Mind the Gap

by Susan Tychie

When I walk into my major neighborhood grocery store, my radar always seeks out food from our region—not always easy to find among produce from all over the world! However, I am determined to purchase local because it’s fresh, good for the planet, and helps to support the local economy. According to Sustain Ontario, purchasing local food creates a “multiplier effect” that injects $14 to $26 into the local economy for every $10 spent.

In the summer months, I wonder why I can’t find Island blueberries. On a quick reconnaissance mission this past August, I found two Island produce items in my local large grocer and five in the one around the corner. While I can happily report I saw a good number of mainland B.C. fruits and vegetables at both major retailers, many of these items grow in abundance in our region, like zucchini, green beans, and berries. In June, I was excited to find Saanich strawberries. But when I took them to the self-checkout, they didn’t appear on the product screen. The checkout assistant had to give me the associated code that the store had created so the cashier could enter the product and find the price by hand.

This is one example of the challenges retailers face in providing local food in a global system where all items must enter at a central location so they can be inventoried and sent on to individual stores. Some local produce does make it directly from the farmer to individual produce managers, rather than through a warehouse and distribution system, but this requires special, short-term procedures—not something larger grocers are known for. In a prescribed global food system, working outside the box—or grocery bag—is challenging.

Enter Closing the Supply Gap, a CRFAIR project I am working on, which will help local farmers sell beyond the farm gate. Closing the Supply Gap’s core purpose is to build a strong, sustainable, values-based local food system. The initiative is overseen by a leaders group of local experts from across the food sector: producers, institutional and retail purchasers, food educators, investors, policy-makers, and researchers.
Together, these leaders devised the Demonstration Project 2019 to help farmers incrementally ramp up local production and start building a unique food system for our region where all participants thrive. While small grocers play an important role in our communities, if we really want to shift how our region eats, we need to get more local food into the stores where people do most of their shopping.

The project began gathering information in spring 2018, when 13 capital region farmers participated in two focus groups. They discussed opportunities and barriers to scaling up their businesses to serve wholesale markets. Key challenges included a lack of labour and poor land quality, while investment to develop farm fixtures and equipment followed close behind. Another stumbling block was the health and safety standards, CanadaGAP, required by large grocery chains, which would mean upgrades to on-farm infrastructure. CanadaGAP was set
up specifically for the global food system, where standards vary widely and food is transported over vast distances.

CanadaGAP’s extensive tracking system is for recall purposes, and yet when I think back to the most-recent romaine lettuce recall, the source of the contamination was difficult to discover. We currently have 10 CanadaGAP-certified producers on Vancouver Island. They all grow a small number of crops on larger acreages for wholesale markets and have their own on-farm infrastructure, including packing, refrigeration, and cold storage—expensive stuff! There was strong consensus among focus group participants about the need for shared regional infrastructure that would support farm production, food processing, and marketing.

The focus group also had a robust discussion on contracts with purchasers. Would having a guaranteed contract in place make a difference? According to the focus group report, written by Patricia Reichert, local-food visionary and lead researcher for Closing the Supply Gap, “there was consensus that the nature of the contract is the key concern. Regardless of whether the farmer was amenable to contracting or less likely to contract, it is essential that contracts be based on a relationship and trust.” She found that while “price mattered,” it was more important that the agreements understood the nature of small-scale farming.
An “ah-ha” moment for me was realizing that all the financial risk was on the farmers. They make the initial investment, plant the seeds, and hope the crops make it to harvest. As one farmer put it: you have one chance, once a year, to try something new, and you’ll only know at harvest if it worked or not. How can this risk be shared?

One farmer participating in Demonstration Project 2019 is Shawn Dirksen of Northstar Organics, a 10-acre farm in Central Saanich with seven greenhouses and a wide range of field crops. Currently, Northstar Organics sells directly to consumers through a farm stand and markets, as well as a number of small specialty stores and restaurants such as the Local General Store on Haultain Street.

The intensive small-scale agriculture methods of Dirksen and many local farmers involve using sustainable practices to grow a diversity of crops on small acreages, which they sell direct to consumers. At certain times, farms produce more than can be sold directly. This has its own challenges. “We run on a really tight margin. As soon as I have paid to have food grown and harvested, and even packaged, potentially, and then composted, chances are I have started to run into the red,” says Dirksen. “The opportunity for having a bigger wholesaler that could take
some of the produce within our existing model and prevent waste would be really helpful.” Translation: more of those mainland zucchinis and beans replaced with fresh local fare.

