Farmers feed cities. Deep down we know this to be true, but for most people the disconnect is so strong, we never think of the folks whose lives centre around growing the food we eat. But farming is not an easy job, and it takes a particular kind of person to dedicate themselves to the task, especially in a format of sustainable agriculture that concerns itself not just with making a profit but making the land and sea better than they were to start with.
In Apples to Oysters, author Margaret Webb spent two years travelling across Canada to learn about those farmers, visiting 11 farms from coast to coast to coast – one in each province and the Yukon, all family-run. In each case, she’s selected farmers who use sustainable methods, who have a respect and admiration for the natural resources they work with.
From an apple orchard in BC to a grass-fed beef co-operative in Alberta to a dulse harvester in New Brunswick, Webb touches down in each province and targets a farm offering a typical provincial crop, only farmed with alternative methods that honour and respect the animals or resources.
Her background writing poetry and fiction adds a descriptive element to her narrative that anyone writing from a purely journalistic perspective might not achieve. Webb manages to inject facts and figures into her book and still make them interesting. Her ability to capture character and personality brings each subject vividly to life and her descriptions of lobster dinners, apple picking, a field of flax in bloom or wandering through a dark pasture in the middle of the night all work to lure the reader in with an overwhelming desire to understand and experience Webb’s love of both land and sea, not to mention food.
Divided into Appetizers (oysters, scallops and dulse from PEI, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick), Mains (cod from Newfoundland and Labrador, beef from Alberta, hog from Manitoba, flax from Saskatchewan and a visit to a struggling Yukon farm) and To Finish (apples from BC, cheese from Quebec and wine from Ontario) , Webb also includes a selection of recipes for the featured product to complement each chapter. It’s clear that the author not only loves food, but is fascinated with the flow of how it moves from farm to table, and revels in the sensuality and pleasure of every step along the way.
In the process, there is not just food for the body and soul, but food for thought. Webb’s visit with Jennifer Caines and her husband Doug in Pool’s Cove Newfoundland takes everything we’ve been told about farmed fish – including salmon – and turns it sideways. In an effort to save and revive cod stocks, the Caines’ have been running an experimental cod farm, and have been able to demonstrate that with proper care and husbandry, and a commitment to remaining as organic as possible, farmed fish just might be what saves our devastated oceans.
Almost all of the farmers Webb visits are experiencing some measure of success – they are growing their various crops successfully and are making a living at what they do. Many, like oyster farmer Billy Flynn, have turned down the opportunity to expand. In the Yukon however, Webb encounters a young couple at risk of losing their farm. Expensive mortgages and poor harvests combined with a short growing season have left them financially strapped with the likelihood of selling their farm and creating a co-operative the only viable solution to continue farming. Despite their customers being willing for pay more for local produce, making a go of it in the hard terrain of the north is more than they bargained for.
One of the most striking comments in Apple to Oysters comes not from the farmers or even Webb herself, but from retailer Erin Crampton who owns Crampton’s Market in Winnipeg where Webb’s Manitoba farmer Ian Smith sells his humanely-raised pork.
Crampton believes North Americans spent too little money on food and far too little time thinking about it. “People are willing to spend $1000 on a couch, but not on good food, and it’s all going to come back and bite us on the butt. The way we raise meat now is unsafe and it’s unstable. In ten years, we’ll see.”
And while Webb deals only marginally with costs in terms of the end consumer, the message throughout is clear – sustainably-raised food is worth the extra money – for the animals, for the land and sea, for the customer and for the farmers themselves.
Webb’s final chapter deals with her own family’s farm, and how her brother is winding down operations because the factory-farming mono-crop model is unsustainable. She delves into her own family history, including her father’s depression which she believes was brought on by the many chemicals he was exposed to on a daily basis in the fields in the form of herbicides and pesticides. And she plays “what if”; dreaming up an idyllic scenario in which the whole family would take part in the business of the farm, with sustainable practices, organic crops, tours, farm stands and political advocacy to support farmers in the area.
Her message is genuine and heartfelt, and I imagine Webb shed a few tears when writing about the demise of her own family’s farm, despite the many delightful and positive stories the rest of the book has to offer. This is a beautiful book that will no doubt inspire anyone who picks it up. Farmers everywhere should brace themselves, because fans of Apples to Oysters will be on the lookout for a farmer to hug.