Coming and going: Thoughts on what’s growing

Our columnist shares some parting thoughts

“Say, where do you figure the farms are?” I asked aloud as the car I was sitting in moved across the Trans-Canada highway, somewhere on the West Coast of Newfoundland in July, 2008.

A great expanse appeared beyond the windshield and I found myself at a loss to compare the landscape before me with what had come to pass in the miles that stretched between New Brunswick and the ferry in North Sydney.

When we crossed the border and entered Nova Scotia I had noticed little more than the ways in which borders are constructed, maintained, and in this case, decorated by flags.

Was Amherst here or there?

And other such internal car ride dialogues.

The sight of Port Aux Basques forced a different kind of recognition. We had crossed water to get there. We had packed, driven, loaded, parked, and sat. There weren’t any lingering physical attachments between that land and this island. No causeway. No bridge. Just ocean for hours. I could see the rock stretch down deep, until it touched the water again. It was all geology, save a thin dusting of green on top.

The expanse remained throughout the drive. So much land. So much wilderness.

The farms, I would find, are present in pockets. Codroy Valley, the Goulds. In terms of food availability, only looking at fields denied the presence of an edible expanse.

There have been a number of changes to my perspective that have occurred while residing in Newfoundland. As I prepare for departure, I would like to devote this piece to the articulation of some of the lessons I have learned about food and community organizing in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Knowledges gained

The first relates to my conception of the foods that are consumed here.

A few weeks before it was time to go, I had been given a tour of Newfoundland recipes by a friend and her family, who had a stash of cookbooks from the region. In their pages, I made the acquaintance of seal, jiggs dinner, and moose. I figured I would add these foods to the list of regional delicacies consumed while traveling and shrugged them off for the time being. Initially, I cast off many of the recipes as novelties. Perhaps the samplings were kind of like tourism commercials: another way of saying “this place is different.” That the recipes were not merely window dressings on a well-crafted tourist display was a conclusion that I came to, eventually. As it turned out, recipes were highlighting regional availabilities, foodways, traditions, histories, and necessities. Learning about those traditions was one way for me to develop a better understanding of this place.

Along with the past, there is the present to contend with. So, my time in Newfoundland introduced me to some of the aforementioned foods, but mostly kale, Egyptian onions, leeks, nasturtiums, spicy greens, beets, fennel, parsnips, and Swiss chard. For so much talk about difficult growing conditions and acidic soil, the past few years have been marked by a number of delicious meals and tasty new flavours. A great deal of energy has been devoted to bolstering and supporting local farmers, sharing gardening skills, and raising awareness about the possibilities that exist with regard to growing food in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Potential is a keyword here. New initiatives are constantly in the works. Whether they be community gardens (at community centres, Lion’s clubs, schools, in public parks), greenhouse projects , rooftop gardens, new farms, farmers’ markets (Grand Falls-Windsor), or backyard growing projects (like those initiated at the Smallwood Community Centre or by Stella Burry Community Services), excitement seems to be catching on. Furthermore, due to the diligent work of many persons in the province, government bodies have also taken an interest in food security. The term even appeared in the most recent edition of the provincial Progressive Conservative Blue Book! All of this seems promising, but there are important questions to ask at this point in time.

What kind of impact are local food projects making? Who benefits from them? These are questions that I have asked throughout my time here, and I feel confident in saying that although formal research is outstanding (and needed), many people are benefiting from community gardens, skills-development initiatives, networking opportunities, teleconferences, farmers’ markets, and backyard gardening initiatives.

Plenty of positives

In the past three years alone, we have seen a drastic increase in community gardens throughout the province. These initiatives are located at family centres, in public parks, at schools, in social housing neighbourhoods, and on land at other types of community centres. Interest in organizing them continues to develop, and through my work at the Food Security Network, I found it exciting to speak with coordinators about their goals and plans. Sharing experiences and generating an ongoing sense of best practices will be important in the years ahead.

In terms of skills development, workshops hosted by community organizations have made gardening seem possible to more people who are continuing to learn successful techniques. Not only are these events a great way to pick up useful information, they also contribute to the development of relationships amongst persons with shared interests and desires to grow food. One thing that must continue to be worked on is the establishment of connections across age groups, income levels, cultural backgrounds, and physical capacities. Developing personal skills related to food production, processing and preparation is an important aspect of meeting goals related to increased personal health and wellness. But how do we ensure that these activities meet diverse needs? Furthermore, how do we continue to offer skills development opportunities while ensuring that we do not lose sight of the ways in which some differences affect our abilities to garden, or cook, or put food on the table, generally?

