Of Shelves and Shortages

I had a dream a month or so ago… I dreamt that Morgan and I bought Quattrocchi’s.  (Such are the sorts of dreams produce farmers have).  For those of you who don’t know, Quattrochis is a long-standing institution in Kingston, as both a grocery store and wholesaler of fresh fruits and veggies. 

They’ve been in the produce business forever, even back in Sicily from which they fled – when the Mafia electrified their well and killed their great great grandfather for not paying for “protection”. They came to apply their knowledge and energy here in Kingston and before the current era of grocery titan duopoly (Sobeys/Loblaws), were a major supplier to the city of traditional staples like potatoes and apples and cabbages.

In order to store such staples, they built a warehouse on the corner of Montreal and Railway streets, which has grown and morphed over the years into what it is today.  We do a lot of business with Joe actually, and I can tell you that the insulated, climate controlled spaces – both above and below ground – are absolutely cavernous, as well as largely empty.  Because, like the rest of the retail food system, no one really sits on much inventory anymore.   In Joe’s case he heads with a box truck to the food terminal in Toronto every week, where he buys directly from huge growers and international brokers.

Walmart, Costco, Loblaws, Sobeys et al. have even more integrated and streamlined supply chains, often of course with their own store brands and multiyear contracts with suppliers.  Without a doubt this has created a very convenient and very affordable supply of food.   The economy of scale lets grocers operate on very thin margins, and they offer many products as loss leaders – pulling you into the store for ridiculously cheap food in the hope that you will buy some high markup items on the same trip.    As Joe Quattrochi has told me, “Anything you see on the outside of the grocery flyer – they’re losing money on that.”
It’s something we take for granted, but the modern grocery store is actually one of the greatest wonders of our civilization.  Imagine plucking a peasant of 200 years ago – from anywhere in the world – and dropping them into a high end grocery store.   They would probably cry.   On a less fantastic note, during the Cold War the first view of the North American grocery store was also a miraculous experience for Eastern European immigrants and defectors.

The beauty and wonder of having all of the food, all of the time, is predicated on the “just in time delivery” (JIT) model where global logistics operate with perfect coordination and redundancies in storage and handling are eliminated.   Until recently this was seen as one of our economy’s greatest strengths.   It’s been revealed recently though, to be a major weakness as well.   Once disruptions begin to appear in the system, JIT begins to break down as each interruption causes further interruptions down the line which must be made up for… causing further interruptions.
The good news is that there isn’t a food shortage, no one is going to go hungry.   There is lots of grain and beans and apples and potatoes out there.  There are lots of beeves and hogs and fowl.  What there is however, is worker shortages, reduced processing capacity and shutdowns over covid outbreaks.   There are border disruptions, a lack of parts and diesel fuel costs 50% more than it did a year ago.

Decades and decades of momentum have suddenly been lost, and we’re finding that once you shut something so complex down, it is very hard to get it running properly again.  And this was the impetus for my dream:  I want there to be mountains of food stored safely in the center of town – not contingent on an endless stream of transport trucks. 

Being a food retailer was never really my goal as a farmer.  I like creating a fruitful landscape and working with the seasons.  I like having a farm for my children to grow and learn on, and I appreciate the security I find in a pile of firewood and a spring that never stops running.  Fortunately, I married a very pleasant and friendly and organized woman who has transferred all of her experience and book learning into operating our farm business.

Believe it or not, there are now more than 500 of you who get this email every week.   We appreciate the social capital you’ve invested in the farm – we often hear from you something to the effect of “Thank goodness you guys are around – we’re really gonna need you in the future…”

Statements like that sort of startle me because if we ever got to the point where you were *relying* on our farm for your calories, the world would have more or less fallen apart.  However, with every day that passes, we do in fact move into the future, and the historical anomaly of “All of the food, all of the time” is indeed eroding.  There is a great opportunity here for local agriculture, food processors and the like.   Far from going hungry, we can use this as a way to make progress towards a vibrant and healthy landscape that feeds us.

So, while we’re not going to buy Quattrochi’s anytime soon, after eight years of work, we do find ourselves firmly entrenched in the business of selling food.   We want to continually enhance and improve the service we provide you and to diversify and expand the products we offer.
It’s been great to see your interest in the Davis’ farm products of lamb and duck meat and eggs.  They appreciate all of the positive feedback.  Last night, I went over for a barn beer during evening milking at our friends the Smith’s and we realized it was a no brainer that we should start offering their farmstead cheese as well.

Nigel and Claire are fifth generation dairy farmers with a lovely little family, and have been making cheese by hand on their certified organic farm since 2011.   They work 365 days a year and are a rarity in the landscape, not only for their farming practices, but also their highly skilled, value added production.

Nigel produces a very special product: organic, raw-milk, aged cheese produced on-farm in their own cheese house. We’ll be offering a Gouda (Pilgrimage, nutty and sweet) and a Cheddar (Nauvoo, aged, more sharp) for our deliveries from now on and at our farmstand this summer. The cheese wedges are ~250g in weight and cost $10 per wedge
You can also purchase quarter, half and whole wheels of both varieties of cheese for $35 per kg;  a wheel weighs approximately 6 kilos.  We hope you will consider investing in this premium product.

As we add more producers’ goods to our list, our own products are clearing out.  Hens are very shy of laying right now, and we will be very limited on eggs for the next couple months – so please forgive us if we’re short.   Squash are done for the season, and this will be the final week for onions.   We still have lots of potatoes, carrots, beets and sauerkraut.  Our cold storage has been working out great.  We should have these items for several more months.

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