Friday, April 9, 2010

Tomato, Tomahto: The politics behind your purchases

If you're anything like me, your weekly shopping trip gets more and more complicated all the time. There are just so many things to consider; local, fresh, organic, free-range and fair trade, as well as the obvious consideration of cost. Sometimes I find myself spending a good 10 minutes staring at labels, trying to figure out which item will provide me with the most nutrients without breaking the bank. Ideally, this singular purchase will land in my grocery basket with an emphatic thump, without compromising my morals or beliefs. In reality, if I can't trace the item back to its source, I don't really know where my money is going. Sometimes that emphatic thump gets muffled by packaging and labels using words such as, 'wholesome', 'nutritious', 'farm fresh' and 'traditional'.  We're told time and time again that we, the consumers, hold purchasing power and that, ultimately, we control the market. But since tracing food stuffs from your local grocery store back to the source is virtually impossible, how can you make an educated and informed decision? Can we really have purchasing power without knowledge?
The answer, quite simply, is no. For most people, standing in a grocery aisle for 10 minutes while scrutinizing a can of salmon is not an option, nor does it bear satisfactory answers. Moreover, we simply do not want to spend our downtime doing investigative research. Often, and understandably so, choices are made based on those persuasive words and  powerful images. So, if you are much like me and you don't have 10 minutes to decide which can of salmon best fits your foodie dogma, eating locally might just be the answer. Not only does it save time, but you can ask the food producer all those niggling little questions that the can of salmon couldn't or wouldn't answer.
That said, I still find myself dissecting  and analyzing labels at the local grocery store from time to time. But what about produce? What do the tiny little stickers on our fruit and veggies tell consumers? If you look closely, you'll see where they were grown and whether or not they were grown organically. Is this really enough information to make a good decision? Do we need to know more? Well, this morning I read an article that, once again, changed the way I will look at produce forever.
A Case for Florida Farmworkers:

In order to keep up with global demand, American fruit and vegetable production has dramatically increased. Although demand and production have risen, the farmworkers who pick and pack this produce have seen their wages and working conditions either remain stagnant, or decline.
In 2001, the US Department of Labor sent a letter to US Congress describing working conditions for Florida farmworkers. The report described farmworkers as "a labor force in significant distress". Its conclusion sited farmerworkers' "low wages, sub-poverty annual earnings, (and) significant periods of un- and underemployment" as evidence of this distress. According to the 2008 USDA Profile of Hired Farmworkers, their work setting is similar to that of industrial workers. Farmworkers operate heavy machinery, which is hard physical labour. They also confront significant health risks such as sun exposure, pesticide exposure, inadequate sanitary facilities and crowded and/or substandard housing. Farmworkers earn poverty level wages, have no right to overtime pay and are not allowed to organize or collectively bargain with their employers. Due to the fact that farmwork is seasonal and unpredictable, rates of unemployment are double those of wage and salary workers. Furthermore, it has been more than 30 years since their rate of pay has risen significantly. Florida tomato pickers, for example, earn 45 cents for every 32 lb bucket of tomatoes picked. In a 10-12 hour day, workers have to pick 2 1/2 tons of tomatoes just to make the equivalent of Florida's minimum wage! In some extreme cases, workers are made to work against their will for little to no pay. This is basically modern-day slavery and absolutely despicable! Since 1997, Federal Civil Rights officials have prosecuted 7 slavery operations, involving over 1000 farmworkers!!
If you're not moved by environmental factors and you don't believe in the health risks involved in shipping food from afar, surely we can all agree on one thing: every worker, no matter what industry they work in, deserves to be fairly paid and justly treated. They deserve to make decent wages, work in a clean and safe environment, and be protected by labour laws so that they may not be exploited by their employers.
If you would like to learn more about farmworkers in Florida and what is being done to raise awareness, the entire article can be read here:

I didn't really need another reason to hem and haw in the produce section, but I'm certainly going to be extra careful when purchasing my fruits and veggies in the future. As I see it, buying local is the only way to truly know your food.
What do you think? As a consumer, how can we be sure that what we are buying isn't in direct conflict with our morals and values? Post your comments here.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Seeds, seeds, seeds...