…critical questions must be asked about who is gardening or participating, who is shopping at farmers’ markets, whether food banks and community kitchens are consistently meeting needs and how we can develop community food security…

While some of these activities contribute to the development of better access to food among those who perform them, critical questions must be asked about who is gardening or participating in skills development workshops, whether these activities are contributing to community food security as well as personal or familial food security, what types of supports would be needed if this were to become the case, and the nature of the constraints that persons may face in their efforts to consume healthy food. Asking questions may seem uncomfortable at times, and critique is often framed in a negative light. Answers, however, are sometimes surprising. We may be doing even more than we immediately recognize, even if we are not meeting all of our goals in all of our projects all of the time. Let’s reserve a seat at the table for patience, shall we?

Learning as we go

Notions of responsibility run through my mind from time to time. Balancing personal development with community development is key, if not an elusive goal. While many involved in food security-related activities recognize problems and inequalities with regard, for instance, to access to healthy food, it has sometimes been the case that good ideas come from those who are committed to the development of food security, rather than those the initiatives are meant to help. Every new project is an opportunity to learn how to coordinate effectively, and so it seems fitting to utilize reflection and conversation as sources of programming. Because we live in a province that is home to diverse cultural groups, differing climactic and soil conditions, unequal economic backgrounds, various skill sets and capacities, we must take these into consideration when planning projects and initiatives from the start. Some projects have adopted this approach, to successful ends. In more ways than one, many of us seem to be in a state of learning as we go. This is what makes Newfoundland and Labrador such an exciting place to be if you are interested in food issues. There is so much space to become involved, a great deal of camaraderie and support to enjoy, and a general sense that anything to do with food security is a worthwhile activity. Whether you are growing food for yourself or others, sharing experiences on a blog, hosting an event, or simply talking to a neighbour about what you are growing in your yard or picked up at the farmers’ market, you are expressing the potential for a more robust local food system. Everything counts for something. Alongside all of these feel good vibes, however, it should be stated that there is always room for improvement. We continue to need more accessibility of a physical, economic, and cultural nature within our projects, committees, and markets.

Whether you are growing food for yourself or others…or simply talking to a neighbour about what you picked up at the farmers’ market, you are expressing the potential for a more robust local food system.

For me, the past three years have altered my perception of edible landscapes. Yes, this place is often referred to as The Rock, but no, it does not mean that we are fundamentally limited to growing traditional root vegetables. On April 14, I spent most of my Saturday with about 100 others at this year’s FEASt Fest. Many listenined to discussions about gardening, bee-keeping, farming, and more. Others enjoyed a fine lunch, some came to drop off seeds or gardening materials, and others, to check out information booths hosted by area organizations such as Daybreak and MUN Botanical Garden. During one discussion, there was mention of peach trees in Pouch Cove, which blew my mind a little. Should it? Or are we simply telling ourselves too many stories about what used to be grown here instead of writing new ones about the occasional rewards of trying? This is something that I have so enjoyed while living here: that through my involvement with various groups and organizations, I have often been inspired to loosen up my sense of constraint, and not give in to lore around bad weather and less than ideal soil.

…are we simply telling ourselves too many stories about what used to be grown here instead of writing new ones about the occasional rewards of trying?

We live in a province where community organizing has created opportunities to learn more about gardening, grow food in shared spaces, and to practice these activities at home thanks to helpful skills and garden box building programs. And yet, our population also continues to rank rather low when it comes to personal health and wellness, as a result of consumption habits, lack of access to healthy food, and high costs of food items (especially in rural and northern regions). While my initial question was “Say, where do you figure the farms are?”, my follow-up questions relate to themes of viability, the types of initiatives that will create better access to fresh, healthy, sustainably produced food for everyone, and the extent to which desire for these types of foods are shared amongst a large part of the population. Diverse approaches are best suited to respond to particular interests, different situations, and various needs.

Over the past few months, I have attempted to share stories about food so as to generate interest, create a few sources of inspiration, and encourage thought around food security issues. While I do not have the sense that I have been conclusive or all-encompassing at any point, I do hope that something has come of this endeavour, and that more will come in relation to food security in Newfoundland and Labrador in the years ahead. I wholeheartedly believe that it will. To all those I have had the pleasure of meeting, working, and volunteering with while I have resided here, thank you for so many new recipes, skills, conversations, and ideas.

Good luck and good eating!

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