Archive for June, 2014

The season for strawberries: Facts about the world’s favourite berry

Friday, June 27th, 2014



Photo courtesy of the Ottawa Farmers' Market

(Photo courtesy of the Ottawa Farmers’ Market)

Strawberries are the most popular seasonal berry fruit in the world, and it’s not hard to understand why: they’re sweet, juicy, refreshing and their punchy pink-red brightens fruit dishes, jams, salads and baking.

But they’re much more than the pretty faces of the fruit world. They’re health-protecting powerhouses with a long history of cultivation.

Why they’re healthy

(All data in this section comes from

  • Among commonly eaten (U.S.) foods, strawberries rank 27th among the 50 best antioxidant sources, based on a serving size of 100 grams, or 3.5 ounces. (Antioxidants are nutrients and enzymes which inhibit the oxidation — and decay — of other molecules and are believed to play a role in protecting against disease.)
  • When only fruits are considered, strawberries come in fourth, behind blackberries, cranberries and raspberries.
  • When common servings sizes for all commonly eaten foods are taken into account (100 grams is too big a serving size for spices and seasonings, for example), strawberries rank third in total antioxidant capacity, behind blackberries and walnuts.
  • One cup of strawberries contains: over 112% of your daily required intake of vitamin C, 28% of manganese, 11.5% of fibre, 8.6% of folate, plus other minerals and nutrients.
  • Research suggests that strawberries: support the cardiovascular system and prevent cardiovascular diseases; help regulate blood sugar and decrease risk of type 2 diabetes, and; play a role in preventing certain types of cancer, including breast, cervical, colon, and esophageal cancers.

How to buy, handle and store strawberries

  • As much as possible, buy organically grown strawberries. The conventionally grown fruit routinely lands on the Environmental Working Group’s yearly Dirty Dozen list for pesticide contaminated produce.
  • Strawberries are highly perishable, so store them unwashed and use them quickly. Studies show that strawberries kept longer than two days lose significant amounts of vitamin C and other antioxidants.
  • To freeze strawberries, gently wash them and pat dry. Arrange them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place them in the freezer. Once frozen, put the berries in a heavy plastic bag and return them to the freezer where they’ll keep for up to a year.
  • Strawberries can be frozen whole, cut or crushed, but they’ll retain more vitamin C if left whole. What’s more, commercial processing can dramatically lower the fruit’s nutrient content. Fresh or carefully frozen strawberries are more nourishing – and tasty.
  • Choose berries that are firm, mold-free, and deep red with their green caps attached. Under- or over-ripe strawberries contain fewer antioxidants and other plant nutrients.

Where they come from, how they grow

Information in this section comes from Edible: An Illustrate Guide to the World’s Food Plants, published in 2008 by the National Geographic Society.

  • Wild strawberries have been around for more than 2,000 years.
  • Most commercially grown strawberries available today come from Fragaria ananassa, which resulted from a South American species brought to Europe from Chile in the 1700s and hybridized with a North American variety.
  • Because they’re so perishable, strawberries remained a luxury food for the wealthy until the the advent of rail transportation in the mid-19th century.
  • The fruit part of the strawberry is actually the seeds on the outside; the flesh is part of the flower.
  • Strawberry plants have a life span of five or six years, but after the third year, their fruit is less tasty and they’re more prone to disease. New plants are bred from seed and spread by runners that take root and produce clone, or daughter, plants.
  • It’s not clear how the strawberry got its name. A popular view is that it derives from the practice of using straw as mulch to keep the berries clean and off the ground, but the name predates actual cultivation of strawberries. Another theory is that wild strawberries grew near hay fields and were found in the straw after the hay was harvested.

For more on strawberries, check out my guest post Strawberries from field to fork on the Ottawa Farmers’ Market website.

What’s your favourite way to eat strawberries?

Food Read Round-up: slave labour in the fish trade, small farm takeovers, the rise of unsustainable coffee, and more

Monday, June 23rd, 2014
(Photo: By Lettuce, via Flickr)

(Photo: By Lettuce, via Flickr)

The Food Read Round-up curates media stories about food and farming in Ottawa, across Canada, and around the world.

