Sunday, January 29, 2012

Midwinter Dinners: Good Food, Good Drink, Good Friends

photo courtesy Therese Carle-Sanders

      Winter may be quiet, cold and dark but it can also be a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the slow cooked delights of the Gulf Islands with good company. We are indeed fortunate to have fresh kale and chard in our garden, winter squash in the pantry and local meat in the freezer. We also have the wild bounty from hunting, gathering and fishing.
      We recently enjoyed a delightful midwinter winemaker's dinner, hosted by the pairing of Keith and Barbara Watt of Pender Island's Morning Bay Winery with Dan and Micayla Hayes of the London Chef in Victoria. This dinner was very special for me, because lamb from our farm was on the menu. It isn't very often that someone who works to produce the food, can sit down and enjoy it perfectly prepared with a group of people, some who had never tasted lamb before.

      It was also special because the chef prepared and served each of the six courses with such flair. Chef Dan plated out each course on a long table in the dining room, and described to us the source of each item, the special ingredients in each dish, and how it was prepared. Keith Watt of Morning Bay Winery described the wine pairing we had with each course. The wines were all very good, a perfect complement to the food.
      It is not a surprise that such a unique dinner was sold out. The people who were there were true food lovers, with food producers and chefs alongside wine and food gourmets. Chef Dan was very generous with his knowledge, and his enthusiasm for food and cooking was evident. He started out in his career by hunting and fishing, and cooking his own catch. Keith Watt is known on Pender Island for his enthusiasm and knowledge of wine, so they were a good pairing themselves.
     As if that wasn't enough, last night I was to have another culinary treat. We were invited to a home cooked dinner which had something neither myself nor my husband Glenn had ever eaten. Our hosts prepared snipe, a small bird that they had hunted themselves (not in the Gulf Islands) and cooked to perfection. It was absolutely delicious. Although we have snipe on our islands, they require a special skill to hunt. The word “sniper” comes from hunting snipe. Special marksmanship skills are needed, because the birds are very quick and change direction suddenly as they fly. Although I don't know of anyone who hunts snipe locally, snipe season in the Gulf Islands is from October 8 to January 20th, . On the islands we have the common snipe. Another type of snipe, the Wilson's snipe, is thought to have been bred on Pender Island in the 1960's.
     For many years Pender Island was known for grouse, California quail, and snipe which were bountiful due to the lack of predators, such as raccoons. According to this year's Christmas Bird Count on Pender Island there were no California quail observed. We have noticed an absence of California quail and grouse for several years now in our valley. Some pheasants were raised and released last year, but none survived. At the same time, we have seen the introduction of raccoons and wild cats.
      Although hunting is allowed on most Gulf Islands with a Gulf Island Special Licence, Mayne Island does not allow shooting or hunting at all. Denman Island does not allow hunting or shooting of upland game, like grouse, pheasant or quail. Hunting is a bit of a lost art, a remnant of our hunter-gatherer roots.
      Salt Spring Island is the only place to allow hunting of ravens, year round. Not for food, but to prevent predation of lambs. Chef Dan Hayes earned his way through Chef's school by hunting these predators for the local shepherds in England. As one who has witnessed the damage a raven can do to a newborn lamb, I can really appreciate that.


 From Chef Dan's website:
Dan Hayes has been a chef for over 11 years. Dan began his professional culinary training working with renowned English seafood chef Rick Stein on the west coast of England. Dan quickly moved up the ranks and developed a reputation as a vibrant, creative and hardworking young chef. Dan acted as Commis chef for Stein in both of his seafood restaurants and cookery school for over three years.
After working with Stein, Dan went back to London where he worked as the Sous Chef at one of the oldest and most prestigious restaurants in London, Poissonnerie de lʼAvenue. Here, Dan honed his French-style culinary techniques, and developed an interest in classical cuisine – an interesting juxtaposition to the modern English fare he had been cooking with Stein, and the rustic Mediterranean cuisine he had grown up with while living part-time in Ibiza, Spain.
During this time Dan was also acting as Head Food Stylist working with noted food photographer Paul Webster where he styled for editorial campaigns, television advertisements and food packaging.
After Poissonnerie, Dan went on to work at Michelin starred restuarant La Vinoteca in the Fenicia Presige Hotel in Ibiza, Spain, open three restaurants – including two Fishworks seafood restaurants in London where Dan served as Executive Chef and taught at the Fishworks Cookery school, and The Lodge in the Canary Isles.
Dan has also run a successful catering and private cheffing business in London, and worked as the Food Marketing Manager at Whole Foods London, an 85,000 square foot luxury supermarket. While working at Whole Foods Dan designed, coordinated, and taught at a busy in-house cookery school.
Since moving to Victoria two years ago, Dan has been familiarizing himself with west coast cuisine, developing relationships with local chefs, and working with regional produce and flavours.  Dan is thrilled to be part of the dynamic and close knit food community in to see more

