Catering to local tastes

Going down to the farm

- June 27, 2011

Mushrooms found on campus come from Valley Mushrooms in Annapolis Valley.
Mushrooms found on campus come from Valley Mushrooms in Annapolis Valley.

What I knew about mushrooms prior to meeting Leonard North:

One: They’re the first vegetables to be taken off my slice of pizza before I eat it.

Two: They provide super powers and extra lives when playing Super Mario Bros.
But as Mr. North turned on the lights in one of the bunker-like growing rooms at his Valley Mushrooms farm – filled with large plastic bags of compost bursting with white mushroom tops – I was about to get an education.
“Here’s how you can tell that a mushroom is mature,” he said, kneeling down and picking a specimen from the bag. “The stem will grow longer, the veil will stretch, the cap will get a little bit soft, and then you have the core.” He tears open the mushroom to reveal a crumbling, pink interior. “You can pick them at an earlier stage than this, and they’ll hold up well – they just won’t have the same amount of flavour.”

Who's your farmer?

He passed the mushroom to Angela Emmerson, Dalhousie Food Services’ dietitian who, like me, was visiting the farm for the first time. Jeff Kelly, marketing manager, also with Food Services, snapped a few photographs before we continued on the tour of the facility.
We heard how Valley Mushrooms has been in business in Waterville, Nova Scotia for 16 years, growing white mushrooms, portobellos, ‘baby bellos’ and other varieties that are enjoyed across the Atlantic provinces – including at Dalhousie. We were shown how mushroom compost is made on-site. And we learned why Mr. North is working to expand into more exotic varieties.
“Restaurants, farm markets, they’re all looking for more product. And our population is changing too. Just this morning I sold to a couple of Polish folks; Eastern Europeans know oyster mushrooms really well. Asians know shiitake mushrooms really well – they’re the second most widely used mushroom in the world. Mushrooms are a global food. And we can grow ’em right here.”

Growing “right here” is decidedly the point of our visit. Three years ago Dalhousie Food Services, which are provided by ARAMARK, launched “Farm to Table,” a program designed to bring more local food varieties to campus and promote local food to the Dalhousie community. In 2008, 40 per cent of food purchased for campus dining halls and retail locations was local. By April 2010, that number was up to 54 per cent.
Starting this year, Food Services is expanding the program with a new element called “Who’s Your Farmer?” hoping to build stronger relationships between Dalhousie students and the source of their food.
“We’ve been bringing a few of our suppliers into the dining halls to talk to students, but now we’re traveling the province a few times a year to visit the farmers themselves: get to know them, learn more about how they operate and bring that information back to Dalhousie,” explains Ms. Emmerson. “And we get to learn about new food options for Dalhousie, so getting to know them better is good business too.”
The push to focus so heavily on local food reflects a new generation of engaged, environmentally-conscious students keen to know about what’s on their plate.
“It’s amazing the questions today’s students ask – they really want to know as much as possible about their food,” says Brad Keddy, who as general manager of H & E Keddy Bros., acts as a middleman between local suppliers and Dalhousie Food Services, delivering fresh produce to campus daily. “Back when I was a student, as long as it tasted good, that’s all that mattered! Not anymore.”
The arrangement that Dalhousie Food Services has with Keddy Bros is simple: if it’s available local, they get local. So while products like bananas and oranges that simply can’t be grown locally are shipped in, foods like apples, potatoes and other produce are sourced from within Nova Scotia year-round. And in prime months like September and October, the produce Dalhousie receives is often upwards of 70 per cent locally sourced.

Supporting local business

Doing so not only helps achieve Dalhousie’s sustainability goals – the university’s food services earned an ‘A’ in the 2011 College Sustainability Report Card – but also supports local businesses.
“And then there’s the quality factor,” adds Ms. Emmerson. “When it’s in season, local food simply tastes better.”

Earlier that same morning, before visiting Valley Mushrooms, we drove deeper into the Annapolis Valley to Kings Processing in Middleton. A federally-inspected food processing facility, Kings provides Dalhousie with the bulk of its potatoes through Keddy Bros.: 40-45 cases per week, or more than 1,000 pounds of spuds.
Owned by two local farmers – Bruce Rand of Randsland Farms and Arthur Woolaver of Basinview Farms – the company places great importance on supporting local food.
“When it’s in season, we get as much of our product as we can from here in Nova Scotia,” explains Jeremy Hunter, Kings’ chief operating officer and general manager. “In the winter, of course, we’re buying a lot of produce out of the U.S. The difference, though, is that we cut it here. Once you cut something, its shelf-life drops dramatically. So cutting it on-site keeps it fresher and keeps local jobs here.”
He takes us on a tour of the facility, where it’s clear that food safety is a top priority: just getting inside to take a look around requires us to wash our hands, don lab coats and hairnets and even disinfect our shoes. Inside, over 60 employees work away at preparing and packaging fresh produce like peppers and cauliflower.
“Our whole plant is basically a big refrigerator, with different rooms with different temperatures,” says Mr. Hunter. “Even our wash water is refrigerated, so the produce always stays at the right temperature.”
As we move through the facility, we discuss how while many consumers are attracted to shopping at farmers’ markets, processing companies have to go to the next level to ensure the safety of their products.
“Our customers demand it of us,” says Mr. Hunter, noting that each of the processing rooms is washed down regularly and gets an extensive cleaning for eight hours every night. “In this day and age, it’s our duty to keep up with top standards for safety.”

One of the challenges for local companies serving the Atlantic Canada market is that they have to do a little bit of everything.
“We’re in a share group with 11 other companies in North America, and we’re by far the smallest in the group,” says Mr. Hunter, a 20-year veteran of the food processing industry. “Some of those guys will do more pineapple in a year than we do kilograms of everything. That’s just the nature of the business. We have to do a lot of different things – a little of this, a little of that – to grow and be of any decent size.”

Learning from students

Mr. North expressed similar concerns as he showed us his back lot where he produces thousands of tonnes of mushroom compost each year.
“We do everything ourselves: we go from making the compost, to growing the mushrooms and packaging them. Elsewhere, that might all be different companies. But we’re in such a small market that we have to do it all.”
But that total ownership also gives local food providers the power to chart their own path. In Valley Mushrooms’ case, that means expanding sustainability initiatives alongside the business: for example, the heat extracted when cooling the mushrooms is used to heat the farm, an effort recognized by Dalhousie’s Eco-Efficiency Centre as one of its 2009 ‘Success Stories.’
The morning winding down, the staff from Dalhousie Food Services ended their farm tour excited not only about their next trip – planned for the summer – but about returning to campus and sharing what they learned with students in the months ahead.
“I love working at the university,” says Ms. Emmerson. “I learn so much from the students, and they push us every day to do even better.”