Know Your Grower

A farmer's take on the most radical work a young person can undertake—growing local food for local people.

By Kris Vester

This speech was given March 28 to hundreds of farmers, restaurateurs and “co-producers” (i.e., consumers) at Local 101 in Calgary—a celebration of local food and farming, organized by Calgary chef, culinary activist and blogger Wade Sirois.

Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Kris Vester and I am here, in the broadest sense of being a thinking, acting human being on this planet, to feed you. 

For the past 11 years, with the support and labour of family, friends and countless volunteers, I have been growing a diversity of herbs and vegetables and raising livestock for eggs and meat for the Calgary market, all produced in a sustainable fashion, starting in 1998 as natural products, then, from 2001 onwards, as certified organic products. Currently, Blue Mountain Biodynamic Farms is finishing its transition to full Demeter, or biodynamic, accreditation, which we should receive for the 2010 production year.

As our farm has evolved over the years, so too has my understanding of, and approach to, selling these products into the local market. Wade was kind enough to invite me here today to impart to you—people interested in understanding, revitalizing and sustaining a vibrant local food scene—the perspective of a farmer in regards to providing local products. Please bear in mind that I am not here to act as a partisan cheerleader, for vacuous boosterism in the name of advancing our fundamental aims is the last thing we need. What we do need is a clear and honest understanding of the situation we find ourselves in and creative and well-considered ideas which will move us away from the global poverty of the dominant monocultural agriculture and its master, the agri-industrial food complex, whose ultra-convenient, high calorie, nutrient-poor products are wreaking havoc on our social culture and our physical health. It is not my intent here to depress any of you—for there are myriad reasons to be hopeful and optimistic—nor is it my intent to cause offence with opinions which may be rather strong. My intent is to further the dialogue and, perhaps, to help us all regain control of the activities which lie at the very core of all of our existences, the production and consumption of food, and in so doing, perhaps to find for ourselves a path to genuine progress, real sustainability and a quality of life which no amount of money can buy.

As a young man of 24, I turned my back on academia and returned to my family’s farm with fire in my belly. I was adamantly convinced at that time that the most important and radical work a young person could undertake on this earth would be to grow food for local consumers, and to do this in a fashion which would not pander to the consumer but rather reassert the dignified and essential role which farmers have had since humans started this experiment called agriculture some 12,000–15,000 years ago. Now, at 35, and still one of the youngest producers in the local sustainable food community (to call myself young would be laughable if it were not so damn sad within the context of farming, but I think Peter Haase will have something to say on this subject shortly), I feel more than ever that I made the right choice. 

In spite of the appearance of a healthy food system—this appearance being to some degree the result of marketing and public relations obscuring reality and to some degree the result of ignorance arising from a lack of education—and in spite of some small progress we have made in the Calgary bio-region, we have a long way to go before we can honestly say that the food system which feeds people in this area is sustainable and working for the public good, i.e., for the good of both producers and all consumers, regardless of their tax bracket.

As you are all probably aware, there are only so many avenues available to a local producer trying to move his or her product into the local market. I am or have been involved in all of them, including selling directly to retail operations, restaurants and home delivery services, selling indirectly to the aforementioned via a broker and selling directly to consumers through farmers markets and by operating a community shared agriculture, or CSA, program. The success of any one of these options, from my rather political perspective as a producer of real food, has always been based on one fundamental consideration: that being the building of a sound relationship, based on mutual respect and understanding. I would like to share with you my experience and thoughts on each of these conduits by which local products might end up in your belly, from the point of view of a committed agriculturalist and humanist.

Although I have only been selling directly to restaurants for the past two years, this experience has been mostly positive. I have been fortunate enough to have become involved with establishments that are committed to fostering the local agricultural community, not only by buying their products but by consciously confirming in other ways that the relationship is of value to all. They have taken decisions whereby the awareness and knowledge of their staff has been increased by sending employees out to our farm and other farms, to see exactly what is involved in getting local, sustainably grown product into their kitchens and onto the plates of their clientele. This education not only benefits the restaurant and kitchen staff; ideally, it also allows the staff of a restaurant to educate the patrons on some issues of local production. 

Apart from the financial support, I have also benefited greatly from this relationship in other ways, having extra hands in the garden and at the packing table and gaining first-hand knowledge of the trends and issues at play in the kitchens and in the restaurant industry in general. At the invitation of a truly committed head chef at one of these restaurants, I hope to be spending four or five hours in his kitchen every second week, in an attempt to fully understand the relationship from the chef’s perspective. Based on the interest recently expressed by many other chefs from many other restaurants, I believe this type of relationship has a very bright future. However, the types of establishment which are in a position to build this type of relationship with producers and patrons tend to be of the high-end variety, and to my mind, although they go far in supporting local producers, this does not solve the problem of lack of accessibility to good, clean and fair food for many citizens who happen to find themselves in lower socio-economic strata.