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Ferries and Farming

      Living on an island is a little different from living on the mainland, primarily because of our reliance on the ferry system. A few years ago I visited Glen Alwin Farm in the Comox Valley. Their location gives them the opportunity to sell their beef and lamb at both the Courtenay and the Campbell River Farmers Markets.         
     When I asked where they process their livestock, they pointed and told me “About 5 minutes down the road”. I could see the meat shop’s sign just across the highway. They wouldn’t even need to load a truck…just walk the cows and sheep down there.
      Contrast that to most Gulf Island farms. Ferries to bring supplies in. Ferries to take our products off island. Sometimes ferries to take them off island to process, then back to our island to sell. It makes even more sense to have a local food economy in the Gulf Islands. Keep our growing, processing and marketing as local as possible.
     It is more than convenience that is at stake.  There is animal welfare to consider, as well as safety.  A big cattle truck came to our island to pick up cattle from three different farms which were to be shipped to Vancouver.  The ferry arrived late, so the driver had to rush to the first farm where several people worked up a sweat loading the uncooperative creatures.  Then the second farm to load some more.  Then our farm to load the last, and a dash back to the ferry to catch the 11:45.  The truck was just under the thirty minutes for priority loading and the ferry employee in the booth was not going to budge on the rule.  The driver was told that the next ferry would be at 3:10.  I followed the truck and pleaded with the ferry employees at the dock to please allow the truck to load because there were two bulls on the truck separated by just a metal gate.  I pointed at the truck, which was rocking back and forth from the bulls fighting.  I told them that this was a safety issue for the animals, and the ferry wasn't even in dock yet.  Fortunately, the ferry employee allowed the truck to load on the 11:45.  
     It isn't always this way.  Sometimes a truck of livestock will be asked to go in a separate lane to be loaded last, and sometimes the truck is forgotten or not enough space is left.  If connections are missed a truck may need to stay overnight at a ferry terminal with no food, water or fresh bedding for the stock.
      Last fall I took some lambs to Saturna Island to be processed – I caught an evening ferry, unloaded the sheep in the dark at Campbell Farm and then slept over. The next day we slaughtered, then back to Pender. Then a return trip the following week with another stay-over to pick up the meat. Not a simple five minute drive down the road, unless you have the good fortune to live on Saturna. Soon Salt Spring will have an operating abattoir as well, which will have the added feature of being mobile so that perhaps the abattoir can eventually come to the farms, instead of animals being transported.
      Many Gulf Island farmers with livestock have to do the dance with the ferry monster, which would involve the ferry trip and anywhere from one to two hours driving. Add in time gathering the stock and loading them so that you still have at least thirty minutes before the scheduled sailing to assure your place on the ferry. Right?
      Well, that depends. You see, in 2005 BC Ferries decided to do away with the “30 minute rule” for livestock on the major routes for the ferries. Instead, they require a reservation to assure the boarding of the livestock on the preferred sailing. “This can be a challenge, because it is an established fact that travelling with animals when they are not accustomed to is is stressful to the animals” says Cynthia Tupholme, a Salt Spring sheep producer who has had her experiences in dealing with the ferry system.
      “Try cancelling a reservation outside regular business hours when there is no one to pick up the phone at the BC Ferries office. Try making it to a reserved sailing time when travelling a long distance with a load of sheep, there is no rushing when travelling with livestock and there can be accidents on the road or road construction or any number of unforeseeable obstacles beyond the drivers control which delay the best laid plans to arrive at that reserved sailing time an hour before the sailing.”
      According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency “Every person responsible for transporting animals in Canada must ensure that the entire transportation process including loading, transit and unloading - does not cause injury or undue suffering to the animals. It is illegal to cause undue suffering to an animal at any point in the transportation process.”
      Tupholme and other farmers believe that BC Ferries has a responsibility to provide a transit service that will prevent undue suffering of all livestock. This was the main reason why in the past they gave assured loading to livestock of all kinds, and not just to live seafood. Extreme temperatures and weather conditions, and the stress of travelling itself are animal welfare issues. The BC Farm Animal Care Council is concerned as well and has requested that producers send their experiences to BCFACC, so that they can be presented to BC Ferries.
      Another sheep producer wrote in the recent BC Sheep N'Ewes, that one way around the stress of travelling with livestock is to book more than one reservation each way to assure that you will get on a ferry, and cancel the reservation you do not need. Margaret Sampson, who lives in Surrey and only occasionally travels by ferry with her livestock, did point out that she was shocked at the cost of ferry travel, and how it has increased through the years. This is especially noted by those who use trailers because the cost per foot has doubled. In 2009, the fare for Margaret and her sheep in truck and trailer 35' total was $92.25. In 2010, the fare had increased 48% to $136.65, one way. This year she paid $145.75.
      For Gulf Island residents, the Experience cards replacing the ticket books have created some unpleasant situations. Some have found that it is difficult, if not impossible, to transfer funds from card to card, and the minimum amount to put on the card changes as ferry rates increase. Currently it is $90 for car and driver. And it is different from a book of tickets where you can clearly see how many tickets are left, but you might not remember how much money was left on your card.
      As for Cynthia Tupholme, the frustrations of island farming and living have become too much. She is currently looking for a place in the Fraser Valley.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Government pushes Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act - Judge rules that government broke the law

