Monday, April 13, 2009

Apples to Oysters by Margaret Webb

Canadian farmers are suffering through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Shockingly, few of us know that crisis even exists. Fewer still understand how that crisis is affecting us, not just farmers, but us.

This has been one of the harder reviews I've ever written. I have a lot to say about this book. I did not love it. At times I didn't even like it. But I think it's an important book, and it was definitely good enough that when I didn't like it I still kept reading. I think every Canadian should read it, and I think every country in the world should have a Margaret Webb who visits the farmers where they are and writes about them. The basis for this book was that Margaret Webb took recommendations from chefs, friends, and locals and traveled from her home in Toronto across Canada to visit, one per province, a small farmer producing one of this country's iconic foods. It's a brilliant concept and largely well-executed.

The book's overarching themes are lofty, and she does a good job of illustrating her points. The story of Canadian farming should be inspiring and impressive. Instead, it's largely frustrating and depressing. Family farms are disappearing across Canada, farmers unable to support themselves or their families on the meager living they make running a farm. Rural communities are depopulating. City sprawl is gobbling up prime farmland. And fewer and fewer people understand where their food comes from, how it's grown, and who grows it. This country was built on the backs of families of farmers, fishermen, and ranchers, and nowadays those people are largely invisible unless it's a bad news story. Webb argues that it shouldn't be this way.

There is so unbelievably much wrong with our food systems in Canada, and Webb has done a laudable job of showing what is wrong and why. She points the finger squarely at big agribusiness, chemical companies, and often at our own government for this sorry state of affairs, and thus far I can't find any reason to argue with her on that. One of the farmers she talks to (who is able to view the situation from a position of prosperity and comfort, due to a lot of hard work, good planning, and superlative marketing) also points the finger at farmers themselves:

[Paul Stark of Henry of Pelham winery] has little patience for farmers who refuse to change their practices when the model is no longer working. "Farmers fight things like waterway management and pesticide control and traceability ... Those farmers would do themselves a big favour if they would just get on with environmental sustainability. That's just entry-level. The next step, they have to make a really good product, then explain why it's the best. ... I think you can make a pretty sexy demonstration of why we need to pay more for a food, and farmers need to show us why we should."

Aside from my discomfort with laying the problems on the backs of farmers themselves (although I think there's unfortunately something to that, too), this quote also illustrates one of the major problems I had with this book. Webb has a tendency to put this food out of people's reach. One of the problems with our food systems overall is that there are lots of Canadians who can barely afford to eat at the prices they pay for food now. Raising food prices to allow farmers to be both environmentally and fiscally sustainable within the current system would mean a large cost-of-living increase, one that Canadians already living in poverty cannot afford. Often the recipes she chooses to include are esoteric and completely out of reach -- how many of us ordinary Canadians have a local fishmonger to ask for dry scallops or farmed cod, for example? And even if we do, how many of us can afford it?

Now, I can understand that she might not address this because it's a huge issue and mostly outside the scope of the book. But by not addressing the problem of affordable healthy and ethical food, even in passing, she appears to be either oblivious or underestimating the problem; at worst, she appears uncaring or even callous.

While we're looking at things that bugged me, let's do a couple more. Webb is enthusiastic about food. She's enthusiastic about the people she meets. This is good. What caused me more than a little consternation every once in a while was her tendency to hyperbole. She is so bloody enthusiastic at times that she seemed irritatingly naive. But her worst transgressions are when she's lambasting some part of the food chain that she sees as failing farmers and/or consumers, as when she's taking on the issue of raw milk.

The whole issue is a bit of a sore point with me, because our local Ontarian raw milk crusader, Michael Schmidt, has been painted as a victim by the media. Webb follows this trend, suggesting that the government and medical establishment had an "hysterical" reaction, that they suggested that raw milk is some "virulent, plague-infested stew." Really? They did?

