In a cavernous new facility on Greg Gerrits’ farm in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, the gleaming stainless steel production lines remain silent.
The facility is intended to process imperfect and surplus produce that Gerrits would not otherwise be able to sell for human consumption, into powdered vegetables, dehydrated soup mixes and dog treats.
But Gerrits says the facility, which has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build, is months, if not years, away from being certified to operate.
“Just with this plant, if I had known three years ago what kind of nonsense it was going to be, there’s no way we would have done it,” says Gerritts, owner of Elmridge Farm.
As the pandemic and rising food costs have forced a reckoning with Canada’s food system, farmers say reversing the decline in local food processing is part of the puzzle.
But some say more work needs to be done to raise awareness of the importance of local processing and reduce barriers to processing for small producers, to allow local farmers to play a larger role in the food supply.
“We’re all trying to fill a new market,” Gerritts says. “Well, the fresh market only needs a limited amount and in Nova Scotia, if we have surpluses, there won’t be anywhere.” [else] for him to go.”
Local food processing has disappeared and has been consolidated
In Atlantic Canada, regional and small-scale food processing has declined over the past 30 years, as imports have increased and food processing has consolidated into a smaller number of companies.
This echoes the nationwide trend, which is most notable in meat packaging (two companies are responsible for the slaughter of more than 90 percent of Canadian livestock), but which researchers say is also happening in the fruit and vegetable processing.
This creates barriers for both producers and those seeking to process their own food.
Gerrits says he started thinking about the problems with lack of processing several years ago.
“We need processing and we don’t have it,” he says. “So every time there is surplus it becomes waste, which is a loss, and you know, every penny counts.”
Gerrits says this means lost income for Nova Scotia farmers and more food waste, but that wasn’t always the case; Until the 1990s, farmers in the area allocated part of their crops to local processors. This provided farmers with a reliable income stream.
But in trying to process his own products, Gerrits says he has faced delays, from safety inspection of processing equipment to creating a food-safe building. These barriers are much more difficult to overcome for a company of its size than for a large processor, he says.
“[The system] “It’s designed in such a way that it’s very difficult for a small operation like this,” he said. “All of the overhead is almost as large as the overhead of a large plant that processes 10 truckloads a day of a product.”
Farmers union says this is a national problem
Jenn Pfenning, president of the National Farmers Union, says regulatory barriers for small processors, as well as the concentration of food processing in a small number of companies, limit farmers’ bargaining power.
“If you say, ‘I can’t afford to sell it for what you’re willing to pay me,’ they say, ‘Okay, I’ll go buy it somewhere else,'” he said. “Whether that ‘elsewhere’ is your neighbor or across the ocean, to them it doesn’t really matter.”
Pfenning says this means farmers often sell to companies that don’t necessarily respond to farmers’ circumstances, such as local conditions or labor costs.
“The more concentration there is, the greater the power imbalance in the relationship becomes,” he said. “The message we get, especially from the big chains, is that we can’t raise their prices because they won’t accept it.”
This also means that farmers are not benefiting from rising food prices,
“The performance of our product does not increase substantially, although the price at checkout for consumers increases substantially,” he said.
Local company intends to recover processing
In Nova Scotia, a Windsor-based company hopes to help create more income streams for farmers by increasing local processing capacity.
Rebecca Tran and Heather Lunan are co-founders of Station Food Hub, which aims to boost the consumption of local produce (often “secondary,” which doesn’t meet standards to be sold in stores) through food processing.
Tran and Lunan, who met by chance at a dinner party, quickly realized they shared a vision to boost local food consumption while reducing the burden on local farmers whose food was going to waste.
“We were talking to a lot of people and they were talking [about] the missing piece is the processing infrastructure,” he said.
The Station Food Hub now operates from a former primary school and turns surplus produce such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and turnips into purees and other processed products.
The business addresses two challenges. Lunan says they have heard from producers who are facing significant obstacles when reviewing regulations to process their own product, including one farmer who had invested in lines to process his own vegetables but was unable to use them.
They have also spoken with those responsible for procuring food for large institutions.
“They needed to have a consistent, safe product year-round in Nova Scotia, and unfortunately we don’t grow year-round here. So we need to be able to build a facility that can process when the product is in season and then have it stored.”
Station Food Hub aims to overcome these barriers by serving as a hub to link farmers with large institutions. The company currently provides processed vegetables to the Nova Scotia Health Authority and ships mashed potatoes made from undersized potatoes from a local producer to hospitals and long-term care facilities across the province.
Still, Tran and Lunan say challenges remain, including encouraging people to realize that safe local food can be available year-round, if the processing capacity exists.
“The facilities were not available and therefore there was no access,” says Lunan. “So we have to rebuild not only the physical access to food, but the entire educational part in which it is understood that we can achieve it and we can supply our own province.”
Station Food Hub is also working with the Department of Agriculture on a pilot project to help institutions meet the provincial goal of spending 20 per cent of the food budget on local foods, which Tran said could be achieved by increasing local processing .
As for farmer Greg Gerrits, he says governments must also consider ways to help farmers navigate the system to make local processing economically viable and safe.
“The regulations are not the problem: the system is a problem,” he says. “The rules can be met. We just have to know what they are and how to get from point A to point B.”
Ultimately, Gerrits says this could benefit all Nova Scotians by ensuring more of the province’s food supply is produced here.
“There has to be processing or you just have what comes out of the field when you have it.”
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