Author: Lois Theaker, Citizen Journalist
Last month Saanich Voice Online surveyed some of the biggest grocery stores in the region on availability of locally grown foods. In this final article Michael Mockler, the Director of Produce Operations at Thrifty Foods, offers some answers to lingering questions and there were no “sacred cows” in the conversation about local food production. Government regulations were the first casualties. “The definition of ‘local’ is ludicrous…” Mockler says. “You can describe anything to be ‘local’ if it is grown and sold in the municipal entity in which it is grown or the adjoining municipal area… Produce grown in, say, North Saanich and sold in Saanich cannot actually be called ‘local’. Yet the Victorian public would be pleased as punch to buy anything grown locally on the Saanich Peninsula.”
Another government regulation of concern, involves wooden shipping pallets. “Between Canada and the US they have an agreement that you can ship on any pallet… That is all changing.” Old pallets will be rejected in 18 months in favour of higher standards. They will be more expensive and BC growers will pass the costs on to consumers.
Mockler says, “The government moves mysteriously, but at least it moves as one big elephant. You can actually see it coming, and when it gets to you, if you haven’t stepped to the side, it’s going to crush you ‘cause that’s the rules and regulations.” Consequently, farmers’ markets and ‘farm gate sales’ are where many farmers sell their goods to avoid regulations and costs entailed in selling to big stores.
“Consumers think that transportation is the highest cost of growing goods,” Mockler continues. “And of course it’s not. It is the land and labour costs. We have one New Zealand shipper that grows more than 4 million cases of apples per year, which is more than all of the BC growers put together. How can you compete with that, unless the consumer decides, ‘I’m going to buy BC and pay a little extra’.” Mockler is proud that Thriftys has the most expensive apples of any supermarket. They sell the best grade of apples so the grower makes the biggest profit.
In the past 40 years, two big government initiatives were undertaken to support agriculture in BC: the formation of the Agricultural Land Reserve (A.L.R) in the mid-seventies and the ‘buyBC’ program in 1993. “The A.L.R is as close to a ‘sacred cow’ as we get in this province,” says Mockler who feels that, “The government saved the farm but lost the farmer. How about now we protect the farmer?”
In 2001, the newly elected Liberal cabinet dropped the ‘buyBC’ program, but according to the buyBC Facebook page it was a successful campaign. “Logo identification rose amongst the public from about 23 percent in 1994 to 75 percent by the year 2000…. The program was credited with the creation of 20,000 jobs, largely in the processing sector.” Mockler says a new ‘buyBC’ program would, “actually explain to the consumers that you are expected to pay more for local BC produce.”
Apple production, is down in BC. “In 1990 ten million 40-pound crates of apples were grown in BC. This past year, just over 4 million crates. That’s a 60% drop in 20 years.” According to Mockler, using last year’s crop as a measure, “If everyone in BC ate an apple a day, the entire BC crop would be consumed in 100 days.” Of course, that will never happen.
Mockler explains that though people say they want local products, they complain about the price. He says, “The consumer has to make the choice. It’s like gas prices. We don’t want to change our V8 driving habits. We just want the government to have cheaper gas.” Mockler mentions a meeting at which he asked the audience how many coffees they buy a day compared to how many apples they eat a day. Some bought two or three coffees per day. He asked, “Why is it that you think it is important to buy a $5 coffee … and you are not prepared to pay 50 cents a day for a BC apple?”
Being an educated consumer is important. Mockler’s advice is to buy local produce and buy it often, not just when it’s cheapest but when it’s at its best.