A look back at a decade of progress and the challenges still ahead.
If you buy groceries like I do – that is, in a hurry when you have a spare hour, or when the empty fridge has been accusing you for too many days – you often end up purchasing your produce at the supermarket because you missed the farmers’ market. And then you curse yourself for having to buy apples from Mexico.
Although best intentions can still succumb to convenience when it comes to buying local food, and although that’s just one of many other hurdles still to clear before the local food industry can reach its full potential, the fact is local food initiatives have made great strides in Headwaters over the past decade.
Janet Horner, who ran Whitfield Farms Country Catering Service in Mulmur for 25 years and is the executive director of the Greater Toronto Area Agricultural Action Committee, describes the interest in local as nothing short of a “global wave” of a social movement.
At the 100 Mile Store in Creemore, owners Sandra Lackie and Jackie Durnford are riding that wave. Not only has the store survived its critical first five years, but it now boasts more than 100 suppliers who provide more than 1,000 different products either grown or made within a 100-mile radius. “With the exception of bananas,” says Lackie, “you can get pretty well everything else you need in our store.”
Matthew Jamieson, the former owner of Woodside Restaurant on Hockley Road who recently returned from a stint on the West Coast to open Forage in Orangeville, has been involved in the local food movement since it wore diapers. He says, “People are much more discerning about what they eat these days. I used to serve mostly meat and potatoes. Now vegetables are a mainstay, and our customers tell us exactly how they like their food.”
Down in Caledon, things have improved as well. And much of that progress is due to Eat Local Caledon, a program started in 2007 by the Caledon Countryside Alliance. Until last year the face, heart and soul of Eat Local Caledon was Jennifer Clark. She organized the first Eat Local Week, in which one of the initiatives involved having five Caledon restaurants feature local foods on their menus for the seven-day event.
“I remember having fish I’d picked up from Lou Maieron’s trout farm in Erin flopping on the seat of my car because I’d agreed to deliver them to one of the restaurants involved,” recalls Clark, who has been a vegetarian for most of her life. Three years later, she says, she hardly had to do anything to get the restaurants and local farmers working together for Eat Local Week. “And if I did have to pick up and deliver something, we charged for it.”
Janice Gooding started the Orangeville Farmers’ Market back in the dark ages of 1991 when beets were red and carrots were always orange. It remained the lone farmers’ market in the Headwaters region for 17 years, until Eat Local Caledon started one in Inglewood in 2008. Now there are at least nine of them, from Bolton and Erin to Creemore.
These days, on a sunny summer Saturday, between 3,000 and 5,000 people flock to downtown Orangeville to shop at the bustling market. Gooding clearly achieved her goal and notes with a wink that it has become “the place to be – like the dump in Mono used to be.” Demand is so high, Orangeville and some other towns are now offering special indoor market days during the winter. “As the momentum for local food grew, so too did the crowds at the market,” she says.
Caledon Countryside Alliance published the area’s first Buy Local Guide in 2002. Now produced by Peel Region, the Grown in Peel map includes 23 listings, all but four in Caledon. To the north, the Dufferin Farm Fresh map produced by Marci Lipman lists 35 local small producers, nearly double the number of listings for the county included in the 2002 guide. And unlike that first guide, both new maps are now able to charge farmers/producers a fee for their listings.
Another significant development has been the creation of the Headwaters Food and Farming Alliance. HFFA’s primary objective is “to grow a stronger local economy through the development of a local food system.” To this end, it has hosted two food summits in Headwaters, bringing together food producers, food purveyors, and relevant educational and social service agencies. The group is now working with consultants to investigate barriers to the growth of the local food industry in Headwaters, and it has three working groups actively exploring the subjects of education, distribution and culinary tourism.
On the provincial front there is good news too. The Local Food Act passed last year aims to foster successful and resilient local food economies and systems throughout Ontario; to increase awareness of local food in Ontario, including the diversity of local food; and to encourage the development of new markets for local food.
One of the more useful things the act does is define “local” food as food produced or harvested in Ontario. It’s the kind of food that has always been the stock-in-trade of the venerable
in Caledon East. And presumably the definition will help put an end to the sort of troubles experienced by Bistro Boys Catering in nearby Alliston. For reasons as mysterious as the contents of bologna, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ordered this small business to remove “local” from its advertising material because the beef it used came from more than 35 kilometres away. Why 35 kilometres and what this had to do with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is anyone’s guess.
In another development that should please local foodies, Premier Kathleen Wynne says she will permit Ontario wines to be sold at farmers’ markets – a move many consider decades overdue.
The Local Food Act passed last year aims to foster successful and resilient local food economies and systems throughout Ontario; to increase awareness of local food in Ontario, including the diversity of local food; and to encourage the development of new markets for local food.
