Neighbors to the North—A Plethora of Produce
Written onNovember 15 , 2016
Over the years, we at Local Banquet have heard about Vermont farmers and food producers who have thriving professional relationships with growers and food manufacturers in Québec. So for this issue, we asked some of our writers to highlight a handful of these cross-border relationships. What follows are six vignettes about Vermont and Québec producers working together to strengthen our regional food system. —Caroline Abels
Imagine two Caesar salads: Both are tossed in that classic salty dressing and topped with croutons, tomatoes, and parmesan cheese. And both salads have, as their base, crisp and crunchy romaine lettuce. The lettuce in one salad was grown in California, while the lettuce in the other was grown in Québec.
Is there a difference between the two? In flavor and texture, probably not. But there are subtle, yet very important, differences. When the base ingredients —romaine hearts—have traveled 3,000 miles from California, the salad exacerbates many environmental problems, such as the Western drought and carbon pollution from transportation.
“We’re trucking food 3,000 miles when we’re trying to figure out what to do about climate change,” says Jeff Jones, sales and marketing director at Upper Valley Produce (UVP), a wholesale produce distributor based in White River Junction that sells to most major supermarkets in the Northeast, including Stop & Shop, Hannaford, Whole Foods, Shaw’s, and Price Chopper, as well as to many food co-ops.
The salad made with Québec-grown lettuce, however, only traveled 200 miles and offers several benefits, such as fewer transportation miles, greater freshness, and more nutrients from having been harvested more recently. Québec also has more plentiful water resources than California.
Jeff is working hard at persuading big supermarket chains—where he says 90 percent of Vermont consumers shop—to consider sourcing produce grown in Québec. Between the months of June and November, Québec is able to grow all of the same produce that California grows well, but with less environmental impact. “I want buyers to see that Québec checks off all their boxes: fresher, cheaper, closer—ding! That’s everything they care about.”
But Jeff is up against a few challenges. For one, buyers at the big markets have longstanding relationships with distributors that source from California and Texas. On top of that, some of Vermont’s consumers insist that only produce grown within our state is truly local. “The word ‘local’ has been like this lightning rod,” Jeff says. “And there are purists.” But the landscape in Vermont, he notes, does not lend itself easily to medium- or large-scale produce production. “Vermont’s landscape doesn’t bode well for salad, tomatoes, and fruit,” he says. “Vermont can produce some, but not a lot.”
Jeff believes that the term “regional” is better than “local,” and that Vermonters should look beyond political boundaries to see the whole Northeast region as their food shed. He defines regional as within a 250-mile radius from his facility in White River Junction, an area that includes the Atlantic Ocean and Québec’s many hundreds of flat acres of dark, glacial soil. “This region has everything we could ever want,” Jeff says, “and we’re trying to limit ourselves with borders. If we’re going to start feeding ourselves [as a region], we can’t rely on California, and we can’t exclude Québec just because there’s a dotted line on a map.”
Tony Risatano agrees that Québec- grown produce offers great benefits to Vermonters. He’s the sales manager at Deep Root Organic Co-op, a wholesale aggregator and distributor of regional produce, based in Johnson. This grower-owned cooperative has 23 member farms, seven of which are in Québec, and which range from small to large. A few of Deep Root’s Québec growers have been members of the co-op for 20 years.
Deep Root offers a wide range of products, and they carry produce 12 months out of the year. Items from Québec include lettuce, zucchini, and radicchio in May; herbs and field cucumbers in summer; and carrots, root crops, and winter squash from fall through winter. There are also two hothouse growers producing cucumbers and tomatoes 10 or 11 months out of the year. Deep Root sends this produce to loca food co-ops such as City Market, Buffalo Mountain, and Hunger Mountain, and supplies Vermont-based distributor Black River Produce, as well as regional and national chains such as Whole Foods.
Tony points out that a city like Burlington can’t survive on local food alone. To supply a concentrated population base with the freshest food, sourcing must be spread out over a greater land base. He says that if a pin were dropped in the center of Burlington, all of Deep Root’s growers would fall within a 50-mile radius of it. He echoes Jeff Jones when he urges people to think beyond the map.
“Erase those political borders in your head and look at it,” Tony says. “It’s all right there. Borders aren’t really real. What’s real is distance.”