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"But if local asparagus growers plough up their fields and sell their land for housing, we end up substituting stale, travel worn asparagus for fresh, local asparagus, with little overall gain in the length of the asparagus season.

And then we're all worse off."

Agreed - that is why this is the first Saturday I bought asparagus when shopping - the first Ontario asparagus. I can't imagine how anyone eats anything else the rest of the year - it is tastewise, a pale imitation. This applies to other things - vegetables, peaches, strawberries etc...

My preference for local food isn't about the environment - I think that there are many countervailing factors and a carbon tax would help sort out the most efficient. My preference is about flavour.

(Usually) May asparagus in Ontario is one of the first signs of spring to me - and I can't imagine eating lousy asparagus in February when it is still dark and cold outside.

the same is true for ohio grown tomatoes and sweet corn...and by the end of the summer you cant even give zucchini away; your friends lock their doors and draw their shades...

Just to clarify: are you saying that the length of the able-to-buy-asparagus season is the same regardless of whether it's imported or not? That is, the Mexican asparagus runs out the same number of months after January as the local asparagus runs out after May?

Whitfit - the question is: why don't others do what you do? I have a couple of theories

- hyperbolic discounting, that is, people want things now, and aren't prepared to wait. (See asparagus. Want asparagus. Buy asparagus. Yes, this year I cracked.)
- after a couple of generations away from farming/growing your own vegetables, a lot of people are just not aware of what is in season when. And if you've never tasted really fresh well-cooked local produce, you don't know what you're missing.

rsj - yup, I can still not bring myself to pay any price greater than zero for zucchini. And it's been years.

Phil - that I don't know. I suspect that Peru would have a longer asparagus season than Ontario just because the number of days of moderate (say 10 to 20 degrees celsius) weather. Unfortunately the length of the Peruvian asparagus growing season is not an easily-found factoid! The point I was trying to make is that if imported asparagus crowds out local production, the season ends up being shorter (say Jan to April) than it would be without imported+local (Jan to June).

But why can't we import Peruvian asparagus (or asparagus from elsewhere) after June? Does nobody grow asparagus the rest of the year?

"the same is true for ohio grown tomatoes and sweet corn...and by the end of the summer you cant even give zucchini away; your friends lock their doors and draw their shades..."

So true. One year we made the mistake of planting zucchini in our rather nutrient rich vegetable garden. By August the thing was 10 feet across and producing a one or two pounds of harvestable fruit a day. I couldn't even look at zucchini again for months.

Supply-chain continuity (or the lack) causes lots of trouble for northern farmers. Grocers hate empty shelves even more than customers. When choosing a supplier, grocery chains like long-term, stable quantities. Their margins are tiny, and local weather isn't a trustworthy business partner. Lots of Ontario stone fruit winds up doing a round trip through Chicago to satisfy procurement's desire for a 'commodity'. Local, in-season food is almost the opposite of a commodity.

Phil - "Does nobody grow asparagus the rest of the year?"

Asparagus isn't like radishes or lettuce or beans where you can stagger your plantings and get year-round or close-to-year round crops. It's a perennial, and it comes up when it wants to come up - an asparagus plant will sprout a whole lot of new shoots in the spring, and what is not picked right away shoots up and becomes an attractive fern-like plant. Sure, there's a little that can be done to delay the shoots (plant on the north side of a hill, bury them with earth) or accelerate them (cloches, various coverings etc) but not much. And then once the asparagus has sprouted, that's it until next year.

At least, this is what I know about asparagus from my own personal experience - and the California asparagus marketing board says each asparagus-growing area only produces asparagus for 60 to 90 days http://www.calasparagus.com/industry/growing.htm. The only way to extend the season is to grow the asparagus in a range of different climates.

New Zealand, Chilean, South African, and Australian asparagus would sprout in the northern Fall, so Sept/Oct/Nov, but given that asparagus doesn't travel well I imagine there's just no percentage in shipping asparagus from Chile to Canada in Sept/Oct.

Michael: "Supply-chain continuity (or the lack) causes lots of trouble for northern farmers." Very true. The seasonality issue I'm talking about here is just one part of the story, and is only relevant for a fairly limited number of crops.

But if I don't stop blogging now I'll miss the four-hour shopping window for genuinely fresh local produce from my favourite farmer.

"Why don't others do what [Whitfit] do[es]?"

