Why don’t we have a local food incubator?

By David Parkinson

Early dawn of a bright and warm November day

The more I think about building a local food economy, the more I believe that the key to success is creating an economy that sustains growers and producers, processors, and consumers all year round. We focus so much of our energy and attention on the growing aspect of the food system, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we can see at this time of year that the abundance of the summertime is waning fast. Scour the local farmgates and the Winter Farmers’ Market and you’ll see some carrots, potatoes, late greens, winter squash… and not much more than that.

And for as long as I’ve been working in the local food-security scene I’ve been hearing the same ideas popping up again and again: common root cellars and other storage facilities, and community commercial kitchens for processing and preserving the harvest while fresh. Many people still do a good deal of this essential work, but many no longer do. And more (including myself) never learned how.

This summer, Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative organized a tomato-canning bash in the kitchen of a local church. About a dozen people got together to learn how to can tomatoes and everyone walked away with a few pints of canned tomatoes. But this is just the tip of the iceberg: if we’re seriously contemplating an extremely local food economy, we’re going to need to boost production and we’re really going to need to learn how to store food efficiently, inexpensively, and safely.

Food-growing is becoming highly visible and a recognizable and important part of our embryonic local food scene. And if you can grow food, you can preserve it; in fact, preserving food strikes me as the easy part (although that might just be because I’ve never had to do it for extended periods). I don’t think my talents really lie in the garden, and so I’m increasingly drawn to food preservation as a slightly neglected and uncelebrated aspect of food security.

This coming summer, I want to organize many more community-kitchen get-togethers along the lines of the tomato-canning bask in September. The model is simple enough: we buy a good amount of whatever is in season in a given week, find the best way to preserve it, get a bunch of people together, split the costs (supplies, facility rental, etc.), add something on top for the organizer and something for the community,  and work together to stock our pantries for the winter.

One tantalizing way to organize a project like this is to run it along the lines of Community-Supported Agriculture: people sign up at the beginning of the preserving season, pay some amount in advance to help the organizer(s) buy materials and ingredients, and then each week they receive a supply of something for their pantry. This could be a great way to strengthen demand for local food — by extending the time of the year during which we can continue to eat local food. It’s the way people used to eat, and it seems poised to make a comeback.

Eventually this sort of collective activity can generate the demand for a proper community-owned and -managed processing facility, along the lines of the ones discussed in this article that came to me this week and got me thinking again about food preservation. Somehow we need to centralize at least some of the work that goes on in isolation, in the interests of getting more people involved, lowering costs, and minimizing the barriers to participation such as knowledge of health and safety regulations.

So do we spend our time hunting for grants to help start a project like this? Or start small and build our way up? I don’t know the right answer, but I hope to do some on-the-ground investigating and learning when the growing season returns. We need year-round local food.


4 Responses to “Why don’t we have a local food incubator?”

  1. 1 berringn November 4, 2010 at 22:57

    great timely post and the article link is an inspiring and helpful for me. The growing of food year round does take innovation and new ways of looking at old ways of farming. I think a community of growers and consumers of food needs a organization to effectively grow and process what is grown locally.

    Reading though your posts over the last 12 months has outline for me the ideas behind Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative. I’m encourage. Thanks again for the post.

  2. 2 David Parkinson November 5, 2010 at 07:23

    Thanks, B! I don’t think I was cut out to be a grower… but a community of growers needs some others dealing with the excess and putting food by for when those out in the fields can finally put their feet up. That might be more my role…

  3. 3 Kevin November 6, 2010 at 09:33

    Hi David, can I put in a plug for methods of extending the eating season that are not energy-intensive?

    Every time I do a canning session I boggle at the amount of energy and hot water needed. It’s possible to do it without electricity or running water – Alfie’s mother used to do it – but the way we do it now is pretty energy-intensive.

    So I’m thinking drying (solar drying especially – A and I are really hoping to build a better dryer than the cardboard one for use next season), root-cellar type storage (which is simple in principle but not so easy in practice, I find) and season extension, so we can eat out of the garden for longer. Simply gardening with the expectation and intention of storing the food helps, too. All that comes after folks have grown their first few novice gardens, though, and plenty of people are still at that startup stage.

  1. 1 A community food incubator? « Powell River Food Security Project Trackback on November 5, 2010 at 12:52
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