I was a little late ordering my seeds but it's something that I have never done before and, I must admit, a tad overwhelming. Usually, I would have just popped down to the nearest store and bought whatever they had in stock. This year, however, I am being much more selective. I have chosen from a range of seed companies (4 in total), after flipping endlessly through seed catalogs from 12 different companies! The selection was endless! I'm not exaggerating when I say that it took me weeks to make my final selections. It's all so exciting and new to me and there is so much to learn. Before this process began, I had no idea what indeterminate meant. Phrases like, 'hardening out' and 'bolting' meant nothing to me. I found myself lost in the mere descriptions of vegetables, being both a romantic, as well as a lover of words. Who are the lucky people who get to write these descriptions? Are they on commission? I found myself writing down the names of varieties of vegetables that I don't even like. It was all in good fun, until I added up the totals. It was then that I realized that I couldn't order one package of seeds from every company, just to be supportive. The postage alone was going to kill my bank account. I first had to narrow down which companies would get my support this year and for what reasons. In the end I chose four. I ordered seeds from Annapolis Seeds in Nova Scotia simply because the idea of a 16 year old boy owning and operating his own organic seed company is mind-blowing. While his catalogue is smaller than the other companies', he grows the seeds himself and they are open-pollinated, non-GMO and totally organic, although not certified. Owen Bridge has my full support and wish him all the success in the world! Here is a link to his website should you be interested in purchasing seeds from him yourself:
 From Owen, I purchased seeds for Lancer Parsnips, Chadwick's Cherry Tomatoes and Yellow Pear Tomatoes. I can't wait until they arrive!
Next, I chose a company called Hope Seeds, based in New Brunswick. They also sell heritage and organic seeds of the highest quality. From them I purchased seeds for cucumbers, 5 Colour Silverbeet Swiss Chard, Red Express red cabbage, and acorn squash. They haven't arrived yet either but I'm pretty sure they'll be here anyday now, maybe even today. Here's the link to Hope Seed's website:

Yesterday my seeds arrived from High Mowing Seed Company. Although High Mowing is an American company and, generally speaking, I support Canadian companies first, I was drawn in by the varieties available through High Mowing. Their seeds are also 100% organic and they have heritage varieties available too. From High Mowing Organic Seeds I purchased the following seeds: Early Wonder Tall Top Beet (mostly for the greens), Shanghai Green Baby Pac Choy, Jericho Romaine Lettuce, Orion Red Pepper, Yellow Scallopini Patty Pan Squash, Matt's Wild Cherry Tomato (delicious little guys!), and San Marzano Paste Tomato. Since they arrived yesterday, I will be starting the seeds indoors as of today. Can't wait to get started... Here is the link for High Mowing Organic Seeds:

Finally, the biggest order I placed was through Henry Field's Seed & Nursery Co., based in Oakville, Ontario. Henry Field's is not entirely organic but they do sell a variety of organic seeds. Whether or not this is a rural myth, I have heard from several people that organic crops fail more often because they are more susceptible to pests. Of course, I didn't want to believe this and purchased mostly organic seeds. However, the little voice in the back of my head said that it wouldn't hurt to try a couple of the non-organic varieties. That said, I did find myself favouring the organic seeds in the Henry Field's catalogue anyway. Here is what I bought from Field's: Howden's Field Pumpkins, Jackpot Hybrid Zucchini Summer Squash, Kuroda carrots, Miss Pickler Hybrid Cucumbers (the name alone sold me!), Oregon Sugar Pod Snow Peas, Rainbow Blend Carrot Seeds, Ruby Red Chard, Saxa Radish, Sugarsnax Carrot, Twilight Eggplant and Vital Green Spinach. They should be here anyday now too! Very exciting! Here's the link to Henry Field's:

I also had the opportunity to attend Seedy Saturday here in Guelph. I met a number of people who sell and grow seeds for a living. I bought seeds from the Cottage Gardener and Ecogenesis booths.
Now that the seeds are here, well, almost here, I can get started on the seedlings. Since I have the day off tomorrow, I will continue this then... Until then, I'll be impatiently waiting for the rest of my seeds to arrive.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Fence building...

This weekend was a sunny one, so we spent  a good portion of it outside, preparing for the impending gardening season. The property we live on is full of wildlife, wildlife that will inevitably try to get into our garden. In particular, there is a family of deer who roam the property freely. We are lucky enough to see them everyday. I have seen rabbits, a wild turkey, and even a red fox. We hear the coyotes yipping every night and although I have never seen them, I have heard of the damage caused by moles. Building a garden without a fence would be a hand-delivered invitation to an all-you-can-eat buffet open 24/7. This was not the message that we wanted to send and so we began the search for the perfect fence.

