Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Putting culture into agriculture

It's a bit dated but there was an interesting article on farmers markets in the August 11, issue of the Star (Fresh thoughts about buying local). I don't know why there aren't a lot more weekly farmers markets in large urban centre's like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Certainly there are the permanent year round markets that are usually located in the centre of the city (the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto and Granville Market in Vancouver). Both of these markets do a pretty good job at bringing in produce from local growers, but it would be great it's not very convenient unless you live close by.

That's why it's so great to see Toronto starting up more local farmers markets, particularly in the summertime. In particular the Don Valley Brickworks seems to be doing a great job at bringing local produce to market in a more social setting. This brings more affordable quality food to urban areas but also provides a social setting that builds a sense of community. When I lived in Toronto there was a farmers market at the old East York municipal buildings during the summer. I know there was also one in Markham as well. Other cities should look at some of the innovations that Toronto is embracing as a role model.

Farmers markets also serve as a bridge between the urban-rural divide and (hopefully) educates urbanites on the importance of local agriculture. As we look towards more sustainable economies surely locally grown produce will be an essential element of the solution. As urban and rural dwellers come together this may create new innovations in agriculture that will extend farmers markets beyond the summer months.

I'm going to take the liberty of copying the article here in case the link expires.

Fresh thoughts about buying local
We rate two popular farmers' markets for good practices and find each has shortcomings
Aug 11, 2007 04:30 AM

David Rider Toronto Star

A good farmers' market is more than a market – it's a temporary island of country surfaced in the big city, a return to a time when grower and buyer actually locked eyes. It's an earthy antidote to the stylish sterility of modern shopping.

Oh, and there's great fresh food at reasonable prices.

Mike Schreiner, vice-president of Local Food Plus (formerly Local Flavour Plus), a non-profit organization promoting local sustainable food systems, agreed to rate two very different farmers' markets: the established one at Nathan Phillips Square and the upstart at Don Valley
Brickworks (550 Bayview Ave.).

The four criteria: how local is the food; quality and variety; general ambiance or vibe; and what are the sustainability practices of vendors, which includes no- or low-chemical use and economic survivability of the farmers.

Schreiner, who grew up on a Kansas grain and livestock farm, says he wants vendors to be actual farmers, but he doesn't mind them selling neighbours' produce. "Not every farmer wants to come into town and do this."

He says farmers need to promote themselves and give buyers lots of information. "People want to experience that connection with the people who grow their food."

Nathan Phillips Square (Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. until Oct. 17)
There are three clusters of covered tables, one in front of City Hall's main doors and two outposts on either side of the square. Most browsers are in business attire, making a purchase or two before escaping back into air conditioning.

Schreiner notes the tables are stacked with fruit – beautiful cherries, peaches and plums beckon – but only a few have good crunchy information about the farm.

Some have empty boxes from many farms, raising suspicions those vendors are simply re-
sellers. Others are bona fide farmers who could do a better job showing it. Schreiner happens to know the baked goods at the Andrews Scenic Acres table are baked at a kitchen right on the farm in Milton.

"It would be great if they had a photo of the kitchen so I knew where this blueberry pie came from and that the blueberries were picked on his farm," he says.

He loves Domenic's Meats' professional set-up in an open-sided trailer, but would like a sign saying how the animals are raised.

At a baked goods table, Schreiner is wary of the "plastic-looking" offerings. "Maybe that guy baked it, but how would I know?"

Here's Schreiner's rating on a 10-point scale:
1. Local: Most of the product was local; one baked good posed a question mark. 9/10
2. Quality and variety: Heavy on fruit, lots of beautiful stuff, nice selection. 9/10
3. Ambiance: Room for improvement – it's pretty sterile. Vendors should tell you more about products and there is no music and nothing for kids. 7/10
4. Sustainable: Some organic product, but only two stalls gave information about how product was grown. Some vendors may not be farmers. 6/10 ("with a question mark.")

Total: 31/40

Don Valley Brickworks (Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. until Oct. 27).
There are about 30 tables, most of them facing each other under a long metal roof.
There is a festive feel and delicious smells waft from two stalls: Chez Vous breakfast and Merchants of Green Coffee.

Schreiner notes there are more organic and low-chemical farmers here and, as a result, lots of veggies and little fruit: "It's brutally difficult to grow organic fruit in Ontario because of the humidity." There are, however, stalls selling crafts, chocolate, soap and massages. He's okay with such products at a farmers' market if they add to the overall experience.

Quite a few stalls post information, including farm name, production methods and even how far the goods were driven to market (for CO{-2} emissions). McCutcheon's Maple Syrup of Coldwater displays its World Champion award from the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair and photos of the operation. "That's great," Schreiner says.