The guys bringing refrigerated vans full of cheap, conventional produce to market are not farmers.

In much the same way that a successful and mutually beneficial relationship can be built up with a restaurant, so too can a positive relationship be created between local producers and retailers. However, in my experience, most of the natural food retailers in this city are actually much more committed to the higher margins to be found in health and beauty products and processed grocery items than they are to developing a meaningful and lasting relationship with local producers, and as a result of this the local fresh products to be found there are almost an afterthought, perhaps merely a marketing ploy more than anything else. Where quality and sustainability are sacrificed to the bottom line, as is too often the case in retail, especially in the chain-store incarnation of it, there is no room to build a positive relationship with a producer. An account, with monthly payables, yes, but nothing more. Certainly not a relationship that benefits everybody in that particular food chain, from the producer, to the owners and managers, to the staff and finally to the end consumers. 

I have been fortunate enough to have developed one such connection, which has survived a change of ownership and deepened to the point where the ownership has offered to share some of the risk inherent in agriculture, especially in our capricious and sometimes harsh climate, by offsetting some of the cost of seeds for the coming season. People from this store have hoed, hand-weeded, mulched and harvested beside me. I have prepped produce for display in their store, helped them with inventory and brought them bags of sweet, organic shelling peas to enjoy while at work. We have all sat down together and shared meals and imbibed moderately, discussed serious issues and also laughed hard. With feedback from their customers, they have educated me as to their needs. With the knowledge and experience they have gained from their relationship with me, they have been able to educate their customers as to the provenance of their produce. In terms of affirming human experiences, there can be little more powerful than hearing that there is a waiting list for your next delivery of specialty greens, or meeting face to face with a customer in a store and being thanked for what you do. Give me that over a big, stupid Hummer any day!

From my perspective, providing local produce to brokers and to home delivery services are very much alike. Structurally, these relationships are highly mediated and the degree of separation between you as a producer and the end consumer is not conducive to developing a relationship based on anything but the product you deliver and the payment you receive for it. There is little or no room for mutual respect and reciprocated education. My experience has been that many subscribers to home delivery services demand a product whose appearance must be so perfect as to be nearly freakish, and as for some of the chefs buying organic produce from brokers, they seem to prefer to buy baby lettuce from California rather than rip up some leaves of one of the 20-plus varieties of delicious local lettuce that was picked yesterday. 

This brings us to a favourite topic of mine: the farmers market. I was involved in farmers markets from 1999, when I started selling surplus produce and delivering CSA shares to my shareholders right here at Hillhurst-Sunnyside, until 2007, when the second Green Market wrapped up for the season. In terms of the relationships which developed between me and the customers who were willing to pay the premium for local and organic products and support our farm by coming back week after week, I cannot say enough. To receive direct feedback from the person who ate the food you grew is something which is valuable beyond mere words.

I love a good market. Whilst living in Germany, the only two places I shopped were the biweekly market in my neighbourhood and the little Turkish grocery store just down the street. However, the farmers market in Alberta isn’t quite what it purports to be. I know that many of you believe these markets really are venues set up to allow local farmers to sell their products to local consumers. In fact, that is the role they were intended to fill, with requirements in place to make it difficult for any one not producing, growing or making 80 per cent of what they might sell from participating. I’m not sure what happened, but from personal experience I can tell you that the guys bringing in refrigerated vans full of cheap, conventional produce are not farmers. And if those vendors are the ones I have to compete against in a market which purports to be set up primarily for the benefit of farmers such as myself and end consumers, then I’ll have no part in it. 

Kris Vester

Kris Vester. (Photo Courtesy of Kris Vester) 

Somewhere along the way, perhaps as a trickle-down effect of King Ralph’s mania for deregulation, these rules stopped being enforced, and the farmers market more or less became just another retail agglomeration for well-capitalized businesses. At a recent conference I had a great conversation with an organic producer who sells his product at the Calgary Farmers Market. He acknowledged readily that there were vendors selling there who had no right to do so, not if you are going to call it a farmers market. We both agreed that the most simple of solutions was to carry out an on-farm audit of each and every producer, to ensure that every producer is indeed growing, raising or making the vast majority of what he or she sells. It is a model similar to this which we applied to the Green Markets, and these were, for me, the most successful markets I have ever been involved in. 

As a farmer, I would like to have my farmers market back. I am willing to share the opportunity with BC fruit sellers, local processors and craftspeople, but every dollar spent on product which was bought wholesale and retailed at the farmers market is a dollar that is not going to a local producer. This is not to cast aspersions on the real local farmers who do inevitably stick it out at the city’s farmers market, but you must remember that the public markets of Europe, which our farmers markets are modelled on, were providing one of the only venues for the sale of food to the urban citizenry. They were providing a public service to the town or city in which they were set up, as there were no grocery stores in existence at the time. 