I don't have any general theories nor data to back them up, especially anything relevant specifically to asparagus. I eat it, but not all that frequently, and I usually get it from the grocery store (Loblaws). I'm not sure I've even eaten locally grown asparagus.

I'm well aware of the quality differences. I know without a doubt which tastes better. But there are a few reasons why I don't do what Whitfit does more often with produce in general.

Cost. Despite travelling a shorter distance, the local stuff tends to cost more, and often not just a little bit. It might be worth the difference, but I can't afford to fill my grocery cart with locally grown produce on a regular basis.

Shelf-life. Although it's not universal, the locally grown stuff tends to rot sooner. It's happened to me more than once that I buy something local and if it's not eaten in a day or two, it's inedible.

Trust. When I get it from a chain grocery store, I can expect a consistent mediocrity (i.e. it doesn't necessarily taste great, but it least it's not rotten). If I want local produce, I have to search elsewhere. I could end up with something better, or something worse. It takes time to figure out who's selling you garbage and who's not. Over the long term, I suppose I could figure it out, but on a week to week basis, I'm not keen on spending a lot of time looking for produce only to take it home and finding out that the produce I bought looks a lot better than it tastes.

Availability. There aren't that many grocery stores that stock locally produced vegetables. In Kingston, where I live, most grocery stores are either Loblaws, Metro, or one of their other brands (No Frills, Food Basics, etc.) When these places do sell local produce, it comes off as an overpriced (see above) novelty. I know of only a few very small non-chain grocery stores (there could be more), and they aren't convenient. I can get them from the farmer's market, too, but inconvenience plays a role again. It's only open on certain days of the week. On the weekdays that it's open, I can only go during work hours. I could go on Saturdays but it's way too far to walk, and parking close by can be a pain. Even then, I'm not guaranteed local. Depending on the time of year, this stuff could be from the same place as chain store produce. Selection is variable, so I might end up having to make the trek to a chain grocery store anyway. I could also drive all over to visit the different farmers selling it from stands set up on the side of the road, but that doesn't seem like a responsible use of gasoline.

I'd love to eat more better tasting, locally grown produce. But for me, there are too many factors against it.

Even better, I'd love to grow my own (nobody's ever sold me better tomatoes than what my parents grew in their vegetable garden). But neither apartment building balconies nor postage stamp backyards in contemporary low-density residential developments give much opportunity for that. Of course, this has nothing to do with the profitability of Northern asparagus.

Used to be that farmers could sell their excess crop to the cannery, and once people's harvest time satiation passed, and before scurvy set in, they'd buy canned fruits and vegetables. Not so much anymore. There's no point in canning or preserving when you can get fresh from somewhere else in the world in the winter.

If transportation costs go up sufficiently, things might change. Or maybe if people in the southern hemisphere get richer and want our excess asparagus, rhubarb and strawberries during their winter, maybe we can sell it to them.

Frances,

I would have thought of cherries as an obvious example on the list - the season isn't spring, but it is a very short period in early summer. You only get two to three weeks out of any given cultivar at a given location, and you can just about double that by having several cultivars and by cold storage to stretch out the crop.

Strawberries aren't as good an example because the strawberry growing season in California and Mexico is very long if you grow the everbearing varieties. (Strawberry Fields Forever). Even so , strawberries are grown successfully in western Washington, with short-season varieties that have better flavor but don't transport well.

Some southern-hemisphere asparagus is imported to Seattle around (US) Thanksgiving, and cherries near Christmas, and US asparagus and cherries show up in Australia and NZ. The Washington cherries in Australia are actually ok -- they only ship at the peak of the crop, so the quality is good and the price is merely moderately outrageous.

thomas - I think the economics of cherries are slightly different in that cherries don't grow in nearly as wide a variety of climactic zones as asparagus does (in Canada, BC and some parts of southern Ontario are really the only places - perhaps Nova Scotia, I don't know). So in Ottawa at least there isn't a local/imported cherry distinction - every cherry here is pretty well travelled. For summer crops, too, there isn't nearly as much of a difference in the timing of local/imported crops. It's like the flowers - BC snowdrops will bloom a good two or three months ahead of Ontario snowdrops, but summer and fall monkshood will bloom at much the same time.

Asparagus for Thanksgiving? Really? I believe you, but it just doesn't seem right to be eating asparagus in November. Yes, you're right about strawberries.

