Local farmers want to process surplus vegetables. So why is this production

In a cavernous new facility on Greg Gerrits’s farm in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, gleaming stainless steel production lines sit silent.

The facility is meant to process imperfect and surplus produce that Gerrits would not otherwise be able to sell for human consumption, and turn it into powdered vegetables, dehydrated soup mixes and dog treats.

But Gerrits says the facility, which has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to construct, is months — if not years — away from being certified to operate.

“This plant alone, if I had known three years ago what kind of foolishness was gonna be, there’s no way we would have done it,” says Gerritts, who owns Elmridge Farm.

As the pandemic and rising cost of groceries have forced a reckoning with Canada’s food system, farmers say reversing the decline in local food processing is part of the puzzle.

But some say more work needs to be done to raise awareness of the importance of local processing and reduce the barriers to processing for small producers, to allow local farmers to play a greater role in the food supply.

“We’re all trying to fill a fresh market,” Gerritts says. “Well, the fresh market only takes so much and in Nova Scotia if we have surplus, there’s nowhere [else] for it to go.”

Local food processing has disappeared, consolidated 

In Atlantic Canada, regional and small-scale food processing has shrunk over the last 30 years, as imports increased and food processing consolidated into a smaller number of companies.

This echoes the trend nationwide, which is most noticeable in meat-packing — two companies are responsible for the slaughter of more than 90 percent of Canadian cattle — but which researchers say is also happening in fruit and vegetable processing.

This creates barriers both for growers and for those looking to process their own food.

At Greg Gerrits' Annapolis Valley farm, production lines meant for food processing sit unused.
At Greg Gerrits’s Annapolis Valley farm, production lines meant for food processing sit unused. (Moira Donovan)

Gerrits says he first started thinking about the issues posed by lack of processing a number of years ago.

“We need the processing and we don’t have it,” he says. “So every time there’s surplus it becomes waste, which is a loss, and you know, every penny counts.”

Gerrits says this means a loss of revenue for Nova Scotia farmers and more food waste, but it wasn’t always this way; until the 1990s, farmers in the area allocated some of their crops to local processors. This gave farmers a reliable income stream.  

But in trying to process his own produce, Gerrits says he’s faced delays, from the safety inspection of processing equipment to the creation of a food-safe building. These barriers are much harder for a business his size to navigate than a large processor, he says. 

“[The system] is designed in such a way that’s very hard for a small operation like this,” he said. “All the overhead is just about as big as the overhead for a big plant that’s doing 10 truckloads a day of one product.” 

Farmers union says this is a national problem

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