Island Thyme

Fifty years ago Vancouver Island produced enough food to feed 85% of its population. Did you also know that today Vancouver Island produces only enough food to feed about 10% of it’s population, and imports more than 70% of it’s fresh produce? Where have all the farms gone?

A brief history lesson: In the mid 1980’s, buzz about the US and Canada "Free Trade Agreement” was rekindled. On January 1, 1989, it was passed and put into effect allowing many products, including agricultural products, to pass over the border with fewer tariffs. On January 1, 1994, The US and Canada Free Trade agreement was superseded by what is now called NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement,) opening up trade to and from Mexico.

In 1989, large amounts of US subsidized produce started coming over the border into Canada, undercutting the prices of the local farmers. After a few years, it became evident that small local farmers were no longer able to support their families with traditional farming methods. Some stopped farming all together, and the children of many farmers were encouraged not to take over the farms, to instead seek other employment as the general feeling was that local farms were inviable, a thing of the past.

Eighteen years after "Free Trade” was implemented, the old farmers have now started to step down from their fields; and there are fewer young bodies to replace them. To make matters worse, since this farmland is not being used, both provincial and local governments are trying to change much of the protected agricultural land reserve into either commercial or residential land.

In the past couple of years there has been a small resurgence of interest in local, traditional farmers and farming practices; but will that be enough? As is stands right now, there is only about a three day supply of fresh food in our stores at any given time. If Vancouver Island were to be cut off from the mainland for an extended time for any reason, most of us would not have the personal food stores to last longer than this. Our culture has been so changed in the last 30 years that most families now need at least two incomes to support a household, which means no one in a household has the time to do the traditional preserving of foods that used to get people through the winter months and lean times. Without the time to show the younger generation how to prepare and preserve food, some of these techniques are becoming a dying art.

So, who is to blame? I spent a good amount of time talking about NAFTA, but before we go pointing fingers at various governments, corporate bodies or other unmentioned factors, let’s take a look in our own refrigerators. How many locally grown or produced foods do people currently have there? In the pantry? Cellar? It’s easy to assign blame to a body of people we have no connection to.

In reality, we are all to blame. Every time we have purchased Washington State apples, potatoes or tomatoes instead of locally grown ones, we have supported a system that does not support us. Yes, the cost out of pocket is at times higher, but the long-term costs of losing the ability to sustain ourselves is immeasurably catastrophic.

If we all purchased just half a dozen local foods more than we already do, the demand for local products would grow to the point where more local farmers would be needed to produce the food; thus turning the tide on the globalization of food. Think globally, eat locally.

Chef Sean O’Connell has over 17 years of cooking experience in some of it’s finest establishments. Sean and his wife, Jessica, run Equinox Cafe and Catering in downtown Duncan, a restaurant that focuses on locally grown and produced foods.