Raw milk can indeed be perfectly safe. However, as Webb herself says, raw milk can also contain any number of vicious pathogens like tuberculosis, listeria, and E. coli. Therefore, there is a law that all milk sold to consumers in Canada must be pasteurized. When Mr. Schmidt broke that law, the establishment reacted to what they saw as a threat to food safety. Regulators don't think the risk posed by raw milk is acceptable; for them to allow the sale of raw milk in Ontario under our current regulations and testing apparatus would be irresponsible. Why that makes the establishment "hysterical," I don't know. And that kind of hyperbole is present throughout the book.

She also has some factual errors: "little penguins" are not present in Quebec, though Webb blithely tells us that they are on page 230. I think she must be referring to the penguin cousins by convergent evolution in the auk family; perhaps puffins, murres or dovekies. Or maybe she is translating from a French term for the mystery bird? Perhaps a small detail, but again, it irritates me.

But enough about what I didn't like. I think I am particularly hard on this book because I think the concept is so great, and because it's a subject dear to my heart; but also because there are many, many things to like about this book too, and it makes the not-so-good things more painful. She describes the farmers and their farms in loving detail, takes us through why their food tastes better, and gives us recipes. She gets the reader excited about food, and farming.

I particularly, and predictably, enjoyed the chapters where she looks at farmers who are doing well the best. I loved the chapter about apples in British Columbia, because it is such a good news story. The chapter on flax in Saskatchewan is fascinating, and despite the melancholy and horror found in the Manitoba chapter on hog farming, I learned a lot and again thought it was really interesting and even a little hopeful. Plus I love pigs. But perhaps the best chapter in the book was the one on scallop farming in Nova Scotia.

This is not a good news story, yet. Scallop farming is not done, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Nova Scotia, and yet Webb was able to find one scallop farmer who is doing it, and doing a good job of it. He's not really making money yet and he's been at it for many, many years -- but he's dedicated and determined to make it work (like every other farmer she interviews). What makes this chapter better than the rest is that she makes a concerted effort to see things from the conventional side, as well. With scallops, that means spending a day on a dragger, a ship that scrapes a giant net across the bottom of the Bay of Fundy and scoops up everything in its way. Webb's description of these conventional scallop fishermen is staggering and vivid, and extremely sympathetic to the fishermen. This understanding of what the conventional guys are going through, rather than lumping them in with the problem, is rare throughout the book and it added a beautiful depth and urgency to this chapter. She doesn't just tell us that scallop farming is the better way to go -- she shows us. And she leaves us to draw our own conclusions as to why scallop farming hasn't caught on in Canada's fishery.

Webb is really good at showing us the heart of Canadian food. As advertised, it makes me want to hug a farmer. It also makes me want to be a farmer, but I think we all know I'm really not cut out for it. I like sleeping in and having vacations. So instead I have my little vegetable garden and I'll make a much more concerted effort to find ethical, local producers for things I can't grow here myself. This book made me ill, made me happy, frustrated me and occasionally infuriated me. But most of all it made me think, and for that I'll be recommending it to everyone I know.


Nan said...

Wow! This is a fantastic, and fantastically written review. I think you have touched on the most important problem with the so-called 'green' movement as well as the food movement. Money. It's great to think of using paints that don't give off fumes, but at such a higher cost, only the wealthy will buy them. It's a wonderful thing to eat fresh, local vegetables from the farmers markets but many people simply cannot afford them. And even as I write this, I am fully aware that some of the people who complain about the high cost are out buying beer and cigarettes and heading to restaurants several times a week. It's like people have gotten into a rut of eating and living and they can't get themselves out. Thank you for a really wonderful post.

Unknown said...

Yes! Nan, that's exactly it -- we *all* get ourselves into certain ruts and habits and the blocks to getting out of them often seem insurmountable. The money problem is, for a lot of people, not insignificant -- and even where money is present, as you say, it's a matter of sorting the priorities.

I'm glad you liked this review! It took a couple of days of mulling it over before I could get all the major points out in a coherent way. Glad it worked!