Getting to the Root of Food Security
By Dan Oostenbrink, The Local Harvest Market
“Do you sell ginger?” we’ve often been asked. Staying true to our mandate to only provide local food in our market is certainly a challenge and we frequently find ourselves turning down customer requests for the foreign foods they’ve become accustomed to purchasing at the supermarket: “Where’s the turmeric?” and “Why don’t you sell lemons?”
Some days I wonder if our unwavering commitment to local food is really worth it. Wouldn’t we increase customer traffic and satisfaction and be more profitable if we also stocked our shelves with foods that are not readily available in this region? And why not sell Mexican-grown strawberries in February? Certainly the consumer would understand and perhaps even appreciate a more compromising view on what it means to operate as a local farm market. These sentiments seem to grow even stronger as the weather becomes cooler and our store’s selection is reduced to storage root crops, apples, pears and a variety of winter-hardy greens. And yet, there are many reasons why I’ve become more steadfast in our pledge to solely provide regionally-grown fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat products in our market.
It’s been demonstrated that the few dollars consumers spend weekly at the local farmers market or neighbouring artisanal food shop provides a lasting benefit for the community. Imagine then if we succeeded in weaning ourselves entirely from the industrial food system and solely relied on locally-sourced food. Our bodily health would not only improve but we’d also bring greater vitality to our economy by employing locals. Money wouldn’t leave our cities but would circle endlessly within our own community. Value-added enterprises would sprout up everywhere.
Also, a short food chain between producer and eater would foster a stronger sense of neighbourliness in our towns as people become more dependent on each other for their basic needs. Further, by shutting our doors to imported foods, we provide tremendous incentive for agripreneurial-minded farmers to diversify into foods they might otherwise not even attempt to grow in our region. This has been the immediate response here at our farm market as we strive for greater food security in our city.
In January of this year we asked ourselves if we could profitably grow ginger on our farm with low input costs, minimal risk and without adding significantly to our ever-increasing workload here on our intensive mixed-vegetable farm. We decided to try. Here’s our journey growing ginger.
Our immediate task was to find a quality source of ginger rhizomes for seed. Unfortunately, we were too late in the season and our quest was fruitless forcing us to purchase root stock from the supermarket. Organic Peruvian-grown ginger exceeded $10/lb and came in small packages so our main focus would be a non-organic, Chinese-grown ginger that was economically priced at $2/lb and available in bulk quantities. For subsequent crops, we decided we would save our own seed or get in the queue at a reputable seed supplier a little earlier.
We’ve heard people say that store-bought ginger is treated with a hormone that inhibits sprouting. Fortunately, all the ginger we purchased was viable. In plastic bulb crates we alternated between a 1” layer of potting soil and a layer of firm rhizomes packed tightly together. Larger rhizomes were cut into smaller chunks but with the assurance that every piece contained at least one or two buds. Soil was kept moist during the entire sprouting period and the temperature was kept at 25°C.
Within a few weeks, green shoots began to emerge so we planted the ginger on a 12” x 12” grid in fertile soil inside a heated greenhouse around mid-February.
The ginger grew extremely slow until late June when it suddenly exploded with new shoots and rapid growth. Throughout the summer the greenhouse temperature exceeded 40°C during the day and never dipped below 20°C at night. Intense heat, long days and a good soaking every other day produced a dense growth of sturdy stems with dark green fronds that reached a height of 1.5 meters by mid-August.
As the crop matured it required a tremendous dose of self-control not to pull the ginger up and observe the all-important underground growth. In early September we decided it was time to begin harvesting fresh ginger for our market. It pulled up easily and we were pleased to find a surprisingly large yield of approximately 3 lbs per square foot. We couldn’t be too greedy, however, as a large portion of our ginger would need to remain in the ground until late November to be used after curing as seed for the following season.
Amazingly, we sold over three hundred pounds at $12/lb the first week the ginger was on the shelves. Our customers were ecstatic. Needless to say, so were we. We had succeeded in growing a crop that demanded very little care and yet provided a good return for our small investment. Customers in return could now spice their dishes with fresh ginger grown in fertile, organic soil and pay only a fraction more than they would pay for store-bought, organic ginger.
Consumer demand for fresh foods grown close to home coupled with our conviction that the only way to attain food security is by shutting our doors to foreign foods will encourage further innovation on our farm and other farms in our region.
Next year, we’ll multiply our production of ginger tenfold and we’ll experiment with other cultivars that might do well with minimal protection when planted outdoors. We’ll continue with our yacón trials and in the future we’ll also experiment with growing lemons, persimmons and turmeric. Why not? It can’t be that hard. Increasing biodiversity on our farm by introducing new crops makes ecological sense and also increases the viability of our farm business as we respond to consumer demands. This might be reason enough to attempt growing foreign foods in our region.
But there’s more. Because who can place a value on the smile of a satisfied customer who shares your vision for a food-secure community where every citizen has year-round access to quality foods produced on our own soil?
Check out our RECIPE for Sweet Chili Ginger Chicken
[infobox title=’Dan Oostenbrink’]Dan Oostenbrink is a former teacher who currently operates The Local Harvest Market in Chilliwack together with his wife Helen and five children. Their farm is intensively farmed and all the food they produce is sold in their market. They currently supply at least ten restaurants with food. [/infobox]