Uh oh!

November 30, 2009

Photo: James Tse

According to a study by Ketchum that was reported in the February issue of Canadian Grocer magazine, 78% of Canadians would like to get their food from local farms or companies by 2020.  Regrettably, this isn’t likely since as Rebecca LeHuep, executive director of the  Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance pointed out in the September issue of that same magazine, “by 2012, more than 60% of farmers and farm managers will be retiring. The average age of a farmer is about 57 and he doesn’t have a succession plan for his farm.” In an email correspondence Rebecca shares another grim stat that between 1991 and 2001 Ontario lost 135 of its farmers.

Beyond the fact that these stats reveal a disappointing gap between Canadian consumer aspirations and the reality of farming situation, LeHeup’s comments point out that we may be en route to becoming a society almost solely dependent on other countries for food.

Would you ever consider being a farmer?  Or, if you are a farmer, is it a career choice you’d make again?


Autumn is foie gras season

September 18, 2009


Since last spring I’ve made an effort to visit as many food sources as possible. I’ve been to farms aplenty as well as to a number of food processing plants including a chicken processor, a fish processor, a beef processor, a gluten-free cookie factory, a cheese maker’s plant and a few others. While I learned something at every venue, one of my most enlightening visits was to foie du canard producers La Ferme Palmex.

I love the taste of foie gras and have cooked it and eaten it many, many times; however, I always had a lingering concern about the process of gavage, which is the feeding ritual (often called force feeding) that transforms a web-footed bird’s regular-sized liver into a buttery, yummy lobe of deliciousness.

I visited the brood farm, the gavage barn and the Palmex processing plant. While alive, the birds I visited were kept in clean, orderly conditions at both the brood hen farm and in the gavage barn; while the ducks are free range at the brood farm, they are isolated in pens in the gavage barn. Benoit Cuchet, president of La Ferme Palmex, explained that this isolation is necessary to reduce stress among the ducks. In fact, it prevents the ducks from establishing a pecking order that leads the more aggressive ducks to attack and bully their meeker neighbours.

In the end, I came away feeling relieved about how foie gras gets from a Quebec farm to my Toronto table. Here’s a summary of what I learned about gavage:

• The process of creating foie gras is often criticized for being cruel; however, the same physical changes occur each year about this time in nature when geese and ducks build up fat reserves in their livers and subcutaneous tissues to nourish themselves when they migrate to warmer climates.

• Before the commercial gavage process begins, ducks are allowed to eat and drink any time they like; then, two weeks before gavage commences, their caregivers give them just one hearty meal each day. This change in eating pattern causes their crops (the expanded, muscular pouches near the bird’s gullet or throat that is used to temporarily store food) to begin to open up so that gavage can be a comfortable experience for them.

• Every day before feeding, the barn hands — supervised by Pascal Fleury, the company’s animal welfare specialist — go through a specific set of steps: First they regulate the temperature and humidity of the barn to keep the ducks comfortable. Then, they test the PH content of the water to make sure it is no more and no less than 7.5 to ensure that when it’s blended with the ground corn-based feed the ducks eat that it will be easily digested. Lastly, they check each bird to make sure their crops are open. (If necessary, they will modify an individual duck’s diet to ensure that as the liver grows that the duck is comfortable and healthy.)

• My biggest surprise occurred when I saw how eager the ducks were to see the embuc (that’s the feeding apparatus used to deposit food into the duck’s crop) and to be fed from it. I’d always worried about that part of the process, yet, it was obviously not a worry to the birds! Likewise, the feeding time was so short: it took literally less than 10 seconds for Pascal to feed each bird with the electric embuc he’s moving around in the picture above.

How does my report make you feel? Do you find these details reassuring or disconcerting?

Topline Trends Tuesday: Bridging a gap between farms and tables

September 15, 2009


Local foods are enjoying renewed popularity as people all over North America and Europe realize that nurturing a dependable, nearby food source leads not only to delicious eating experiences but enriched communities, too.

This new trend has spawned interesting new jobs. Take Paul Sawtell and Grace Mandarano who started 100km Foods in 2007. They noticed a lack of infrastructure for local food producers. Before 100km Foods, chefs who wanted local products had to find individual farmers, coordinate deliveries, and source new farms and products themselves. Plus, the farmers had to deal with deliveries, invoicing and receiving orders on top of their regular workload.

Enter Paul and Grace with an ambitious idea to help both sides do their jobs more easily:

“It was literally a case of cold calling farmers, driving up to their farms, sitting at their kitchen tables to tell them what we were trying to do and seeing what kind of products they could offer,” says Paul when asked to explain how 100km Foods started.

He and Grace initially drew largely on the member lists of organizations such as Durham Farm Fresh as well as York Region Farm Fresh to make contacts with the growers. Since then, their roster has grown mostly by taking product requests from chefs and subsequently finding farms that can offer supply.

What’s next? “In the future, 100km Foods will be a resource to GTA chefs offering a vast array of local foods including protein and dairy sourced from north, east, west and south of Toronto, all harvested to order with multiple deliveries per week. We also hope to expand our direct-to-consumer Ontario Artisan Share Program, providing all local, artisan-produced food products direct from producer to consumer.”

What’s happening in your area? Are you involved in CSA’s or aware of restaurants who work with companies like 100km Foods in your area? If so, give them a plug in the comments section.

Also, visit Christie’s Corner today to read Paul Sawtell’s perspective on fresh food prices. His comments about what we pay for food may surprise you.