Patrick - and people have forgotten how to make/preserve foods.

Randy E - you're right on all of the reasons why people don't buy fresh local food. I use the frozen peas test: does it deliver a deliciousness/convenience/nutrition bundle at least as good as frozen peas? If not, I'll just grab some peas from the freezer instead... And, no, I didn't get to the farmer's market today.

As an aside: cherry and pea are unique in being 'invented' singulars. Centuries ago, the words cherries and peas were singulars, just like the French - cherise and pois. . But cherries and peas just seemed so much like plurals that people invented the words cherry and pea.

Don't worry about asparagus disappearing... long before I studied economics, I grew up on a farm. Most farmers who plant asparagus on a large scale are doing it because it has an early growing season, and provides cashflow early in the year. It's the anti-pumpkin. Consider a farm that produces three crops: asparagus, sweet corn, and pumpkins. Sweet corn is by far the most profitable, but if you only planted sweet corn, you'd only have income late June-August. Add the other two crops to the mix, and you get to use equipment that would otherwise be idle for production, diversify products to cut risks of crop failures/bad weather, and generate cashflow from May-November.

At least in the 80s when interest rates were high, the cashflow aspect was very important- as a business, it's much easier and less costly to borrow money when you have cashflow 6 months of the year than only 2 and a half.

Spargel season (German white asparagus) is a joyous spring festival when many gorge themselves on fat thumbs of white (grown under sand hillocks so that the sun doesn't encourage chlorophyll.
But now this eaason is earlier because of cheap Spanish imports, often sold off the back of a truckin April.
The local inustry there also complained of the lack of workers for the back breaking harvest work, so they were hiring Poles who were more used to manual farm labour.

From the shortwave radio last week
http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,15043449,00.html
Germans go crazy for Spargel.

From this Sunday's intellectural broadsheet newspaper
"Bitte mit Sauce hollandaise!"
http://www.zeit.de/2011/20/Spargel-Saison

And if you haven't bought your special extra tall Spargel pot in all the stores this month, theh a simple micorwave of scraped Spargel coved with a sauce and some proscutto with a slice of emmenthal cheese is wonderbar!

The Saarland Kurier proclaimed on Sunday May 15th
>Siegen, 15.05.2011 02:30 Uhr
"Jetzt ist die perfekte Zeit für Spargel: Lieb­haber des könig­li­chen Gemüse fiebern diesen Wochen schon lange entgegen. Und im Hotel-Restau­rant Pfef­fer­mühle am Siegener Linden­berg kann man das 'weiße Gold' richtig genießen."

I don't think farmers profit-maximize at the marginal commodity level. I made the mistake of buying asparagus once in January, it was $9 jet-flown organic from Peru. Obviously the price wasn't clearly marked in the vegetable aisle and it was only because my $40 bill cost $50 that I immediately noticed the price spike.
As a consumer who is struggling desperately to let the Market work, I pay nearly a 100% premium on local / organic / fair-trade goods. But that doesn't help when I have no idea what is in season. I didn't even know you could grow asparagus in Canada... I feel like the one of those children in the news "Food comes from the store. They make it there."
But back to the question, if there is 100% markup on a commodity that is not legally protected, why does it take so long for new entrants? (BC Organic apples are readily available, but I have yet to find Cdn organic wheat.)
I'm willing to accept that fuel, land, labour, and energy (transportation) are so cheap anywhere else that Canada doesn't have a competitive advantage in anything. So looking at locally sourced foodstuffs:
Is the cost of producing a product organically really 2x the cost of pumping it full of pesticides, preservatives, and fertilizers (which is why Randy's foreign fruit doesn't go off) or is the capital cost of being certified, rebranding, and identifying the discerning consumer too high?

"Is the cost of producing a product organically really 2x the cost of ... "

No. The issue is that it's more than twice as productive compared to organic. Getting good productivity from organic requires huge amounts of labour and gigantic investments in large scale soil improvement - which is nearly impossible on large scales.

Here's an experiment you can try to get a sense of what's going on: go to the local garden center and buy two tomato plants and two 12" pots. Fill one pot with soil from your backyard. Fill the other with fancy bagged soil with fertilizer etc - also available at the garden center. Also buy fertilizer for tomato plants and a pyrethrin based insecticide. It isn't organic, but it's made from chrysanthemum and it's fairly innocuous. Plant one tomato plant in the soil from the backyard. Plant the other with the fancy stuff. Do nothing but water the plant in the backyard soil. With the other, fertilize it as per the instructions on the tomato fertilizer and spray it twice a week with insecticide. Unless you have particularly rich soil in your backyard, at the very least you will get twice as much fruit from the non-organic plant. In Edmonton (where I live) you'll be lucky if the 'organic' plant survives at all.

