly with local farmers! There’s a really exciting event coming up called Flights & Flasks: CK Craft Beer & Cider Festival featuring both food and beverage samples. The local breweries and cideries will have their beverages accompanied by dishes created by local chefs.
Consider joining a local CSA program. You’ll be investing in a farm share and in return, you’ll receive fresh food. Each week, you’ll receive a box filled with fruits and veggies!
Thank you so much to CK Table for hosting me. Thank you to Retro Suites and Foodland Ontario for my hotel stay, and thank you to the Chilled Cork for my meals.
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What are some tips you have for incorporating more local or organic food into your diet?