The politics of produce

Feast of Fields goes grassroots

Consuming a forkful of food can be a political act. Any grassroots revolution is composed of such small acts representing the commitments of motivated individuals to a greater cause.

Kris Vester president of Slow Food Calgary believes in food as revolution. His militant advocacy of sustainable local agricultural production reflects the direction being taken by the global Slow Food movement. Sustainable agriculture has purchased a trendy toehold within the food industry and among consumers. The notion that growing and consuming food that is produced in a fashion more equitable to farmers and easier on the environment than industrial agriculture is well established. The number of growers and buyers of these good foods however is small and some would say its circles a bit too exclusive. Still a growing number of sustainable-food advocates Vester included are taking the message to the masses.

A bearded giant of a man with massive work-worn hands he’s both direct and disarming. Seated at a picnic table next to the Hillhurst Sunnyside Farmers’ Market he directs the veggie sales activities at his Blue Mountain Biodynamic Farms tent.

Slow Food Calgary’s upcoming Feast of Fields held annually in Rouge Restaurant’s verdant outdoor garden pairs local chefs with food producers to promote their products directly to the public. As the organization’s main fundraiser its ticket price (adults $60) ain’t cheap. Though this contradicts the organization’s grassroots pursuit of a broader base Vester notes that this is its primary fundraiser. He also says it reflects a stage of growth. In “the white bread capital of Canada” the movement needed some exclusive nurturing in order to gain momentum.

Slow Food’s focus is nonetheless moving away from small ticketed events. Vester estimates for example that 3000 to 4000 people visited the organization’s tent at this year’s Calgary Folk Music Festival to eat locally produced meals and learn about local sustainable agriculture.

This outreach imperative has existed in Slow Food’s manifesto from the start says Vester. The time has come to act upon it and political action never tasted as sweet. But he’s reluctant to characterize it as a mainstream push. “[It’s] more a case of trying to reach and educate people at the same time as delighting them” he says proffering a ringing Latin slogan for the movement “ Educere et delectare! You delight and you enlighten.”

The mission he says is to promote the historical importance of food and food culture. “So if that’s going mainstream then it’s a mainstream effort at pulling people to our side. The more people we can teach about food and allow to eat some of the incredibly good local food that’s produced here the happier we will be.”

As an attendee of last year’s Feast of Fields I’ll attest that its exclusivity is relative. Many of the province’s sustainable specialty food growers attended as they will this year. They may be a rare breed but they’re also down-to-Earth hard-working independent businesspeople who rely heavily on self-promotion and word-of-mouth. At Feast of Fields teamed with the city’s best chefs they get a concentrated blast of it. And the food is that of heaven’s own buffet table. Partnerships include Taste with Broek Pork Acres’ pasteurized natural Berkshire pork; Sorrentinos with Hog Wild Specialties’ wild boar meat; and The Cookbook Co. with meat and produce by Winter’s Turkeys and Gull Valley Greenhouse.

Feast of Fields vet Peter Hasse of Buffalo Horn Ranch near Sundre will join with Meez Cuisine. Hasse says Slow food and Feast of Fields have positively affected Alberta’s farmers. “There’s a lot more overall awareness of local healthy food be it bison or any other products we’re growing here” he says.

Hasse sells his ethically raised grass-fed bison meat at Calgary-area farmers’ markets and to the restaurant industry. He says Albertans are often unaware that specialty local meat and produce even exists.

“One more event won’t change the world” says Hasse “but it’s one more brick in the wall to increasing awareness of how good the local food we produce in Alberta is.” Slow Food’s grassroots bent is one that he says delivers results by connecting growers with consumers.

“I find you need face time with people” he says. “We’ve tried advertising and it hasn’t done much for us.” What has worked is conversing with food buyers about how the food was raised and how it should be cooked. “Next week they’re back and they’re looking for more.”

That connection agrees Vester is what makes this event special. “

You couldn’t find that anywhere else in Calgary. That’s the power of it as an event. That direct connection is always made.”