Patrick, Peter: "No. The issue is that it's more than twice as productive compared to organic."

marginal product=amount produced by one more unit of inputs. So...

inputs required to produce one more unit of output=1/marginal product. Which means...

Marginal cost=price of inputs*amount of inputs required
=price of inputs/marginal product.

Low marginal product of inputs (i.e. soil doesn't grow much without fertilizer) is exactly the same as saying high marginal cost of production.

Patrick, I take your point, but it's also true that some plants are harder to grow organically than others. I always wonder about organic maple syrup, for example - how much does the average sugar maple tree require in terms of herbicides and pesticides? And organic rhubarb - the leaves are toxic. Bugs don't eat them. But it thrives in Edmonton!

Patrick: "Do nothing but water the plant in the backyard soil. With the other, fertilize it as per the instructions on the tomato fertilizer and spray it twice a week with insecticide. Unless you have particularly rich soil in your backyard, at the very least you will get twice as much fruit from the non-organic plant."

This is my argument - watering the plant must be cheaper than watering + fertilizing. So is the added cost of production offset by a greater increase in crop sales? Presumably yes, which I think ensures it is REVENUE maximizing (is this mathematically correct?). But given the difference in price and the different demand structure is it still PROFIT maximizing?

Frances - organic maple syrup is perceived to be a bit of a ruse. This is reflected in the price differential which shows that consumers aren't willing to pay much more for the label. I think it's only a 15% markup.

One of those inputs is land. If organic production halves yield, then the cost of land doubles. Rent on an acre of land can run a few hundred dollars up to a thousand or so per year. I'm not sure what kind of yield you can get off of an acre, but if the difference is 10,000 pounds vs 20,000 pounds of produce off an acre that costs $1000 per year, that's not insubstantial difference in price.

Of course, I find that some organic produce (at least 'grocery store' organic, oft-looked down upon by green snobs) is barely at a premium to non-organic. Carrots, for instance. I wish there was less BS revolving around organic. I'm fairly convinced that it's a waste of time for some produce, but worthwhile for others. Militancy just muddies the waters.

There are options to full-blow 'organic' that also reduce input costs and the use of pesticides. Mostly it's better management of the land. And not planting monocultures as far as the eye can see. But when the US gov't (for example - they aren't the only ones by any means) subsidizes corn to create ethanol at negative net energy return, what's a farmer to do? Pick the low hanging fruit or try to re-learn what his great-grandfather knew about companion planting and crop rotation?

Additional thought: most farming is done on farms owned by gigantic firms anyway. There's a huge capital stock (human and physical) devoted to industrial factory farming. That's not easy to change. Much easier to maintain profits by using tyour size and power to buy off your some politicians and get them to send you subsidies.

Patrick - True about subsidies etc. Successful organic farmers are often subsidy farmers too - my favourite farmer has just built a greenhouse which he runs with "green biofuels" i.e. left-over chip-wagon oil. I'd be willing to bet that particular business expansion harvested a subsidy or two. But the business is profitable mostly because he sells a lot of his produce directly to consumers, thereby avoiding the whole supply chain thing.

B.t.w., trivia about asparagus growing I learned while writing this post: it grows well in saline land, so it's a good crop for marginal/damaged soils (on the other hand, there's a temptation to dump salt on the soil and discourage weeds, which is not good in the long-run). It's also an excellent companion plant for tomatoes - keeps the weeds down and, as others have noted, provides useful cashflow when it's needed.

RandyE, I understand all those reasons for not buying locally produced vegetables. I found the same thing when we lived in Ontario - hard to source the food - not easy enough to get to the markets, compared with the local Loblaws or Produce Depot. But now we're in Nova Scotia and we have a functional farmer's market in Dartmouth. The food is about the same price as in the grocery store and lasts longer in the fridge. Not sure why - does it start out fresher? Is it handled less roughly? Also, the market itself is just the right size - big enough to afford selection, but not so big that it takes forever to find parking, then navigate to the right stand, then grope your way back to the car. I was in & out in 10 minutes last Saturday, showing up with all the keeners at 8 am to buy the lettuce that sells out by 8:30. In that time I bought stuff from 4 separate stands. All a 5 minute drive from my house. There is no way I could've even dreamed about doing that in Ottawa.

