China would be so proud of Canada’s ‘cultivated abundance’ food producers

About 10 miles from the La De Diable provincial capital of Vallee-des-Bois, there’s a small tomato-growing operation. It’s known around town as “the big factory.” But for the thousands of Canadians whose jobs depend on agriculture, the business isn’t necessarily a state secret.

Anyone who has had a tomato from this farm can tell you how big and efficient the operation is. The plants are indoors, they aren’t stressed out by sunlight, and they’re set in simple “tasting gardens” to showcase the variety on display. But to see the plant behind a screen of low, fluorescent lighting isn’t what farmer Vincent Chouinard wants to hear, either. In an industry where companies tell farmers what to do to survive, he doesn’t want a customer; he wants what he calls a supplier.

He wants to have his tomatoes go from seed to plate without extreme amounts of random spraying and chemicals, so that the market and consumer know exactly what they’re getting. This is what Chouinard has been doing at his Hélène Landre farm — eating at restaurants across Canada before selling to grocery stores. It’s called “curing the cycle.”

Chouinard and three other Canadian farmers and small-scale importers are part of an emerging effort to take advantage of Canada’s “cultivated abundance” of supply. We call this “consumption agriculture.”

From “the big factory” in Vallee-des-Bois to a family farm deep in the Northern Ontario forests — across Canada, farmers, merchants and retailers are having conversations about what can be done with this bounty to create better food and better lives for Canadians. In recent years, more Canadians are taking the steps necessary to leave the small-scale farm behind. According to a 2011 Royal Bank of Canada survey, 63 percent of respondents said they were likely to leave farming in the next five years.

In part, the transition to more sophisticated and extensive methods of animal and animal-products production is at play here. If ever there was a country better suited to big farming than this one, Canada is. The country has nearly three times as many people per hectare of land than the U.S. And agriculture, with its multi-trillion-dollar value, dwarfs Canada’s overall economy.

That is why a more “compassionate,” “environmentally responsible” kind of food production is becoming a more serious interest in Canada. Consumers in this growing market are less interested in the foods on their plate as much as in the people behind the meat.

Consumers’ interest is no surprise. Despite best efforts, Canadians still miss that rural sensibility of farming from the comfort of cities. We also want more from our food system. We’d like to know that farm animals and fish are raised in humane conditions; we’d like to be assured that pesticides and antibiotics are being used only with regard to disease control.

There’s a growing movement in Canada to bring farmers and consumers together, to gain access to reliable and transparent information, and to improve the lives of Canadians through responsible food production.

Chouinard, who is also founder of the Defend Farms With Food campaign, is helping lead the charge. It’s an important opportunity for Canadian farmers to help themselves, not just with more demand, but with a business model that helps advance the causes they care about most. Canadians of all backgrounds and political persuasions have been asking for some of these changes and want to see them more readily available in our food system. A growing body of international experience, too, shows that good food can boost communities.

Canada’s decentralized food production means that we have the opportunity to not only grow food, but also prepare, package and serve it — creating what I call a “food system in a box.” If we can leverage this system to create more supply through every stage of production, we won’t only produce the safe, healthy food our farmers want to supply, but we will be in a position to make sure they actually have a business to feed Canadians, instead of being lost in the darkness of corporate interests.

We’re still in the early days of this ambitious movement, but we can agree that as Canada’s neighbors to the south inch closer to NAFTA negotiations, we can’t afford for our food system to descend into another round of U.S.-Canada Trade War rhetoric.

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