That kind of attention at the provincial level is no doubt largely in response to the activities of a host of community-based organizations dedicated to local food and to a public increasingly interested in what they eat. However, policies that affect the production and consumption of local food range across government ministries from agriculture, health and economic development to environment, tourism and education, making a co-ordinated legislative approach difficult to achieve and sometimes even counterproductive. As Horner suggests, “What we need isn’t a local food act, but a good food act.”
Perhaps the biggest losers in recent years have been meat producers. Given stiff new regulations, slaughterhouses, or abattoirs, have been disappearing faster than peas from the season’s first pods. According to a study prepared for the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, the number of provincially inspected abattoirs in Ontario has dropped by 40 per cent since 1991. In Headwaters, livestock producers have to go some distance to have their animals processed. Horner notes, “It used to be easier to get local meat than local vegetables. Now it’s the opposite.”
Remedying this situation is on the radar of organizations such as the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation and Sustain Ontario – both of which were created within the last decade to aid the local food movement – but a solution is still elusive.
The introduction of the Greenbelt, which encompasses a large part of Headwaters, was another provincial initiative designed to help protect agricultural land. But it left out the southern reaches of Caledon where new housing developments in and around Snelgrove sit on some of the best land in the country. And few people will forget how close Melancthon Township, also outside the Greenbelt but on the fringe of the Niagara Escarpment planning area, came to losing its potato farms to a gravel pit.
Ralph Martin, the Loblaw chair in sustainable food production at the University of Guelph, says that rather than a greenbelt that protects a wide swath of land, we should be protecting “green dots.” He recommends that no Class I or II agricultural land in the province be developed regardless of where it’s located. It’s the kind of protection also supported by Food and Water First, the citizens’ coalition that grew out of the fight to stop the quarry in Melancthon.
The Greenbelt has also had another impact that some argue is moving things in the wrong direction. Many of Caledon’s progressive countryside planning policies that made way for some innovative farm-based businesses had to be scrapped because the Greenbelt’s more restrictive uses took precedence. It continues to be difficult to build a second residence for farm help on your land, and farm-based restaurants or other on-farm tourist businesses are often in conflict with Greenbelt policies.
Nevertheless, at the institutional level, some positive changes are afoot. Even the conservative Dairy Farmers of Ontario (formerly the Ontario Milk Marketing Board) are budging a bit, recognizing, according to Horner, that maybe it should consider the interests of consumers as well as producers.
One exciting initiative of the DFO is its Project Farmgate. In a progressive move (actually a throwback to times past), the Headwaters area is now home to two small new dairies – Miller’s Dairy in Creemore and Sheldon Creek Dairy near Loretto. Rather than force these farmers to sell their milk to the DFO where it is blended with milk from across the province, Miller’s and Sheldon Creek are producing and selling dairy products from their own cows. In the case of Miller’s, this means their products are made with Jersey milk alone. Most people are so used to blended milk, they’ve forgotten that all milk is not the same. In fact, the taste changes from breed to breed and is influenced by the “terroir” of the region.
Although such positive developments are encouraging, not all health-conscious consumers are thrilled by the local food wave. Many committed consumers of organic food are distressed by the shift in emphasis from organic to local. While Horner doesn’t dismiss the importance of organic farming, she justifies it’s taking a back seat for now, noting, “Organic farmers are still a very small number in the bigger picture of things.”
And from the consumer perspective, the price of local food, or at least the perception of price, continues to be a barrier.
Last year, the Conference Board of Canada weighed in on the topic with its report Cultivating Opportunities: Canada’s Growing Appetite for Local Food. The report notes, “In Canada, interest in local food has surged in the last 10 years, driven in part by social, economic, and environmental concerns.” It says in Ontario 24 per cent of the food consumed is produced in the province (second only to Quebec at 29 per cent).
Not surprisingly, along with availability and convenience, the report says price is the main reason people do not purchase local food. But in one of the few academic studies investigating the cost of local food, the Leopold Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in the US found “few differences in price for Iowa-grown vegetables, eggs and meat when compared to similar non-local products.”
Nevertheless, says the report, local food is largely purchased by higher income (household income over $100,000) and older (over 55) consumers.
Janet Horner defends the small farmer’s need to make an “equitable livelihood.” She prefers this to talking about profitability, but the bottom line is that it remains a hard go for farmers who want to milk a few cows or grow heritage tomatoes. In the opinion of Ralph Martin and others, it will require a great deal more education for the situation to improve. “People think that all food is equal and they just want to get the best price,” he says.
Martin is a great proponent of getting food back into the school curriculum in a big way, which is something the Local Food Act failed to address despite intense lobbying. “I’m old fashioned enough,” he says, “to promote putting home economics into the curriculum from K to 12.” He worries that without knowledge about the economics of food and running a home, we will “end up with a generation who believes they have no choice but to buy fast food.” And quite apart from the health concerns, there is no economic sense to that.
