Turning to locally grown produce good for the environment while also stabilizing rural communities

WINCHESTER– We all eat. It’s a fundamental truth, but how often do we think about where our food comes from? Chances are, not very often. But recent international headlines denouncing the inaction on climate change has many wondering what they could possibly do. The most effective and immediate action that can be taken resides in addressing what lands on our dinner plate.

There has been much consideration and consternation given to what our food eats, how it is treated, sprayed (or not), slaughtered, infused, altered, priced and packaged.

While important, many of those issues can be addressed simply by answering the question of where the food originates.

Most of what is consumed on a daily basis by the average Canadian is part of a large food network that is intertwined in a complex global economy.

Much of the raw product grown in the fields of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry is shipped overseas, processed, packaged and resold to us, and the world over in convenient, bite-sized pieces. Very little of what we produce stays within Eastern Ontario.

Building an economic network of a different kind, one focused on local food, is not only possible, but could address the larger climate issue, as well as revitalize and stabilize rural communities.

By the numbers, Ontario is farm country. It has 49,600 farms, more than one-quarter of the total in Canada according to the 2016 Census of Agriculture.

More than nine million acres of farmland is in crops; however, only 2.1 per cent of that total is fruit, nuts, berries, melons and vegetables. In Eastern Ontario, that equates to a total of 336 farms, compared to the more than 1,700 oilseed and grain farms, the 1,100 beef operations, or the 800 dairy farms.

With a population of approximately 1.6 million people in Eastern Ontario, the number of farms providing fruits and vegetables is small and the very limited access for consumers, grocers, bakers, restaurateurs and caterers is a major barrier.

Sabile Trimm, who originates from Montreal and has been the co-ordinator of the Eastern Ontario Agri-Food Network (EOAFN) since May, hopes to change that model.

Currently the 10-year-old not-for-profit organization exists primarily as a website that “promotes” local food producers, farmers and bakeries at conferences and trade shows, as well as through their online directory and map.

Trimm hopes that successful grant applications will revolutionize how they deliver local food by actually, well, delivering it.

The idea is that EOAFN would be an online farmers’ market where consumers can do their weekly groceries with their order delivered to their door later that week using a courier service.

The benefit is two-fold: farmers can farm and shoppers don’t have to leave the couch to eat local.

“[The farmers] don’t have to spend a whole day at the farmers’ market so they can actually spend the time farming. That would make life a lot easier for them,” said Trimm.

If the grant application is successful, the program could be up and running next season using space at Alfred College as a base for packaging and shipping.

It may not be a groundbreaking idea, some areas of Quebec have had very strong local food networks for decades many of which serve the Ottawa restaurant market, but Eastern Ontario has yet to pull up a seat at the table.

Most people would prefer the quality and freshness of local food, but farmers’ markets or farm gates, the two most common ways to access local produce, are simply not convenient.

That’s a killer in an ultra-competitive market.

“What smaller food producers can give you in quality, taste and value you can’t just get at a large food chain or grocery store,” said Trimm. “As much of a foodie as I am, I can barely make it to a farmers market on a Saturday morning. I have three kids, a million errands to do on a weekend and then it’s only open a few months out of the year. So I’m still going to the grocery store the rest of the year.”

A local food network may make it more accessible for people, but the competition from cheaper imports and seasonal produce is undeniable.

Canada imported more than 4.2 million tons of fruits and vegetables in 2012, including 211,000 and 202,000 tons of apples and melons, respectively. More than 300,000 tons of potatoes, 299,000 tons of lettuce and 193,000 tons of tomatoes, also cross the border primarily from the U.S. and Mexico.

The competition, endless regulations and supply management systems were a rude awakening for Trimm upon arriving in Eastern Ontario.

“I had all these ideas of the freedoms that country people had and I was totally wrong,” she said. “The government supports local food. That’s always been the messaging, ‘We support this. We want this.’ I just assumed that if you wanted to [farm], you could and society would support you. So when I moved to the country, I didn’t even know what supply management was. That floored me. I just assumed people were able to farm whatever they wanted to farm.”

While Trimm doesn’t support supply management, she did acknowledge that it ensured a high quality product and restricted imports, both positives for local producers.

“If we did that for other foods it would be the same situation. Why would we import apples? We have plenty of apples and they grow fine in Canada,” she said.

Reducing inter-provincial restrictions for food would be another positive step, but hoping for sweeping changes or a national food policy from the federal government, which was teased by the Liberals prior to the election, is not the way to create change according to Trimm.

“You’re asking the government to solve a problem that exists basically because of the government. I really believe problems are solved at the grassroots level. People decide,” she said.

Agriculture has long been a pillar in the local economy and it will once again be the linchpin in a changing climate and resulting market landscape. Trimm believes consumers and their food choices will play a large hand in that.

“I can’t control what happens in the rest of the world, but I can control what happens here,” she said. “The best thing to do for the environment is to shop local and do as much as you can for yourself. You have more power locally than you have anywhere else. Your dollar has a stronger vote than at the ballot box.”