Other farmers with the Demonstration Project are Amarjit and Jagrup Dhariwal from Ocean View Estates in Central Saanich. While the Dhariwals currently deliver twice weekly to produce managers near the farm, and these direct relationships are important, it is not an efficient—or cheap—system. They were already growing pattypan squash for Thrifty Foods when they joined, but they needed to become CanadaGAP certified to add additional products and sell to other large buyers. This would put more of their 22 acres under production and give them a more viable business.

In spring 2019, Closing the Supply Gap worked with the Agriculture Ministry to offer a two-day CanadaGAP workshop for farmers on Vancouver Island. Twenty-three farmers from all over the Island participated, including the 10 farmers from the demonstration project. As follow-up, Closing the Supply Gap helped farmers access funding for the necessary on-farm infrastructure, like wash stations and new packing equipment, and to cover some of the costs of a health and safety assessment and a CanadaGAP audit through the On-Farm Food
Safety Program.

Dirksen has discovered that CanadaGAP regulations are set up for large monoculture farms, where, for example, rows are spaced far enough apart for harvested food to go directly onto pallets—a very different business model than his intensive farm operation where every square foot is required for planting. In the labour-intensive farming style typical of our region, Dirksen sees the need for more efficiency as the health and safety protocols slow down the workflow.

Dirksen is currently on the road to CanadaGAP certification for the 2020 growing season. He plans to use the On-Farm Food Safety grant for farm equipment that will meet safety requirements and tighten up the workflow where the regulations slow things down. Four other farmers in the project are intending to certify in 2020. Meanwhile at Ocean View, the Dhariwals have their CanadaGAP certification for 2019-2020
for their pattypan squash and new crops.

Thrifty Foods stepped up to support the project by contracting the farmers to grow for the fall season and is looking at its internal systems to make it easier to receive local produce. “At Thrifty Foods, we are true believers in the power of supporting local growers, farmers, and producers,” says Travis Shaw, local development manager in B.C. for Sobeys Inc., which owns Thrifty Foods. “In partnership with Patricia Reichert and CRFAIR’s Closing the Supply Gap, we have had the pleasure of connecting with many local Victoria suppliers to provide helpful tips and tricks on how to meaningfully grow their business. We know that there’s no shortage of outstanding potential on the Island, and we’re excited to continue our commitment to growing together.”

Northstar’s Dirksen appreciates seeing the support from larger buyers. “It was really encouraging to know that something like Thrifty Foods can get behind this and are interested in it,” he says. About the larger project, he said that “it was encouraging to see how funding was able to fall into place for projects. I wish more farmers would show up at these things just because I’d like to hear more opinions on where more things could go.”

One of the big questions for everyone in the food sector is the piece in the middle—how the produce from the farms makes its way to processors and retailers in an efficient manner, and then on to you, the consumer. Processing is important, as it helps keep local food viable for longer—picture those beans and zucchinis as dried lentils and relish. Creating shared infrastructure like coolers, loading docks, and delivery vans is a crucial part of the system. Most of the region’s existing infrastructure has disappeared in the last 60 years and is very expensive to replace.

Just at the right moment, the Mustard Seed has secured the 808 Viewfield Rd. warehouses in Victoria West as a community asset, providing us with infrastructural ability to grow the local food sector. Investment from the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, Victoria Foundation, and Vancity Credit Union made this possible, with help from Paul Hadfield of Spinnakers. From Viewfield, the Food Share Network currently distributes 1.2 million pounds of food gleaned from retail partners to their member groups who provide food
and meals for those in need.

“In addition to helping ensure that the Food Rescue Project remains sustainable, the centre will enable the community’s larger vision for food security, growing programs in food literacy, employment, environmental sustainability, and the local food systems,” says Derek Pace, executive director of Mustard Seed Street Church.
The stars aligned when the Viewfield space was secured. What role will this facility play in our food system? The leaders’ group and demonstration farmers will be considering all possibilities. Funding has been secured from the Ministry of Agriculture for a business and feasibility study for the site. It seems like we are making it ever easier to place Island produce in larger retail grocery stores.

Back on the farm, the Dhariwal family started delivering Saanich-grown watermelon and cantaloupe to Thrifty Foods stores this September. Expect to see more local produce in more stores in 2020.

– Susan Tychie


Photo Credit: Lauren Sortome