12/31/2015 04:30 EST | Updated 12/31/2016 05:12 EST

Reviving A Fractured Food System Through Organic Food

If you've purchased any local Ontario food before, it probably came from this region you've likely never heard of. In fact, it is the number one producer of tomatoes, carrots, seed corn, cucumbers, pumpkins, sugar beets and brussels sprouts in all of Canada. However, none of it is being consumed by its community members.

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Farmer giving box of veg to customer on a sunny day

If you've purchased any local Ontario food before, it probably came from this region you've likely never heard of. In fact, it is the number one producer of tomatoes, carrots, seed corn, cucumbers, pumpkins, sugar beets and brussels sprouts in all of Canada. However, none of it is being consumed by its community members. In fact, it is shocking and saddening to hear that Chatham-Kent, a municipality in Southwestern Ontario, is subsisting on cheap, processed and packaged foods. It is a stark reality; but fortunately, CK Table -- a grassroots organization -- aims to disrupt and end this vicious cycle.

I spoke with Paul Spence, who is spearheading the CK Table Project. He acknowledges that old habits die hard with the residents of Chatham-Kent, but that there is hope. In addition to facilitating a dialogue with those in the surrounding regions, he wants to change the mindset of his own kinfolk. It stunned me to learn that the majority of the community still perceive farm-fresh markets as a novelty (for tourists), and not as an outlet for purchasing nutritious foods for their own families. They're accustomed to a big box stores with cheap food. But because they are not nutrient-dense items, they do not provide satiation nor positive health effects.

In combating this dire situation, CK Table is urging its residents to consume organic foods and appeal to farmers to convert their conventional operations to organic ones.

But there is a great reluctance to change: it is incredibly difficult for already struggling farmers to turn their conventional farms into organic ones and wait out the time required to attain the designation. And during the transition, they suffer from crop depletion due to an influx of bugs and fungus attack. This results in a loss of revenue with food that would have otherwise been sold for a profit. As well, conventional farms by definition imply that it uses pesticides, fertilizers, and insecticides. To transform into organics requires a lot of patience and diligence. Farmers must go three years without using these synthetics to defend their crops. For the first two years they grow organic food, it is only in the third that their farm and crops be declared organic.

And help is fleeting. With a rapidly aging population, much to the community's dismay, many of their talented youths are seeking jobs elsewhere in large nearby cities such as London, Ontario.

Fortunately, one of the saving-graces is CK Table's farm incubator to appeal to those leaving the community. Farm Start is an affordable space for anyone who wishes to raise livestock, greenery or try their hand at farm life. Think of it as a rent-a-farm space where you can opt for as much or as little acreage as you desire. Not only are you allowed to grow different food varieties, but also specialty items for study and to determine which crops work best with the terroir.

Understanding agricultural dynamics such as soil health, weather, etc., is advantageous because support for natural, artisan crops is on the rise. In fact, the demand is serious and profitable. On this occasion, we see fresh okra perched on green vines. This and subsequent batches are being sold to Mama Earth Organics in Toronto. It is not only a great way to cultivate meaningful relationships with merchants, but that they support and spread Chatham-Kent''s reputation and CK Table's mission.

Typically it can cost upwards of $15,000 per acre to own farm land -- with a 50 acre purchase as the minimum requirement. But with Farm Start, those who wish to learn about the responsibilities and rewards of farming can empower themselves and do so -- without need to take on any financial burdens. It is also vital for the project to thrive to retain the community's talent pool- not only to continue to provide sustenance for the rest of the nation- but to foster a sense of pride within Chatham-Kent.

But is the trouble and hardship of going organic worth it? Yes, according to Leia Weaver, an expert and advocate with the Ecological Farmers of Ontario (EFAO) whose mission is to educate, train and provide support for farmers. Farming can be a viable way to earn a living and EFAO shows how it is possible through the organic route. Without relying upon harmful toxins that humans will inevitably ingest through foods sprayed with pesticides, implementing diverse rotation (e.g. corn, beans, squash) will strengthen organic soil matter and naturally replenish the land with essential minerals, moisture, and healthy bacteria. Along with natural cover crops to deter weeds from growing and to provide shade (e.g clover patches) this effective system will not only thrive naturally, but will provide quality and nutrient-rich foods.

Weaver says that we were growing foods naturally for centuries and it is time we return to this traditional way of respecting and working with the land. Industrial farming has wreaked havoc on farm families and the food system for far too long. Although it brought mass food production and supply at an unprecedented rate, it also caused much soil degradation, and heavy reliance upon pesticides for decades -- because new generations of pests were developing immunity to every formula released on the market. Countless farmers have been relying upon a broken model of supplying food in quantities rather than quality to corporations. Worst of all, 90% of this food is not for human consumption; in fact, items such as corn and soybean are processed for consumer goods or feed for livestock.

Change is slow and steady but, the tides are changing. Farmers such as Bob Kerr, a spritely and elderly man, is the first generation in his family to cite the benefits of going organic. His father was a conventional farmer and Bob saw first hand the health problems his dad suffered from as a result of long-term exposure to pesticides. Kerr cites that it was well worth the effort and initial upfront costs to transform his farms. Today, he grows a bountiful array crops including blue corn -- a pilot project he says -- to observe the cross-pollination and natural fertilization effects between his yellow and blue varieties. He also has seven fields of kale that are use to make Brad's Raw Chips. He is one of the many moving parts towards positive change for this region.

CK agriculture's mission is to engage in dialogue between farmers and consumers; to renew and revive a fractured food system they are living in -- and most of all, to create a self-sustaining food system that can emerge from the current one. The community's livelihood and well-being shouldn't be in isolation to the rest of the country. Rural populations such as Chatham-Kent need a resurgence of aid and interest to salvage future generations and nourish small areas that feed a lot of people and families -- including yours.


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