Personally, I think the time is right for a market renaissance. For every hospital, there should be built a large, year-round public market, equally accessible to small and large producers. I can tell you without any qualms that any farmers market that charges $70 per square foot of market space is going to prevent a lot of excellent small producers from accessing the public. 

By far the most successful means of providing local product to local consumers is community shared agriculture, or CSA. I operated a CSA program from our farm for a total of six years, starting with 15 families and ending with 50. For those of you who are not familiar with these programs, you need to know that they involve consumers, which we called shareholders, subscribing to the production of a local farmer’s fields and greenhouses for an entire season of production. 

Once a week, in our case for 18 weeks, each shareholder received a bin full of whatever herbs and produce happened to be in season, up to the maximum value of the size of the share paid for. In addition, the shareholders were offered the opportunity to subsidize the cost of their food by coming out to the farm and providing extra labour, which in organic production is always welcome. This time on the farm allows consumers to become educated as to what exactly is required to get the food they are eating each week into their bins. It also educates them as to seasonality. Even more importantly, it allows the consumers to share the risk involved in growing food with the farmer, who usually is the only one watching with a deeply furrowed brow as the skies darken in the west, once again threatening hail. If the season is especially good, the consumers will enjoy the abundant production of the farm, and if the season is especially bad, they will receive a little less. Either way, they are supporting the farmer equally. 

The relationships which I developed with my shareholders, especially the ones who were committed to being involved on the farm, were quite incredible. I want to share one particularly illuminating experience from my time as a CSA operator. One of my shareholders, a single mother and very good friend, died very suddenly in an accident. At her memorial service her father read out a list of her goals for her life. My heart almost stopped and tears welled up in my eyes when I heard him read the following words aloud: “move to the farm, if they’ll have me.” The depth of the mutual respect and understanding which CSA programs foster between consumers and producers is hard to duplicate. 

The greatest challenge in operating this type of program is the degree to which you become involved in it. Remember that most local producers are growers, pickers, packers, marketers and administrators. I stopped running CSA programs when I lost my partner (let’s just say he ran off with my sister), and could no longer carry that burden myself. The interest in CSAs has not waned, however, and I still receive phone calls each year asking if we are once again running the program. There have been discussions with people active within the food community in Calgary pertaining to sharing the work involved in running a CSA, but, so far, I have not found anyone willing to commit firmly to taking on the marketing and administration of such a program. If any of you are interested in doing so, and you have marketing, computer and organizational skills, please come talk to me. Calgary needs more CSA programs, for no other avenue of providing local products is as successful, on multiple levels, at supporting local producers and allowing accessibility to good, clean and fair food to all, regardless of their income.

So I know that I am pushing it here for time, but I just want to say a few things about why, from my perspective, it is important to create a local food system which supports local, sustainable producers. A few of these are obvious, such as the nutrient-dense quality of the food produced and the indisputable health benefits such food offers, but a few of them are less tangible, such as the value, much like an insurance policy, which having farmers capable and willing to produce food for local consumers offers. 

For those of you who think our food security is currently a sure thing, I have a couple of phrases: climate change and water shortages. You will not find any water expert in North America who will deny the looming challenges which face the southwestern region of the US, including California, whence most of our produce currently comes, in both summer and winter. As for climate change, we do not yet know exactly what challenges will arise from the inevitable consequences of our failure to reduce our CO2 output. 

But one thing we do know is that if local farmers are supported now, they will have the resources to adapt to these changes. Small farmers, especially organic ones, are the most knowledgeable and adaptable producers of food on this planet, and they are the only producers who work, consciously or not, for the public good. In the end, ladies and gentlemen, at the heart of every civilization, even our industrialized one, is agriculture, and at the heart of a healthy, vibrant civilization, which I think we can all agree is something worth striving for, is a healthy and vibrant local agriculture. Agriculture is the root from which all of our societies grow, and as long as that root is sacrificed to corporate interests and greed, we cannot expect our society to grow and flourish and bear fruit.

Thank you all for your time and attention, and thanks to Wade and everyone else for the opportunity to present my thoughts here. Thank you also to my family and friends and anyone else who has supported our farm over the years. I think we all sense that issues pertaining to food and its production are bubbling at the surface right now. We have all of the solutions at our disposal, which will allow us to move towards a sustainable food system which benefits every member of our society. All we require now is the will to do so, and the effort required to make it happen. It is up to you, the public, to do so. 

Kris Vester, his family and a group of dedicated shareholders operate Blue Mountain Bio-Dynamic Farms near Carstairs.


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