The role of education is one of the three issues under review locally by HFFA. It is also where Eat Local Caledon is directing its energy these days. According to Karen Hutchinson, executive director of the Caledon Countryside Alliance, they are working with 22 schools in Caledon. Programs range from school gardens to cooking classes to food education. At Palgrave Public School, for example, students enjoy fresh local food grown at Albion Hills Community Farm and prepared in the Palgrave Community Kitchen.
Orangeville District Secondary School has an extensive culinary arts program, and other local high schools have introduced similar food-related courses to the curriculum. Forage chef Matthew Jamieson, presumably taking a lead from the UK’s Jamie Oliver, says he’s working with grade 8 and 9 students in Brampton, helping them appreciate what good food tastes like. This uptake of food education in schools is a huge change since the 1990s when cafeteria contracts were routinely handed out to fast food restaurants.
Getting local food from producers to restaurants and stores hasn’t improved much in Headwaters.
For HFFA a less tractable concern than education is distribution, which continues to be the big fat green worm in the broccoli plant. Jamieson says, “I would love to go and buy fresh food everyday, but I have to be in the restaurant.” Getting local food from small producers delivered to restaurants and retail stores hasn’t improved much in Headwaters, nor has the difficulty of ensuring a steady supply. Farmers are as hard pressed to leave their operations to deliver a half bushel of beans to a retailer as Jamieson is to pick it up.
However, other jurisdictions have made some progress in resolving the distribution conundrum. Milton-based Gordon Food Services received a grant from the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation to expand the number of local food products it delivers to food establishments. The result was a 10 per cent increase in sales, seeming to prove the accepted wisdom (which Jennifer Clark learned the fishy way) that if food establishments can have convenient and dependable access to local food, they will buy it.
Neighbouring Simcoe County is investigating the establishment of a food hub. And it’s looking at models like the one in the Mad River Valley in Vermont. There, a 4,000-square-foot facility includes a fully licensed vegetable and USDA-inspected meat processing facility, dry refrigeration, industrial freezers, business planning expertise and a distribution service. Once a week, a 26-foot refrigerated truck is filled with local food for delivery to restaurants and retailers throughout the area. My sister Dori Ross is the owner of Tonewood, a Vermont company that makes high-end maple syrup products. She tells me she “can’t understand how a small food producer could survive without a food hub.”
Waterloo Region, one of Ontario’s local food leaders, has taken another approach to the distribution problem. Farmers there created the Elmira Produce Auction Co-operative. With as many as three auctions per week during the high season, the co-operative pools carrots, apples and other produce from any number of farmers so restaurant owners and other retailers can buy by the bushel or pallet, and be confident the produce will be available in one place when they need it
Culinary tourism is the third item on HFFA’s study list and, like distribution, there may be a successful model to follow. The Globe and Mail recently described Prince Edward County as the “gastronomic capital of Ontario,” in large part because of the area’s Taste Trail. With map in hand, visitors can find their way to farms, food retailers, vineyards and restaurants that have turned marketing local food into an art form. It was the Taste Trail map that inspired Marci Lipman to develop the Dufferin Farm Fresh map, but the concept has yet to catch on with the same fervour as in Prince Edward County.
Gord Grant, member service representative for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture in Waterloo, Wellington and Dufferin, describes Lipman’s efforts as “very brave.” He says, “Kudos to her because the geography of Dufferin is very different.” What he means by “geography” is that this region’s proximity to the Greater Toronto Area makes it home to commuters.
“Increased commute times are not good for local food,” Grant says. “In Waterloo, for example, there is a stronger food and farm culture. They have food that really schmecks.” (A reference to Edna Staebler’s 1960s cookbook that put Mennonite food on the map).
Karen Hutchinson says she’s been frustrated for some time by her inability to make a business case for local food in Caledon. As a result, she returned to university. By the time she has completed her master’s degree next year, she says she will be able to show the Town of Caledon the economic wisdom of investing in local food.
Hutchinson recognizes the movement in Caledon and throughout the Headwaters region still needs nurturing. But whereas Waterloo region has progressive food policies, Prince Edward County excels at culinary tourism and Simcoe County may get a food hub, she insists Headwaters wins hands down when it comes to its potential to have a vibrant local food economy.
Local Food Headliners
This magazine has been covering local food for many years. The photos on this page are a sample of just a few of the local food producers and purveyors who have been featured. You can find stories about them below:
- Tom Wilson and Nicole Judge of Spirit Tree Estate Cidery.
- John and Marie Miller of Miller’s Dairy.
- A bounty of Ontario vegetables at Rock Garden Farms.
- Volunteers at work at Albion Hills Community Farm.
- Nina Garyfalakis and son Ben inspecting Hockley Honey hives.
- Graham Corbett bagging potatoes at Fiddle Foot Farm.
- Curtis and Jane Van Dyken and family in a rapini field at Van Dyken Bros.
- Bert Nieuwenhuis of Bert’s Lamb overseeing his Dorset sheep.