This is a post about two (related) questions. One, is there a shortage of locally grown food in the Waikato? Two, where is the locally grown organic food?
This post was sparked by two timely emails. The first was from Waikato Environment Centre co-ordinator Ruth Seabright. She suggested I write about the issues Ooooby, the local food box business, is having with finding enough local suppliers to fill their Waikato orders.
Basically, Ooooby can’t get enough locally produced food to meet the local demand. Let alone local organic food. Oh no! We love that getting that box crammed with delicious fresh produce every Tuesday! This week there was cress, avocados, broccoli and my husband’s favourite Jerusalem artichokes, amongst other treats.
Ian and Brenda at Village Organics in Frankton - a shop full of delicious and healthy food.
And then Ian Blackmore from Village Organics, in Frankton, emailed to ask why Village Organics (Hamilton’s only specialist organic retailer) wasn’t listed in the local food retailers section of the Waikato Foodbasket. This is something I’ve thought about, long and hard, because Village Organics is one of my favourite local shops. They have a wonderful range of quality foods. It’s one of the only two local retailers I know about that sell organic chicken (the other is The Organic Butchery). And they sell organic carrots. And Rapunzel vege stock powder, which doesn’t count as local because it’s from Germany. And organic butter, which tastes so much better than the conventional brands. (It’s remarkable that there is such an obvious difference.)
My initial decision not to put Village Organics on this website had been based on the fact that the organic shop has relatively little locally grown food. Which I find pretty interesting, given that the Waikato is a region full of food producers.
After talking to Ian and Brenda Blackmore, I now agree that Village Organics ought to be included on this website. In my opinion organic food, and in particular, organic growing methods, which care for the land rather than depleting it and poisoning it, are an important aspect of local food movements. Even if this is not currently being reflected on the shelves of Village Organics. When they can get local produce the Blackmores are delighted to sell it. But there just isn’t enough local certified organic produce available. Essentially, the Blackmores are in the same situation as Ooooby.
Organic asparagus from local growers Les Asperges. The asparagus season is just starting.
So, where’s the problem? In theory, there’s strong consumer demand for organics, and local food in general, which should be resulting in more producers meeting the demand. But that’s not happening quickly enough. And I’m aware that the local farmers’ markets also have a problem with not many new, younger generation growers coming on board.
The Waikato Environment Centre is backing the Waikato Ooooby venture, as part of their strategy to boost the amount of food grown locally and available to local consumers. This connects up to the sustainability picture on many levels, reducing carbon emissions associated with food transportation and building local food security (amongst other benefits). But it’s not a straightforward process. Ooooby co-ordinator Camilla Carty-Melis says there are only a certain number of suppliers currently producing for the local market. There’s only one Ooooby supplier (in Franklin) that is certified organic. A handful of others are spray-free or self-certified. “There’s not a lot that’s both local and organic,” she says. “In a way I’m a bit worried about Ooooby expanding, because there aren’t enough producers to meet the demand.” In any one week Ooooby boxes source produce from 15-18 suppliers, Camilla told me. Around half of those are local.
Local produce that's about to go into Ooooby boxes.
Many of the same Waikato producers are supplying the farmers’ markets, Ooooby and the Gordonton Farm Shop’s vege box service. That’s not a bad thing, according to Ooooby founder Pete Russell. He said in a recent interview with Kim Hill on National Radio that he thought having multiple outlets for local produce was healthy and meant growers were able to make a better income. And Locavore, the local food business near Cambridge, is also offering a vege box delivery service. I’m planning to write a separate post about local vege box services.
The organic landscape
To find out more about the local organic growing landscape, I went to talk to Tony Banks, chair of the Waikato branch of Organic Farm NZ, a low-cost organic certification system for growers producing food for the local (rather than export) market. Organic growing isn’t just about not using sprays and avoiding inorganic fertilizers, Tony says. “If you follow the organic standards you will be increasing the nutrient value of the soil.” This results in better quality food, he says. Generally, nutrient levels in food have been declining in the last 50 years due to industrial agriculture. And this is affecting our health, and our children’s health.
Lack of access to land is not primarily what’s stopping people from getting into local food production, Tony believes. There’s spare land in the Waikato that could be used to grow food. He is involved in a pilot landshare scheme where landowners share spare pieces of land with food growers. But it’s early days and there are haven’t yet been many takers. “I think things won’t change until there is a crisis,” he says. For more, see Tony's website: www.tonybankslawyer.co.nz
The problem with the food system is that there’s a disconnect between producers and consumers, Tony says. “There appears to be consumer demand (for organic food), but not producer response.” He thinks it’s partly that people have become alienated from nature. We mainly live in cities, and many of us don’t know where our food comes from.
It’s also about the sheer quantity of food, he reckons. “We have a glut of food in New Zealand.” Industrial food production methods mean large quantities of food can be grown at incredibly low cost. But organic growing doesn’t work with industrial processes. With organic food, the price will be higher, and people aren’t willing to pay for it.
As well as this, many people’s lives are arranged so they don’t place importance on food preparation, Tony says. They stop at the supermarket on their way home to get something for dinner that night. “All these factors work against organics.”
And local food in general.
There's plenty more to say on this subject. Watch this space!