I’ve been remiss in not having covered sustainable fish and fishing on Earthward before. This post touches on just a few of the issues: Canada’s lack of protection of its own coastal areas and marine life, and the use of slave labour in global shrimp production. On a more positive note, I’ve included an item on Community Supported Fisheries (like CSAs, but for fish). Other items this week? Concentration of farmland ownership around the world, and why shade-grown coffee is no longer the norm.

Canada behind in protecting oceans (and fish). Oceans play a key role in the food supply, so it would make sense for Canada to protect coastal areas that shelter and nurture marine life. However, a report released earlier this month by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) shows that this country ranks last in efforts to protect ocean biodiversity from human activity. Among countries with the longest coast lines, Canada lags behind China, Indonesia, Russia and six other nations.  In fact, Canada has protected only 1.3% of what’s known as “ocean estate”, compared with 30.4% for the U.S. and 33.2% for Australia. As far back as 1992, Canadian federal governments have set targets and deadlines for marine protection but never followed through. More recently, the government has declared that marine-protected areas will cover 10% of ocean estate by 2020, but as CPAWS notes, work must start now if this target is to be reached.

The emergence of Community Supported Fisheries. A recent article from Food Tank featured Vancouver-based Skipper Otto, a Community Supported Fishery (CSF) whose goal is to encourage consumers to buy direct from local fishermen. As you might guess, CSFs are a variant of CSAs, the community-supported farms we’re more used to seeing provide fresh produce, meat and dairy to their members. There are 35 to 40 CSFs in North America, according to the North Atlantic Marine Alliance; Skipper Otto is the first in Canada.

In an interview, Skipper Otto’s owner Shaun Strobel says that the biggest threats confronting global fisheries these days are large-scale extraction of fish and regulations that have been designed for larger corporations. By contrast, CSFs promote smaller-scale fishing, sustainable consumption and better prices for fishermen. Besides connecting consumers and fishermen, Skipper Otto is working on developing consumer education workshops on topics such as how to cut fish, sushi cutting, and canning and smoking fish.

Southeast Asian slave labour produces shrimp for Walmart, Costco, others. A six-month investigation by the Guardian has revealed that slave labour is widely in Asia to produce shrimp sold by Walmart, Costco, Aldi, Tesco and other US and UK retailers. Companies such as Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods buy fishmeal for their farmed shrimp from suppliers that own, operate or buy from slave-manned fishing boats. The slaves work 20-hour days and are beaten, tortured and even killed. Rights groups say that the need for cheap labour has been fueled by increased demand from North America and Europe for cheap shrimp and by labour shortages in the Thai fishing sector, and have called on consumers and retailers to demand action from the Thai government. For their part, the US and UK retail chains affected have condemned slavery and pointed to systems they have implemented to track labour conditions.

Global farmland ownership concentrated in a few hands. A UN studysays that the world’s food supplies are at risk because ownership of farmland is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few corporations and other wealthy interests. Small farmers grow as much as 70% of the planet’s food but mega-farms and plantations are squeezing them onto less than 25% of the farmland available. According to the UN report, the main reason for the shift is the global expansion of industrial-scale commodity crop farms. In fact, the land area occupied by oil palm, rapeseed, soybeans and sugar cane alone has quadrupled in the past 50 years. This is especially worrisome given that small farms are often more productive and more sustainable than big ones, the report says. “Beyond strict productivity measurements, small farms are…much better at producing and utilizing biodiversity, maintaining landscapes, contributing to local economies, providing work opportunities and promoting social cohesion…”

More coffee beans being grown with fertilizer and pesticides. Despite what looks like a proliferation of shade-grown, organic and other eco-friendly coffees on retail shelves, more and more of our coffee supply is made from intensively produced, sun-grown beans that require synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

As this article from OnEarth magazine describes, just 50 years ago most coffee was shade-grown, a method that doesn’t rely on chemicals and promotes healthier ecosystems that include plenty of pollinators, natural pest control and soil conservation. Today only about 2% of the world’s coffee is shade-grown. Vietnam has become the world’s second largest coffee producer, growing 75% of its beans on unshaded plantations; meanwhile, volatile prices are driving shade-growers out of business in traditional growing regions such as Africa and South America.

What can concerned coffee drinkers in Ottawa do? Buy shade-grown coffee from Bridgehead or Farm Boy. Or help raise money for the Ottawa School Breakfast program by purchasing a bag locally roasted, fair trade, organic, shade-grown, South American artisan coffee from more than 25 retailers, including Rainbow Foods, Thyme & Again, and the The Whalesbone.