But an organic farmer whom Schreiner knows has no signs at all. "I'm thinking, `Ted, c'mon....'"
1. Local: Most produce was local, but there is the coffee and chocolate. 7/10
2. Quality and variety: Everything looks beautiful and fresh, but different than Nathan Phillips because a lot of stuff here is grown without chemicals. Tables could be more bountiful. 9/10
3. Ambiance: A great place to take your family. Lots of sights, smells, signs about the farms. One downside is that most people drive here, even though there are free shuttle buses from the Broadview subway station. 9/10
4. Sustainable: Almost everything here is organic or chemical-free. 9/10

Total: 34/40

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Should we dumb down Canada?

Once again, one of Margaret Wente's columns in the Globe and Mail has me scratching my head (It's our fault they can't grow up). In her column, Wente argues that we're "infatalizing" our children by coddling them and allowing them to pursue whatever harebrained scheme that comes into their heads. This includes one of her friends financing their daughter's online business and, when that fails, allowing her to live with them until she gets on her feet.

It also includes parents who support their kids while they pursue advanced degrees (beyond a BA). According to Wente this results in "a spectacular waste of human potential" as kids waste years "piling up more 'credentials' as they try to figure out what they really want to do and waiting for just the right self-actualizing opportunity to come along." What we need to do according to Wente is get them out into the "real world" earlier so that they can be doing "productive work". I wonder if she includes journalism as "productive work"?

By earlier Wente means in their teens. After all according to Wente, if George Washington could be out surveying Indian country at 16 and Roman boys were fighting at 14 years of age (I assume then that she's OK with all of the child soldiers being "recruited" to fight in Africa and elsewhere), then surely we should be able to put our kids out into the workforce at a much younger age (so she's also OK with child labour practices followed by China and many other Third World countries).

Using examples from hundreds and thousands of years ago is simply ridiculous. Society and business is much more complicated than then and the level of knowledge required to compete (not just function) is far greater. And with an increasingly educated and competitive global economy more comprehensive training will ensure that young workers are competitive when they are most prolific. Instilling a hunger for learning will also add longevity to their careers. And keeping people in the workforce and productive is becoming increasingly important as our workforce ages.

To bolster her argument Wente calls upon an "expert" from the only science potentially more dismal than economics -- psychology. Robert Epstein (whom we can assume wasted countless years pursuing a degree that adds little value to productivity or growth) has a new book to flog (The Case Against Adolescence) and a radical new theory -- that we need to pare down our education system to get children out into the workforce much earlier and therefore eliminate all of the horrors of adolescence (drugs and alcohol, peer pressure, the obsession with appearance, consumerism).

Epstein contends that "the modern education system was created in order to supply the factories of the industrial age with a reliable stream of standardized, skilled labour. Today, the Industrial Age is dead, and the factory system is obsolete. The knowledge that people need for most jobs is specialized and changes quickly. But we still educate our kids in the same old way."

While he does argue for lifelong education his contention is that we simply need to be innoculized with specialized training at various points along our career to address our changing circumstances. This is a purely rationalistic approach that attempts to reduce education to simple inputs and outputs. This new deterministic approach to education is the "cure" for this newly created disease of adolescence. Once innoculated, the outcome will be happier, more productive and more socially integrated citizens. And simply by taking new vaccines every few years we can innoculate ourselves agains the ravages of global competition.

Common sense says that this deterministic approach to learning can't work. It is the same approach we take in healthcare right now, where we spend more and more money treatment and nothing on prevention. We can't possibly create vaccinations to address all of the possible problems that may arise.

Education must give or children the tools and training they need to changing conditions and circumstances. Given the rate of change of change they will need more flexibility to respond. We need to teach our children how to learn. When they come through the education process they must be able to think critically and with imagination. They must have a hunger for knowledge that will last a lifetime. Only then will they have the tools they need to survive.

This cannot be learning by wrote and may take more time. Some will progress faster than others and may hit the workforce at a much earlier age (Bill Gates for example). Some later. My cousin for example, lingered in the education system into his 30s before finishing a PhD. He subsequently decided he wanted to teach at a high school level and so went back to spend more time expanding his credentials. Was it a waste of time? I don't think so. He is now one of a small group of highly skilled and motivated teachers dedicated to bringing quality education to students in a troubled North Toronto neighbourhood. If he had taken a faster path he may not have had the maturity he needed to commit to what is a difficult and at times dangerous job. Not to mention thankless.

Others may choose a less formal path. Regardless, we must support our children as they find their way. There will inevitably be mistakes. Mistakes are a fundamental part of the learning process. Trying to circumvent this process diminishes the quality of the individual.

Once trained they can then take responsibility for finding the right avenue to acquire new knowledge and learn new skills. Teaching them specific skills and then shoving them into the workforce will do none of this. It will make us less, rather than more competitive. Given that Canada's growth in industrial production and expenditures on research and development are lagging many developed and emerging economies, pursuing this course of action would be disastrous.