    Growing grain has had a resurgence on some island farms, but it isn't of the scale that would compare to farms in the Peace River or the prairies. Even though the bread basket of Canada seems far away from the Gulf Islands, and even if you aren't a farmer at all, there are good reasons to pay attention to what is happening beyond our shores.
    Farmers in the prairies and Peace River area who produce barley or wheat for export or human consumption currently must sell and market through the Canadian Wheat Board. When the Conservatives achieved their majority government, they promptly set out to fulfill their election promises, one of which was to remove the single-desk selling authority of the Canadian Wheat Board. Minister Ritz announced that regardless of any farmer vote that would be held, this would occur. The CWB went ahead and conducted a vote of farmers anyways, which resulted in a majority of farmers wanting the single desk retained. This vote was ignored by the government. The Conservative majority pushed through the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act, intending to repeal the Canadian Wheat Board Act later in 2012. Already they have eliminated all farmer-elected Board members, leaving five government-appointed Board members.
    Who benefits from this? The government would have us believe that farmers want this, but without a properly conducted plebiscite all we have are anecdotal comments on either side; some farmers think we are missing out on opportunities because we are not fulfilling our full potential as a grain producer and major exporter, others think that the CWB has been instrumental in helping Canadian farmers market their grain in way that farmers themselves have demanded, and the CWB farmer vote verifies this support.
    Many economists and industry observers believe that the major multinational agribusiness companies and transporters have the most to gain, and farmers will only see their piece of the pie get smaller. Our system of producing and marketing grain will increasingly resemble the US system – farms will get bigger, more small farms will be absorbed by the big farms, shrinking rural communities. Fifteen to twenty years ago, the multinationals parked themselves in Canada, waiting for the CWB demise and the opportunities to market Canadian grain. I remember Cargill coming to UBC’s Faculty of Agriculture in the early 1980’s to recruit a number of graduates. Who is Cargill?, we asked, since we were far from any grain growing area. The current land-grabbing activities that are occurring worldwide will no doubt accelerate in the prairies with the march of progress.
   That was why the CWB was formed in the first place. Farmers wanted an orderly way to market grain for a fair price so that they could focus on farming. At first the government wasn’t interested, not until the depression, and in 1935 the Canadian Wheat Board was formed as a voluntary marketing agency to help get rid of surplus wheat when the prices were very low. In 1943, the CWB played an important role in supplying grain to our European allies and stopping the domestic inflation of grain prices, and it was given the exclusive right to purchase and sell wheat. After that, the CWB played a vital role in developing our agricultural potential in Canada.
    As markets have modernized, there have been pressures on Canada to dismantle the CWB. Some farmers agree and would prefer an open market to sell to whoever they wish. Many of these farmers are younger, and perhaps feel they are ready to move on from their father and grandfather’s method of marketing. Some farmers would prefer to stay with the CWB as a single-desk seller in these uncertain times, which is especially seen by the majority of farmer-elected board members who support the single-desk selling mandate. The best people to decide are the farmers themselves, and the Canadian Wheat Board Act supports this.
    Federal Court Justice Douglas Campbell agreed, and ruled in December that Minister Ritz overstepped his boundaries by not holding a farmer plebiscite or consulting with the CWB, breaching Section 47.1 of the Canadian Wheat Board Act. Regardless of how you feel about the Wheat Board, or if you don’t care about the Wheat Board at all, you should care about how our elected officials conduct themselves. We expect the lawmakers to follow our country's own laws. They certainly expect us to.
    As this debate has been around for several years the two sides have become increasingly polarized, ignoring the discussion of options that could perhaps be beneficial in the long run. One suggestion has been to retain the single desk CWB for export markets, and allow a free market system domestically or within North America. Some think that the vote should determine if barley should be excluded from the CWB control, as had happened with oats several years ago. Most economists agree that a dual system across the board will result in the demise of the CWB.
    At this point farmers have only uncertainty. Without a smooth transition and with a court ruling against the government, farmers aren’t sure about being ready to have a free market by this summer. Like children of a bad divorce, farmers just want to get on with farming and want to believe the outcome will benefit them. Many who supported the CWB have the added angst of working within a market system they did not choose, and the added uncertainty of a bumpy transition and a government screw up.
    Not a good way to start the New Year. Here’s hoping the economists are wrong, for the farmer’s sake.