What food stories have you been following in the media?

Tiraislin Farm’s Rosemary Kralik: An ambassador for food and animals

Friday, June 6th, 2014
Tiraislin Farm's Rosemary Kralik with some of her Tibetan yaks and Highland Cattle. Photo by V. Ward

Tiraislin Farm’s Rosemary Kralik with some of her Tibetan yaks and Highland cattle.
(Photos by V. Ward)

Among the things I’ve learned in writing Earthward: Ottawa Seed to Table is that producers of sustainable food in this region are extraordinary people – energetic, creative and resilient, with a deep sense of responsibility to others and to the natural world. Organic livestock farmer Rosemary Kralik is no exception.

A trim, vigorous woman in her late sixties, she raises, single-handed, about 100 Tibetan yaks, as well as Highland cattle, sheep and goats at Tiraislin Farm, her 722-acre operation in the craggy Lanark Highlands near Perth. She sells meat from her animals at the farm gate and  the Ottawa Farmers’ Market, and also supports local food through memberships in Savour Ottawa and Lanark Local Flavour.

Articulate, forthright and wryly funny, Rosemary is a self-described ambassador for food and animals. “If we have to eat meat, there’s no reason to disrespect the animals who die to feed us,” she says. “We must feed them well, make them happy and minimize the horror of their deaths.”

To supplement her income from the farm, she draws, paints and sculpts, specializing in portraits and studies of animals and people. Art and farming go hand-in-hand, she says. “Agriculture is the mother of all art.”

Born in Cairo and raised in England and Ottawa, Rosemary began farming in the 1990s, after a career in the public and private sectors that encompassed everything from scientific illustration and photography to graphics and fashion design, systems analysis and management consulting. Farming harnesses her skills and knowledge, she says, and satisfies her love of variety.

I spoke with Rosemary at Tiraislin Farm on a rainy, wind-whipped day in late April. After a long chat at her kitchen table, she took me to meet some of her beloved yaks and Highland cattle who were foraging in pastures near the house. Here are highlights from our conversation.

What do animals need to live a happy life?

As much as possible, they need to live as they wish. For my animals, that means being able to roam over much of the property at different times of the year instead of living in confinement. It also means foraging freely on buds, bark and leaves rather than being fed corn and soy which are hard for them to digest. It’s a life that seems to suit them. My animals are never ill and have never been given antibiotics.

When it’s time for an animal to die, I go with him to the local abattoir. I make sure he’s lying comfortably in a bed of hay and that there are no loud noises to frighten him. I stroke him and talk to him. When the end comes, there’s no trauma: it’s quick and painless.

What are the benefits of eating meat from happy, humanely raised animals such as yours?

The meat tastes better: it has a sweetness to it and people tell me they feel so good after they’ve eaten it. The meat is more digestible, too, at a molecular level. The less you cook it, the better.

Yaks and other grass-fed ancient breeds tend to be very lean and high in omega 3 fats which help reduce cholesterol levels and inflammation. They’re also high in conjugated linoleic acid which is said to protect against cancer, heart disease and other illnesses.

I believe the benefits go further. We’re all bags of chemicals, so if we’re constantly eating the meat of stressed, unhappy animals, it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of depression in our society.

Kralik 1 IMG_0092

Running a livestock farm single-handedly would scare a lot of people off. What keeps you so committed?

It’s always fascinating. Farming spans biology, zoology, medicine, engineering, chemistry and many other disciplines. You continuously have to build and fix things, to solve problems on the spot and learn as you go.

There’s also great freedom that come with knowing you can feed yourself. That’s something we’re losing as our society becomes more urban. We’ve increasingly dependent on bosses of different kinds and rely less on ourselves. When you’re farming, you’re a slave to nature, but I don’t mind that slavery. In fact, I often find myself smiling as I shovel the shit.

If you could change one thing about the current food system, what would it be?

Stop preventing people from producing their own food! Open up more small abattoirs, let people grow food and trade it. No one ever died from eating a carrot their neighbour gave them and the more people who grow two bags of carrots, the better. Economies of scale may be fine for cars or widgets but they don’t work for living things. Having many more small farmers is the only food security we have.

Learn more about Rosemary’s organic meat at the Tiraislin Farm booth at the Ottawa Farmers’ Market. Check out her art at A Brush with Immortality.