Out to Lunch
By Diane Bolt
Dirk Becker’s farmhouse in the seaside village of Lantzville on Vancouver Island is warm and rustic, with weathered wooden furniture and a crackling fire in the background. It’s early November and the kitchen floor is covered in patches of squash being readied for distribution. The scene reminds me of the classic British sitcom “The Good Life,” starring Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal as Tom and Barbara Good, a suburban couple who, having paid off the mortgage on their home, opt for what they hope will be a simple, self-sustaining lifestyle. They take on not only the challenges of farming but also the reactions of their new community with unwavering optimism and determination.
Becker, 53, is worthy of his own show. Upbeat, with a great smile, he has the energy of a terrier. His passion for food and his connection to it, plus the hundreds of connections he has made around the globe with others who share his ethos, make him a charming and persuasive advocate for food self-sufficiency. The Goods would no doubt approve.
He is typical of a new breed of food activists who are trying to reshape our relationship to what we eat. And apparently just in time. According to a 2010 Consumer Trend Report conducted on behalf of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, food consumption is increasingly squeezed in while commuting to and from work, or while at work, or en route to leisure activities such as a workout at the gym. Ready-meals, pizza and take-away options are plentiful, as well as store bought food-kits that require minimal additional preparation. In a one week period, just under 50 percent of Europeans and Americans opted for these meal options three-to-six times or more, compared with 10 percent who consumed them less than once a week or not at all. According to Eat Right Ontario, over half of Canadian children do not get the amount of vegetables and fruit recommended by Canada’s Food Guide.
One result has been the much remarked-upon “obesity epidemic.” Figures show that 59% of Canadian adults are either overweight or obese while 29% of adolescents have unhealthy weights. The Childhood Obesity Foundation foundation predicts that “If current trends continue, by 2040, up to 70% of adults aged 40 years will be either overweight or obese.” With the increased risk of heart disease, cancer, strokes, and type 2 diabetes associated with obesity, these statistics are alarming. What’s more, basic culinary skills are not being passed down to the next generation. Many young people never get the opportunity to acquire basic food knowledge or learn essential cooking skills (as TV chef Jamie Oliver’s encounter with some first-graders, below, indicates).
For Becker, who just over a decade ago quit his job as a skilled carpenter to start farming, the solution is literally underfoot. “All human beings crave connection with themselves and with one another and with every living thing,” he says. “I think that we move away from it, and we forget and we don’t even know that we have moved away. By rediscovering this connection with living things, with food and soil, I became reconnected to food in my late 30s and early 40s.”
Becker started with a small kitchen garden and eventually moved on to cultivate one of the two-and-a-half acres of land on the property he shares with his partner, Nicole Shaw. The land they tend to yields, on average, 16,000 pounds of produce per year. The harvest is distributed between two local farmers markets, with the rest traded and shared amongst friends. “So here I am living this amazing life producing and selling food and making connections with people all over the world which all stems from my initial Maslovian human need to eat.”
Another such food evangelizer is Jan Padgett, who has been tending to a garden on her property in Powell River, BC, 174 km. northwest of Vancouver, since 1981. It’s a family tradition. In 1946, Padgett’s parents bought six acres of waterfront property, next door to her current home, for $400. They immediately cleared a large garden, which eventually inspired Padgett’s own. She started with an orchard of three apples, two pears, and a plum tree, plus a vegetable patch. Her garden now boasts raspberries, logan and boysenberries, strawberries, kiwi, potatoes, peas, beans, lettuce, carrots, parsnips, beets, kale, chard, corn, cabbage, broccoli, squashes, chives, lovage, parsley and dill, plus tomatoes and peppers in the green house.
“I love sharing the food,” Padgett says. “I love the sense of freedom and independence that comes from being able to produce my own food and share it with my family and friends.” Spring is dedicated to preparation and planting, beginning in May. July and August are busy with care and pest control (the latter involving mulches of straw and seaweed, not to mention hand-picking a lot of slugs, snails and caterpillars). September brings the bulk of the harvesting, and the canning, freezing, and drying that ensues.
She gets a sense of pride from watching the plants grow. “They always give it their best, always surprise me, and they become friends. I love seeing the ripening happen, I love caring for this little bit of earth, and making it better, and sustaining it and myself. I feel great satisfaction and gratitude. Plus I love the exercise!”
Much food activism is in response to the rise of agribusiness. Technology and chemicals have become a bigger part of farming culture as family farms give way to massive industrial enterprises, and conventional techniques have been rejected in favour of maximising profit.
Monocropping is one such practise. The high-yielding agricultural technique of growing a single crop year after year on the same vast stretch of land, it depletes the soil of nutrients and leads to a growth in pests. As the pests become more prevalent, more pesticides are needed to maintain the integrity of the crop. The past, however, offers alternatives. Becker, like many seasoned farmers before him, rotates his crops as a method of pest control. A pest that attacks onions is not interested in lettuce while one that feasts on lettuce will turns its nose up at onions, so rotating crops causes the bugs to die off, and allows Becker to ward off infestations.
Corporations have also created genetically modified (GM) seeds with various pest control capabilities that would not naturally occur in nature. Since the mid-’90s, a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), designed to break open the stomachs of insects and kill them on contact, has been inserted into corn and cotton to create a GM crop. Rather than farmers having to spray plants with Bt, the crop does the work independently, as every cell in the plant produces the toxic protein.
Some doctors surmise that consumption of GM foods containing Bt could explain an increase in human gastrointestinal problems. A study released in Europe in February, 2012, titled Crucial Paper 27: BT proteins are toxic to human cells, provides evidence that Bt breaks open pores in human cells, and thus has the same potential to cause disruption in the human gut as it does in stomachs of the insects it was designed to kill.
“It is a vicious and morally bankrupt approach to what is a basic human right — to be able to produce our own food,” Padgett says. Bio-diversity in plants is being lost “due to these companies buying up and destroying seeds.”