Food journalist dee Hobsbawn-Smith has set a lofty goal for her new book, Foodshed. Before she launches into the ABC’s of Alberta’s foodshed (everything between where a food is produced and where it is consumed), the author, in a brief statement, outlines her ambitious objective: “Much as the great short-story writer Raymond Carver lit up the lives of working-class Americans, my goal is to illuminate the faces and personal lives of my farmers.”
Hobsbawn-Smith’s farmers are plucky growers, ranchers and orchardists culled from four distinct geographical locales: the Peace Country, Central Region, North Region and South Region of Alberta. This diverse landscape is Hobsbawn-Smith’s edible backyard.
Hobsbawn-Smith, a Calgary resident for 27 years, hosted “Foodie Tootle” farm-gate tours for the Cookbook Company. As foodies go, the author is no late adapter. In the early 1990s, her Calgary restaurant, Foodsmith, served locavore Canadiana cuisine. In 1994, she sold the restaurant and the classically trained chef launched a second career as an award-winning, bestselling food writer. A fifth-generation Prairie-dweller Hobsbawn-Smith recently moved back home to reside in her family’s ancestral farmhouse west of Saskatoon.
Foodshed is a rich encyclopedia of facts, farm-gate lore and original recipes. It’s also a politically engaging narrative in which Hobsbawn-Smith articulates the challenges and joys faced by small-scale producers in Alberta.
When an organic farmer operates in the land of “Drill, Baby, Drill!,” they can expect to see their land expropriated and their cattle displaced by urban sprawl, and to hold down a second job to subsidize the operation.
Yet small-scale Alberta farmers are resilient, independent innovators who still continue to grow and produce quality food despite the fact that land values exceed crop values. These poets of the field are not driven by money; they’ve adopted a higher calling.
A warning to readers: This is not Charlotte’s Web. Among the lyrical descriptions of pastured Berkshire pigs and heirloom beets are some regulatory horror stories. Small producers face an overwhelming set of hurdles just to deliver fresh vegetables to you at the twee farmer’s market.
The Raymond Carver reference is apt: The trials and tribulations that Hobsbawn-Smith’s farmer subjects confront are utterly depressing, and the observant author doesn't sugarcoat the harsh farming life. Producers are given ample space to honestly articulate their rough-and-tumble experiences. Yet the tasty recipes at the end of each section take the sting out of the sad stories of land appropriation and subsistence wages.
Sunshine Organic Farm, located southwest of Edmonton between Leduc and Drayton Valley, is a hard-won livestock business directly threatened by Alberta’s land bill legislation.
Ed and Sherry Horvath face land appropriation without compensation, thanks to punitive new laws. “Lip service in Alberta is paid to different programs, but oil and gas dictate everything,” Sherry Horvath says in the “C is for Chicken” section, which could also be called “C is for Corporate Interests.”
Hobsbawn-Smith is clearly on the side of the small producer. She has successfully mapped out Alberta’s precarious farm-gate territory with flair and guts. Foodshed is a fine addition to food journalism, but don’t let the alphabet theme fool you. This is no tame nursery rhyme; it’s a locavore call to arms.
Journalist Patricia Dawn Robertson writes and gardens in a Saskatchewan farm town. The Newcomer’s Guide to Shunning, her urbanite fish-out-of-water memoir, is looking for a publisher.