Lettuce Lessons

It looks like our balmy fall is over.  We had a good run, didn’t we?  With snow in the forecast and a projected high of 0 for Saturday, we will no longer be operating our stand on Highway 2 and resuming home deliveries for the season.  Thanks so much to all of you – it was our best year yet!  Please don’t be shy to get in touch via phone or email, or utilize our online store

We had some nighttime lows down to -8 last night so it’s likely that most of our remaining field veggies are done for the season.  We will inspect when things thaw out.   There were still plenty of crops out there – even a small fortune in lettuce.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the current lettuce shortage – prices have tripled and a pack of romaine hearts is over $12 at our little country grocer.  Restaurants across North America have begun warning that it may not be featured on their menus and retailers are limiting purchases.  Fortunately, although it is a staple, and very pleasant, it is essentially nutritionally inert, and we will all be fine without lettuce for a spell.  If you crave the crunch, don’t worry, there’s plenty coming: it takes only two months to grow a head of it.

But why isn’t there any on the shelves right now?  Well, because pretty much all of the lettuce in North America comes from one place at any given time and it’s done poorly there lately.   At this point you’re probably saying… “Wait, you’re telling me the whole crop comes from a single county? Like they don’t sort of spread the risk out and grow some in, say, South Carolina, or the Comox Valley?”   Yes, that is actually the case: that we can have lettuce in the field here in Ontario (at least until last night) but not on the shelf… is indeed how the industry works.   

I’ve written a bit about why they grow all of that lettuce in the southwest, (largely a mix of sunlight and labour)… but this sort of specialization/optimization is standard operating procedure with pretty much every article of commerce.   We’re seeing this right now with the collapsed supply of children’s pain medications: we simply don’t make any here. The precursor for Children’s Tylenol, Paracetamol, apparently all comes from India.

This stuff could probably be made by any competent chemist… I actually think the time has come for a Canadian version of Breaking Bad, where a rogue technician at Queen’s teams up with a struggling student to produce black market Children’s Tylenol, quickly coming to overthrow the leader of the Hell’s Angels and dominate Canadian organized crime… So far I haven’t heard back from any studios!

What’s vexing about these situations is how avoidable they are.   Lettuce is not hard to grow – this is not like the microchip shortage.  Acetaminophen is a cheap, simple, generic drug that has existed for over 100 years.  That Canada cannot start cranking it out within days if need be is a huge indictment of the overly regulated, overly specialized, top heavy approach to securing basic necessities. 

The same can be said for diesel fuel.  High diesel prices are a huge factor in our ever decreasing buying power.  Because it literally makes the world go ’round, its price is built into everything.  There’s not enough to go around and so it gets more and more expensive….

Canada has the third largest petroleum reserves in the world, and given the vast and frigid nature of our country, you’d think we would be eager to simply produce more here.  Something I’ve heard my entire life is “Yes Canada has lots of oil, but what we lack is refining capacity.”  As though refining oil was this really magical process that you need some rare set of circumstances in order to accomplish.  When diesel jumped last spring, curiosity got the better of me and I asked “how do they make this stuff anyways?”   Well, it turns out you don’t actually need fairies or wizards or a secret password.   IT’S MOONSHINING

You literally heat up crude oil until it evaporates then condense the vapours at various temperatures, creating the different grades of petroleum products we rely on.   “Ohh no no Charles, it’s much more complicated than that!”  Ok, tell that to these gentlemen in Nigeria, or these intrepid entrepreneurs in Syria.   If these are a little bit rough for your tastes, perhaps you might be interested in going in with me on this small scale oil refinery, available for sale on Alibaba.

Now, of course, Canada’s oil is largely locked up in the tar sands, which adds an additional process and expense to securing crude.  One of the more novel approaches to solving this problem was originally known as “Project Cauldron” – which involved detonating hundreds of nuclear warheads under the Athabasca oil patch to heat and liquify the bitumen for conventional extraction.  Although later christened with “a less effervescent name” for the sake of public consumption, for better or worse, the project never came to pass.  The idea is evocative of a not so long ago era of when “what if we blow it up”? was a common public policy approach to various problems.  I highly recommend this 1970 news segment documenting the use of explosives to deal with the problem of a beached whale, and the unintended consequences of the “blow it up” approach.

And so while we hopefully will not have to rely on the experimental use of nuclear weapons, it’s becoming clear that the hyper specialized and hyper regulated world we have created, for all of its efficiencies, has its limitations.  Seemingly simple things we perfected 100 years ago – like having lettuce out of season, making simple medications, and generating affordable fuel – are now becoming impossible, and if we continue down this path, we will end up like the barbarians, where after the fall of Rome, when as the aqueducts began to fail, there was no one left who knew how to repair them.

So, I appreciate you working with our inefficient, unspecialized little farm.  Not only is it a hedge against The Leviathan, but I hope it is also much more pleasant and humane than being herded like cattle through the Costco.  The above image, by the way, is of 19th century Paris market gardeners, growing lettuce in the wintertime.  There is nothing new under the sun.

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