Concerns about the quality of grocery store fruits and vegetables are sparking interest in heritage/artisan and heirloom foods.
And that’s fantastic. But is it too late?
Let’s look to apples for perspective. North America was once home to 15,000 varieties and is now down to just 2500… with only about 90 or so varieties grown commercially.
In the 1920’s commercial orchardists began focusing on growing few varieties more efficiently, and as a result, many of the older cultivars fell into disuse.
Mass merchandisers now view apple varieties in terms of colour, disease resistance, shelf life, and their ability to ship long distances without bruising. Grocery stores often stock only one red, one green, and one yellow variety, which usually means 'Red Delicious', 'Golden Delicious', and 'Granny Smith'. And as any consumer knows, those big, beautiful, and perfect-looking apples often taste like sweetened sawdust.
The obvious choice - CHOOSE HEIRLOOM
There are a lot of reasons to grow heirloom apples, not the least of which is preserving heritage. Most heirlooms are varieties that were handed down from generation to generation and brought to America from other countries.
Well-known heirlooms include the Cortland, Empire, and Macoun, which are grown in the Eastern Canada and U.S. While these are the best known, they are certainly not the only varieties (by a long shot) so if you’re looking for trees for your own backyard, please look deeper into the various heirloom varieties still available.
What apples do we grow in Ontario?
- There are 15 different main varieties of apples grown on nearly 16,000 acres in Ontario. The province’s major apple-producing areas are along the shores of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.
- The top seven varieties in Ontario are McIntosh, Gala, Empire, Red Delicious, Northern Spy, Honeycrisp and Ambrosia.
Spotlight on apples: The Cortland
The Cortland apple is slowly regaining it’s popularity. It is considered a heirloom variety, of Malus domestica, one of the many offspring of McIntosh apples. It combines the sweet flavour of the McIntosh with the cold hardiness of its second parent, Ben Davis.
Extremely slow to brown when cut, the Cortland apple is perfect for use in fresh apple preparations because it is extremely slow to brown once cut, (slow to oxidize when exposed to air.
A great way to enjoy a cortland is cubed in a salad or sliced thin and added to sandwiches, burgers, and quesadillas. Another use is in lieu of crackers paired with sweet and savory dips or flavourful cheeses. The sweet-tart flavor also makes the Cortland an ideal choice for cakes, tarts, cobblers and galettes, as well as soups, sauces and preserves.
Cortlands also make excellent cider and juice apples. Downside? They don’t store too well, and should be eaten soon after harvest for best flavour and texture.
Cortland trees are known for their ability to thrive in cold weather and can be found growing in apple growing regions on the east coast, Washington State, Oregon, and Quebec and Ontario in Canada. They are also grown in France and Poland.
The loss of biodiversity necessary for the ecosystem to flourish is devastating. So can we recover? The good news is nature is always trying to regenerate. We simply have to let it.
Commercially speaking every time you purchase your apples from the grocery store you have supported the very system that has destroyed the 1000’s of varieties we once had.
What’s the solution?
Simple: Heirloom varieties. We can’t get back everything we’ve lost but we can buy as local as possible, as often as possible, to save what we have left.
Perhaps we now know the answer to the age old question, what do we have to lose? Indeed it has become obvious.
Now that we’ve lost so much, maybe we can admit, we must change our ways.
The choice is yours.
Small Scale Farms
Niagara region, ON - Residents can now easily purchase a large variety of local food items from the comfort of their homes.
“We’ve come a long way” explains Renee Delaney, owner of Small Scale Farms.
“We started the Virtual Farmers Market to ensure producers and vendors have access to online market sales. By providing full support of our platform and backing it with collaborative marketing campaigns, we’ve essentially solved the biggest obstacle we face at a regional level - local distribution”.
Shop Local Online at smallscalefarms.ca
Delaney continues: “Without collaboration we’re stuck. The corporate giants can out market us and the competition is fierce. Combining efforts at the local level is quite simply the only way forward. That, and we’d all be out there all over the place delivering just 1 or 2 items to the middle of nowhere, to justify a sale. We can’t have that, for many reasons”.
Delaney goes on to explain how the virtual market came about. “There’s always been a need for local businesses to unite under one sales channel. In the past, many have attempted and yet been unsuccessful. Over the years I have studied why and my conclusion is this: wholesale/retail partnerships are the best way forward. Why? Because they are simple. The business/vendor/farmer gets to focus on the product or service they sell, and we, the retailer, focus on sales. But we help each other. We each decide on the product pricing but at the end of the day it’s their job to create the product. And it’s our job to help them develop their brand, provide the sales channel, and distribute for them. Then, it’s up to the customer to be the judge of who’s product they like best. It just simply has to be convenient, and what’s more convenient than local products delivered right to your door”?
As for the farmers themselves, they get a special nod, that Delaney suggests is long overdue.
“What holds this system together is a weekly produce box for just $40 (for a small) or $60 (for a medium) per week. What the customers need to understand is whatever produce that ends up in this weekly box, is entirely relevant to improving our food system. On a weekly basis you can see anything from local and organic to conventional “seconds”, (no GMOs). The point being, we have to create a stronger food system, because it doesn’t currently exist.
This flexibility we have regarding the box contents helps us to further create the purchasing power necessary to encourage farmers to grow sustainably”.
When asked whether or not there are enough farms in Niagara to feed all the residents Delaney replied with a convincing no. “Not a chance. I wish it weren’t so but as it stands right now in Niagara, we grow a lot of gmo corn and gmo soy for animal feed, alongside winter wheat that’s been sprayed with the “probable carcinogenic” glyphosate... and tons of non native, ornamental flowers... but there is not enough local food production to feed our own region. We need to do something about that. And this is how.”
Where it really gets interesting is not only does Delaney’s produce box put money in the farmers pockets, the distributors pockets, and the vendors pockets, according to numerous reviews, the customers themselves seem very happy with the fresh food and variety they are receiving, for market value pricing.
Ironically, we haven't yet discussed the best part. For every weekly produce subscription purchased, Delaney is herself, buying one bag of produce to give away to one to someone in the community. In fact, her "crew" of incredible helpers will deliver it right to their door. (Read more at https://smallscalefarms.ca/pages/food-fed-forward-sign-up.)
Delaney notes relationships are continually being developed with multiple vendors within the region and beyond, to further systemize the distribution of food to both customers looking to support local, AND those in need.
When asked how it's come together so quickly, Delaney credits her team. “I’ve created the foundation for us to stand on for the last 7 years, but it's the people of Niagara who are making it work. When we work together like we are at Small Scale Farms, the profits are obvious: Everybody eats.
To learn more about how to get involved or how to become a vendor for FREE, please visit smallscalefarms.ca.