Anyway, why does farmer's market work so well? I'm not an economist and can't answer it from that point of view. My gut feeling is it's at a sustainable size and serves a correspondingly small population. Any bigger and it would be annoying to get around in. More people would also increase the annoyingness and give trouble with parking. Any smaller and there's nothing there!

I was a total farmer's market skeptic until we came here. I thought all these people crowing about the benefits of it were just saying what they thought people wanted to hear, to show how green and planet-loving they were. Even the Halifax one was unbearably trendy and self-important. But this one is just perfect. So, sometimes you just get lucky.

^I'm still skeptical. I think a lot of it is conspicuous authenticity. Having to go at 8 am to get lettuce sounds like a con, not a pro.

FYI: I just read in the Financial Times that Peru is the world's biggest exporter of asparagus and cocaine. Fascinating, huh?

I'm actually not sure what you mean by "conspicuous authenticity". Each word makes sense by itself but together?

As for the time of day - what can I say? I don't care about the time - I'm up anyway since I have a toddler, and because of that, going to the market serves a dual purpose: buy food and fill some time on an otherwise endless Saturday. So in that sense the market is better than, say, the grocery store and then the playground, because for one thing the market is indoors for when it rains, which is pretty much all the time. In August when tomatoes, real tomatoes, are ready, the same thing happens: there just aren't that many and if you want them bad enough, you go early, and if you don't, then you eat those watery ones from the store.

I mean, isn't that how we all make our spending decisions: is this pleasure [tomatoes that taste like tomatoes] worth the money and possibly the effort [getting up early]? Yes? Then I'll buy it. No? Then I'll buy something else that fits my time/money budget better and still meets my requirements.

This explanation could be used for every single plant, as veggies are ready in New England a couple weeks before, say, Quebec, and bring low prices with them.

The best prices for my father's production are usually in Fall, and will make or break a season.


Interesting thread - the debates about organic, local generally drive me crazy, because people take ideological stances. Some on the side that local and organic is better because it is more "natural", uses less fuel to get to market (though doesn't always reflect entire energy cost of production), and has fewer "toxins". However, on the other side are people that dismiss it all saying it is "conspicuous authenticity", that it is holier than thou etc...

I have to say, if you believe it is largely about "conspicuous authenticity", then you are missing the food part. I get up early to go to the market here because I don't want to miss certain things - having grown up eating good eggs, the pale, tasteless eggs from the supermarket just seem sad - but also because you avoid the bumping around tourists who aren't really shopping, and end up spending a couple of hours doing the weekly shopping rather than 45 minutes.

One of the things that I find fascinating is that living in downtown Toronto, I feel more connected to the seasons than living outside of the city core because of my access to food. However, it is one of the reasons I live where I do, in downtown Toronto where I am close to the market, and can walk there. For me, the transportation and shopping time for my weekly groceries can be done in about an hour, and I get really good stuff.

One of the slogans and stickers I see all the time is the "Farmers Feed Cities" sticker, where I shop and around town. I find that kind of absurd - although I guess on one level it is true. Cities also feed farmers - it would be hard to do modern farming without equipment, capital, markets etc... I am happy to pay a good price for good, local asparagus, that isn't woody and bland. But, the advocacy position of the farmers shouldn't be that we would starve without them, and shouldn't forget about them, but that they provide something that is valuable, and that we should be willing to pay for.

Frances, another bit of asparagus trivia: yes, you can delay production, with a bit of work.

According to the "Lazy Gardener" (Larry Hodgson), if you let your asparagus grow unbothered in the spring, and then mow down the leaves in late summer (and feed the cows with them!), the plant will shoot up again in a last-ditch effort at survival. You can harvest those shoots like you would in the spring. His books give the specifics of when to mow etc. Problem I see is that in late summer the asparagus would be competing with lots of other greens, loosing its "primeur" appeal. But for e.g. home production, it can be nice to split the harvest. I intend to try it once my new asparagus bed starts producing.

I don't know if this technique is used in Peru, although I vaguely remember someone telling me during my trip there that they have 2 growing seasons per year.

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