My garden's dimensions are 30' x 16', so we needed approximately 100 ft of fencing. The first place we went to quoted $400 for a 100 ft. fence. Fencing is not cheap but there had to be a more cost-efficient way to do this. After checking out a few places, we found something called Deer Barrier made by Easy Gardener. Here is the link to the product, if you are interested:
Deer Barrier is a strong, but lightweight black mesh 'fence'. It blends into the background and is UV protected, so it will last for years. Perhaps its strongest selling point is that it does not have any sharp edges and, therefore, will not hurt animals. Deer Barrier sells for approximately $50 (for 7' x 100'), a small price to pay for garden protection.
Constructing the fence was easier than it would have been if it were made of metal. We measured out the space and hammered metal stakes into the corners and along the walls. The stakes were set deep so that they will withstand strong winds, as well as any accidental run-ins with deer. Since the barrier was 7' high and we had planned for a fence of about 5', there was extra mesh to play with. We stretched the barrier across the posts and fastened it securely with plastic ties. Then we dug a trench approximately 6-8 inches deep all around the edge of the barrier. The excess mesh was rolled tightly and pushed into the trenches where it was buried and tightly packed. When all was said and done, the fence was secure and tight to the ground. For extra security, we will be reinforcing the bottom with a couple of feet of chicken wire. This will stop any animals from chewing their way in, namely those pesky rabbits. The only critter this fence will not keep out is the mole. I have, however, read of some organic deterrents that I will be testing out this summer.
We completed only 3 sides of the fence this weekend since there needed to be room for a gate. Alex built me a gate made of lightweight wood and chicken wire. It will be hinged to a sturdy post and securely hooked at both the bottom and the top. Since the mesh fence is hard to see, it will be necessary to wrap something around the top. If I can't see it with my naked eye, chances are neither can the deer.
All in all, the fence cost approximately $75, gate included. If you don't mind a little manual labour you'll find the work fairly easy. It took us a couple of hours in total and we had a lot of fun doing it. I'm going to attempt to add a slideshow here so that you can see our progress for yourself.
Pictures of the gate to come....

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Soil Testing

I'm no soil expert, but I do know that your soil's pH should not be too high, nor too low. A nice, neutral number is best. I had no idea what my soil's pH was, so I went out and bought myself a soil testing kit. The kit not only included the pH test, but also tests for plant foods, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. I'm not certain if this kit actually tests for the presence of plant foods, but I did all four anyway. Here are my results. Perhaps, someone knows more than I do and would like to share with me the reasons for testing for 'plant foods,' such as potash. Mostly, I was in it for the pH test.

The instructions for the kit, made by a company called McKenzie (based in Brandon, MB), directed me to dig 4" into the soil where my proposed garden would be and put into a sealable container. I used a 500 mL Mason jar, filling it with one part soil (50ml) and 4 parts water (200 mL). I should the jar vigourously for one minute, as directed, and then let it sit for 10 minutes. After the sediment had settled, what remained was a mirky fluid. I carefully transferred the amount instructed into the little vials provided, except for the pH test. Each vial was colour coded and contained a matching capsule with powder in it.

Carefully, I separated the capsule ends and emptied its contents into the corresponding vial. I shook each vigourously and let rest for one minute. After the minute had passed, I held each vial up in the sunfilled room (but not direct sunlight) and compared its colour to the one on the chart provided. This is the hard part. In different light, the colours changed depth, at least to my eyes. I have included pictures of the vials below for your evaluation.
The results for Nitrogen were normal; the colour best matched the one on that chart described as 'medium'. As far as my eye can see, the Phosphorus test came back 'very low'. The Potash test was, perhaps, the most difficult to read. Although the liquid itself was very pale orange, the soil changed to a deep orange colour. Based on the colour of the water, however, the results read 'low' to 'very low'.
Next, I tested the pH of the soil. For this test I merely took some of the same soil, dug from 4" below the surface, and and put it directly into the vial provided, to the first line. The I added the contents of the capsule provided and water to the 4th line. Much like the other tests, I should the vial vigourously for about 1 minute, and then let it rest for 10. The results came back a dark green which means that the soil's pH is somewhere between 7-8. With 7 being neutral, 8 is slightly alkaline. I have included a picture of the sample for your evaluation, as well. If anyone has more information to add to this that will help me in my gardening adventure, please feel free to post a message. This is a learning experience for me and, as I said before, I'm no soil expert.

Guerrilla green thumbs raise awareness!

I recently added Twitter to my life. I have been apprehensive to do so because, really, who needs another distraction? I had thought that Twitter was merely yet another social network for people who felt like sharing the moment-to-moment details of their lives. I never really thought of it as a place to keep up-to-date on current events. I was wrong. That said, here's something that I read this morning that might interest Canadian locavores.

University of Victoria students are digging up lawns in protest, replacing the traditional manicured turf with flowers and seedlings. They are concerned about the future of of a well-used 1500 sq. metre community garden campus, as well about the university's inaction on another proposed project. Over 10 years earlier the university had proposed transforming a 12 hectare piece of vacant land near the canpus into an agricultural  
utopia. The students hope that their actions will raise awareness not only about these issues, but also about the global industrial agricultural system. The current system is in direct conflict with the ideals that they are teaching in universities. Quite simply, it's a case of not practising what one preaches. For the full article, click the link below. The first comment after the article made me laugh right out loud, so make sure you read on.