This is not an uncommon question and a reasonable one. Working in the food production industry you gain a new perspective on things, this topic being one of them. So I'd like to share some facts that I’ve learned in hope that you will gain a little more understanding about this as well.
When we are comparing imported vs local organic produce it’s important to keep a few things in mind. I will use California as an example because a large portion of our produce imports come from there.
Imported organic produce is typically grown on very large scale, mono-crop farms (meaning they grow just one or two crops) and generally one of the following is true in their relation to Canada.
- They are owned by a large company who packages product (e.g. Earthbound or Dole)
- They are contracted to grow directly for a large grocery store chain (e.g. Sobeys or Walmart)
- They sell through the Ontario Food Terminal to thousands of businesses across Canada (be it restaurants, grocery stores or wholesalers) and have strong relationships with the buyers in the Food Terminal who import their product
- They sell directly to wholesalers who distribute product around the province.
Here are some main differences between the two:
Shorter Growing SeasonWhile farmers in Ontario only have about 5 months of good growing weather, California’s growing season is 12 months of the year. That means they get up to 7 months more income off their land than farmers in Ontario. Large Californian farms can be shipping truckloads of product every day from the field.
Less MechanizedThese large farms will have complex automated harvesting equipment for the vegetables they specialize in and can justify paying for this very expensive equipment based on the revenue they will generate over the 12 months. For example, a bean grower will have invested in the proper equipment to harvest several acres of beans every day. We grow beans, but only a small amount for the farmers markets for 4 weeks of the year, which we must harvest by hand.
Also, US Farm labour on these large farms is approximately 10% – 20% less than the cost of Canadian farm labour.
Economies of ScaleThe more of one crop a farmer can produce, the more the cost of production goes down. This means the buyer pays less, and so does the end consumer. For small producers, this isn’t really relevant because we are not growing on such a large scale.
They don’t have the weeds or the bugs!This refers to organic produce, like lettuce. Fields in California were long ago made barren of weeds with heavy use of herbicides, so they do not need to use the laborious techniques as we do in Ontario (see How We Tackle Weeds).
In their drier climate large California farms do not have the same pest problems as we do here in Ontario. Also, in contrast to the larger farms, we are not inclined to use any pesticides even if it is Certified for Organic, instead we manually tackle the bugs (see How We Keep the Bugs Away), which is much more labour intensive.
Why you should bother!
- Much less of a carbon footprint. On average imported food travels 2,500 km before it reaches your plate. The international agricultural process is responsible for 44%-57% of global greenhouse gas emissions and transportation contributes to a portion of that
- It’s fresher and tastes better. Local produce is harvested at its prime and can be on the shelf within a day or two unlike imported produce some of which is harvested underripe (e.g. tomatoes) and which may not reach the consumer for a week or more after harvest (e.g. lettuce)
- When you buy local, you are supporting local farmers and putting money back into the local economy. This means buying directly from your farmer or a locally owned business. Buying Ontario grown produce from a large grocery chain does not have the same effect on the economy or the farmer. Even though they buy local goods, it represents a small proportion of their offerings and they choose what price they pay the farmers.
- You can know exactly where your food is coming from pretty much right to the exact field!
- A common statement from our customers (and something we've noticed ourselves) is that fruits and veggies from smaller producers are generally better in quality and taste than from mass producing farms
Visit a farmers' market near you and meet a farmer! You can also check out farm websites to learn about the farms and the families behind them!
One Green Planet - Take Back the Land
Eating Local - Why You Should Bother
Civil Eat - Buy Local, It’s Not Just About the Food