Canada: You get what you pay for: the cost of local food

When the Barlows bring salads to the Haliburton Farmers’ Market, the ingredients are only hours old, grown in pesticide-free soil a short drive away from their vendors’ booth. So when someone criticizes the product for being more expensive than a salad at a grocery store, Bryan Barlow has a problem with that.

“It's only right that you should pay more for it. Seriously. I feel passionately about that,” says Barlow, who along with his wife Beverly has been farming near Minden since 2004.

Their salads cost $7 for about 300 grams and includes a host of veggies you won’t usually find in grocery store salads such as brassicas, chrysanthemums, leaf celery, sorrel, beet tops, kale, chicory and more.

Their farm, Hunter Creek Ranch, produces lamb, beef, poultry and various vegetables on a property that is not certified organic, but uses no pesticides or growth hormones.

Bryan Barlow is vice-president of the Haliburton County Farmers’ Association and says for the commercial farms in the county weather, along with added costs of being small scale, can drive prices up. But it’s worth the cost, he said.

An example he gives is of garlic, which is one of the more prolific products grown in the Highlands.

Cheap garlic is plentiful due to production methods in China, he says, which involves large scale production and low labour costs; however, the taste cannot compare with that grown in Haliburton.

Angel Taylor is chairwoman of the Haliburton County Farmers’ Market Association and along with husband Richard, runs The Nest Egg in Blairhampton between Haliburton and Minden.

“Chinese garlic may sell for $2 to $3 [a pound] while the garlic sold in Haliburton County runs around $12 to $14 [a pound] as it does in many other parts of Ontario – sometimes even higher priced,” Taylor wrote in an email to the paper.

According to Taylor, the Chinese garlic is of the soft-neck kind, while local garlic is hard-neck, which grows better in colder climates. Hard-neck garlic takes longer to mature and has larger cloves and a spicier taste, she said.

“China is by far the largest producer of soft neck garlic. That garlic is sprayed, bleached with chlorine to make it whiter, irradiated and treated with chemicals for longer shelf life. It may be fertilized using human waste,” she said.

The difference in price accounts for those differences as well as the knowledge that plants grown by members of the Garlic Growers’ Association use “only natural manual growing methods and no chemicals.”

Angel Taylor said the cost difference often comes from how expensive it can be to run a “very small farm.”

“Very small farms do not have economies of scale,” said Taylor. “They can’t afford to buy large equipment or [pay] people to help with the work. … Often they use different production methods from industrial farms.”

It can lead to increased prices, but food producers argue it means a better quality product and practices worth investing in.

At Abbey Gardens in West Guilford, Food Hub manager Jim Vidoczy said prices at his store can be more expensive than commercially produced food for a variety of reasons. “Because [commercial farmers] plant vast fields using artificial irrigation and fertilizers and mechanical harvesting, the cost per tomato [for example] is very low compared to someone using labour-intensive methods: hand weeding, not putting fertilizer in, not killing bugs with pesticide,” he said.

Despite that, Herb Titze, garden operations manager at Abbey Gardens, said he expects prices for local foods to eventually even out with commercial operations.

“In the next 10 years, this [price difference] will change. One reason is transportation. I would say locally grown organic food will become cheaper,” said Titze, who teaches workshops and manages the demonstration gardens on site.

As the cost of oil increases, shipping any food will become more expensive, Titze said, and locally produced products will be better able to compete on price point.


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