RD Editorial March 2018

The market and the garden

    First things first. We are pretty pumped up about launching a new column in RD, under the banner of “Garden Gleanings.” Catchy, right? It will appear in every issue of the magazine, featuring a rotating cast of writers, addressing somewhat seasonal topics related to growing food on a small scale. The various contributors will draw on their personal experiences and their respective areas of expertise, aiming to entertain and inform. 
    The inaugural column, on page 16, is by Shannon Jones, who has done excellent work for us in the past. Shannon provides some great tips for growing cold-hardy greens. She is also responsible for that compelling photo on the cover of this issue, which is sure to inspire anyone who hankers for homegrown kale as winter drags on. (I did not grow up eating kale. I knew it mainly as the butt of jokes made by fundamentalist carnivores. Now I consider it a staple. I think kale kicks butt. I could go on and on about kale – but I’ll spare you. The topic will come up again at some point, no doubt.)
    Rural Delivery has never viewed gardening as a hobby or a niche interest; it has always been at the core of our vision, over our 41 continuous years of publication. For this reason, relegating the topic to a column might seem strange. But we are making this move partly to impose a discipline upon ourselves, so we never neglect gardening. Our readers have told us they want more, and we aim to deliver (mostly rurally, but we’re seriously considering making this magazine available to urban dwellers as well, just to shake things up).
    For many of our readers – including some who have subscribed for decades – gardening is part of what it means to have a home, to be a citizen, to raise a family. Gardeners are champions for food literacy, helping to bridge the gap in understanding that exists between the general public and the agriculture industry. Gardeners are important allies to farmers, and in some cases they are aspiring farmers, honing their skills until they’re ready to scale up.

    Rural Delivery was proud to have a presence at the Scotia Horticulture Congress, held a few weeks ago in Greenwich, N.S. – featuring a veritable bushel of illuminating presentations on fruit and vegetable production, and lots of ideas for future stories. For the first time, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Sylvain Charlebois giving an address – though I had heard him interviewed on the radio, and had read his op-eds. The guy is kind of an academic rock star – which is remarkable, for a food economist. Currently serving as dean of Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Management, he has published scads of research, but he has a special talent as a speaker – and likely also as a teacher. His approach is informal, but he hones in on uncomfortable realities. He clearly enjoys being provocative.
    Dr. Charlebois talked a bit about growing up on a dairy farm in Quebec. 
“I’ve never been in horticulture,” he said, “although we had a garden, like most farmers.” (Is this generalization still accurate?) He left home at 17 and joined the military, starting his post-secondary education at the Royal Military College of Canada, in Kingston, Ont. He has built a career by studying all aspects of the food industry, with the aim of identifying trends. 
    “I’ve been dabbling into different areas of the entire supply chain, from farm to fork,” he said. “I look at the consumer, I look at processing, I look at distribution, I look at wholesaling, trade, everything. So I try to get a better sense of the big picture.”
    Charlebois does not talk much about how things ought to be; he talks about how things are. Like many economists, he takes a certain delight in his fatalistic pronouncements about market forces. “Consumers have a lot of power,” he said. “The problem is that the market is very confused. Most consumers are making decisions based on really unfounded information, or based on Twitter. What’s on Twitter is always true, right? Not really. But I’ve seen a lot of companies in recent years reverse decisions just because of how social media was affecting their business.”
    One of the trends he highlighted is the backlash against industrial meat production, as exemplified in a new book called Clean Meat, by Paul Shapiro. “The narrative against animal protein is becoming more and more powerful,” Charlebois said. “My bet is that this book will become a New York Times bestseller within probably two months. Paul Shapiro’s theory is that within 10 years almost half of consumers will have tried – get this – lab meat. In vitro meat. Oh yeah, this is good news for you guys!”
    A lot of the people in the audience didn’t look like they thought this was good news at all. Perhaps some were mixed farmers who also raise livestock, or maybe they were just the kind of farmers who don’t like the idea of benefitting from the misfortune of their neighbours. (I just felt a bit queasy.)
    Charlebois said further evidence can be found in a recent report by a group called Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return Initiative (FAIRR), which argues that the implementation of a “sin tax” on meat is inevitable. He said this message did not go over very well when he addressed cattle producers in Alberta recently, but he warned them the trend is only going to become more pronounced in the near future. As for people in the horticulture sector, he said it’s a great opportunity.
    “You’re selling something that really has more currency, in the minds and the eyes of consumers, than just six months ago or a year ago. People are going to be looking for your product, more and more. Veggies are in, and we are thinking of different ways to eat them and enjoy them.”

    Charlebois also talked about the changing retail landscape – the rise of Walmart (which is on track to become the lead player in the Canadian grocery business), and the ascendency of Amazon. “Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world today for a reason,” he said. “Amazon generates $350 billion in revenues. What were Amazon’s profits last year? $14 million – it’s nothing. Peanuts! He’s re-investing in the company. It’s amazing. They’re developing models to better understand consumers before consumers understand themselves. That’s the key to Amazon.”
    He noted the recent opening of the first Amazon Go store in Seattle – a retail outlet with no checkouts, relying entirely on sensors to keep track of what customers take, so they can be billed automatically via their phones. Charlebois said the 1.4 million sensors in this small store not only register purchases, but also record the minutiae of shopping behaviour: how long customers linger in certain areas; how long they spend looking at certain products; what they read, what they touch. People entering the store become lab rats in a retail maze, contributing information that will be invaluable to marketers.
    “The common denominator of successful businesses I’ve met over the last five to 10 years,” Charlebois said, “is that they’ve embraced the power of data.”
    What else does the data tell us? Margins are small in the conventional grocery business, but one thing people are willing to pay for is convenience. Ready-to-cook meal packages are huge. “Everything’s measured for you,” Charlebois said. “There’s no waste. It’s great!”
    The ready-to-eat food sector is also growing. Many consumers no longer possess even rudimentary culinary skills. People still love to buy cookbooks, and they’re crazy about cooking shows on television, but they don’t actually have the disposition to prepare meals from scratch. More people are eating lunch at their desk. More people than ever live alone, and don’t want to cook for themselves. For horticulture, there’s big money to be made producing healthful snacks, Charlebois said, “because the institution of the meal is dying.”
    Is that enough provocation for one sitting? Does it make you feel a bit sad? Maybe a bit hungry for home cooking, and a bit anxious to get started on the 2018 gardening season? We hope this issue of Rural Delivery provides some comfort, and some inspiration. DL