Alberta native Heather Stretch claims not to be a visionary, but the 20-acre organic farm on Vancouver Island she’s spent the past 12 years growing is unquestionably part of a revolution in the making. We are a culture both obsessed by food — its temptations and pathologies, a barrage of dos and don’ts — and yet perennially distanced from its supply: taught by a well-run industrial food system to understand food as something that is meant to exist in cheap and ready supply, tidily packaged on supermarket shelves.
For Stretch, learning about every aspect of our food system — from cultivation to preparation — is key to resolving this divide. More than simply a how-to book on organic micro-farming, then, Stretch’s All the Dirt: Reflections on Organic Farming (co-authored with fellow farmers Rachel Fisher and Robin Tunnicliffe) is a manual for change.
For those of us accustomed to equating agriculture with vast swathes of monocultured fields spreading out in every direction under a lofty Alberta sky, Stretch’s model may not seem much like farming at all. But, as Stretch observes, “Anywhere there’s a patch of grass, there can be a bed of salad greens.”
Organic micro-farming can be a viable business model, and Stretch sees her own work as inspiration for others to establish vibrant, functioning agricultural scenes — food hubs — in their own communities. The ideal is local solutions to whatever food problems are plaguing local regions; the goal of the book, then, is to educate, disseminate and lead by example. And this example, Stretch notes, is not exclusive to rural communities, or to those with the means to acquire land. SPIN (Small Plot-Intensive) farming — the latest thing in micro-agriculture — is viable in urban spaces, where prospective farmers can rent homeowners’ backyards for cultivation.
“There’s a lot of green space in cities that could become leased areas for farmers to rent as businesses,” says Stretch. “Secure access to land is a challenge, but it’s not an insurmountable problem that can only be conquered by buying it.”
From the perspective of the potential consumer it’s difficult not to see the fruits of such enterprise as part of a niche market accessible only to a reasonably monied elite. Economies of scale drive the price: a small organic farmer simply doesn’t have the tools at her disposal — sowers, harvesting machines, cheap labour — to compete with the industrial system. And so the work of hand becomes one of the main costs of small-scale farming. For Stretch, however, recognizing the difference in labour practices between large and small-scale agricultural production is key to understanding why we should buy organic, price notwithstanding.
“The condition of industrial agricultural workers is horrific. There are hunger strikes going on right now because of working conditions,” she explains. “I firmly believe that anyone standing in front of a person getting this little pay for this much work, and given the choice between a 50 and a 75 cent tomato, would choose the 75 cent tomato. But because we don’t see that man or woman, we instead buy the 50 cent tomato, because that’s what the food system thinks we want.”
Stretch can’t lower her prices, or she’s out of business. But she says we can learn to approach food differently.
“Knowing how to cook is a really important piece of this puzzle — of developing a healthy food culture that goes from healthy soil to healthy people to healthy communities to a healthy whole-food culture. It’s all related.”
A skinless, boneless organic chicken breast may be expensive, but a whole chicken can be stretched out over several meals. Stocking up on whole foods — grains, vegetables — brings down grocery costs considerably. Cooking organic at home with inexpensive ingredients is cheaper and healthier than takeout.
There’s a ton of waste in our current food system, on a domestic as well as an industrial scale. Rather than let that pricey bag of organic greens moulder in the fridge, Stretch recommends sitting down on a Sunday afternoon to plan what you’re going to eat during the week. Intimidated by the load of gritty vegetables staring up from the counter? The co-authors of All the Dirt include recipes on their website — saanichorganics.com — and have recently self-published a small cookbook.
So, even if you’re not planning on seeding your front walk with kale any time in the near future, this book deserves some attention.
“I’d like to think anyone who eats would have some interest in where what they’re putting in their mouths comes from, and how their eating decisions ripple out to everything from human health to the environment,” says Stretch.