Thanks, Guelph Mercury, for the opportunity

Learning Monday that the Guelph Mercury daily newspaper is closing its doors this Friday, after 149 years, was shocking.

To me, it feels like people in Guelph and surrounding area are losing a community leader, one that we turn to for news, opinion and guidance not just occasionally, but everyday. And I’m not sure how you replace that kind of loss.

I’ve written a weekly column called Urban Cowboy about agriculture and food for the Mercury since early 1991. I’ve posted a column here from August of that year. I like this one in particular, because the topic is feisty, the news maker is Terry Daynard (who today continues to make headlines as a level-headed spokesperson for agriculture), and my long-time colleague Vik Kirsch is listed at the top of the page as the regional editor.

I also like it because the photo suggests I once had dark hair, some 1,300 columns ago. :-)

One of my early Urban Cowboy columns, from August 1991.

One of my early Urban Cowboy columns, from August 1991.

My column was launched quite casually, when I received a call from then-assistant editor Bonnie Ewen Pyke. I knew her through my work at the University of Guelph in research communications; she knew I was a journalist.

Bonnie: “Hi Owen, it’s Bonnie at the Mercury. Want to write a column about agriculture?”
Me: “Sure!”
Bonnie: “OK, start filing Friday, 600 words. Bye!”

And those were pretty well the last instructions I received (except to come up with a name…so I chose Urban Cowboy, a guy from the city writing about the country). It turned out to be a wonderful partnership. The Mercury gave me free rein, never suggesting what I should and shouldn’t write about, and never fiddling with my content — other than to urge me to strive for acronym-free copy, which is a real challenge in agriculture.

The newspaper sincerely wanted to give ink to the agriculture and food sector, which it realized was vital to the lifeblood of Guelph. I can’t think of another Canadian daily that made such a consistent effort to bring agriculture to the fore, not just through my column, but by making a point to almost always assign reporters to the many agriculture-related news conferences and announcements that took place in Guelph, and continue to do so. It’s often published bylined stories from my students as well, mostly about agricultural research, once again making an effort to support the community in imaginative ways that I haven’t seen anywhere else.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to be part of the Guelph Mercury, to have introduced to readers University of Guelph agri-food research as well as issues affecting the sector in this way, and to have worked with tremendous news sources and supportive editors. I learned valuable lessons and kept current with the profession by connecting with dedicated reporters and editors such as Vik, Bonnie, Ed Cassavoy and Phil Andrews. I’ve tried passing those lessons on, to my SPARK and agricultural communications students at the University of Guelph, so they too could benefit from such professionals.

Journalism is all about relationships, and it’s been great to have had this 25-year relationship with Guelph Mercury readers as the Urban Cowboy. I hope the fine journalists affected by the closure are able to land meaningful jobs in this highly evolving profession.


Posted in Guelph Mercury | 1 Comment

Increased traceability could result in better beef

The province gave nearly $1 million at the beginning of summer to family-owned meat processor VG Meats and quality food retailer Longos, to further develop their part of Ontario’s beef market. That kind of support seems huge now, especially given how beef prices have skyrocketed. But it won’t always be that way. Prices will come down when supply catches up to demand. And this province values homegrown products that consumers want, like beef.

VG Meats and an organization called Value Chain Management International (VCMI) believe quality and traceability are intrinsically linked. In fact, the latter would like to see traceability programs instituted across the board on Ontario, similar to the one VG instituted voluntarily, to promote product quality. VCMI says a traceability program would enable producers and downstream businesses to use traceability as a management tool, and enable the industry to capture new and preferred markets in North America and abroad. Canada does have a cattle identification system in place. But VCMI says the current system’s main goal is to prevent diseased meat from being exported. It ignores on-premise identification, or mandatory recording of animal transportation.

VG Meats is owned and operated by the Van Groningen family.

VG Meats is owned and operated by the Van Groningen family.

Being able to brand and then trace beef from farm to fork has shown to have pockets of success in Ontario, with companies such as VG Meats, where herds are typically smaller and such efforts may be easier to manage than a huge western Canadian herd. But even some of Canada’s biggest producers are average in size by U.S. and South American commercial herd standards. We’re not too big in this country for a traceability program that takes current efforts to the next level. But will we?

Posted in Guelph Mercury | Leave a comment

Thinking local about beer and wine

Lack of access seems to be behind the surprising results of a study showing

With craft breweries on the rise, it's easy to find Ontario-brewed beer; often brewed with locally sourced ingredients.

With craft breweries on the rise, it’s easy to find Ontario-brewed beer; often brewed with locally sourced ingredients.

Canadians overall aren’t thinking local when purchasing beer and wine. The survey by a group called LoyaltyOne showed that less than 40 per cent of shoppers said it was very to somewhat important that beer is produced or sourced local, with 35 per cent for wine. Compared to fruits and vegetables, these numbers are miniscule – 98 per cent of shoppers saying it’s very to somewhat important that these commodities are local.

The survey also found nearly half of the respondents said they’d pay 15 to 30 per cent more for local food, and more than 85 per cent said they’d increase their monthly grocery spending if local food alternatives were available. But do we ever buck that trend when it comes to beer and wine. Most of us are searching for bargains, chiding local producers for not being able to offer more competitively priced products.

Look for Ontario-produced wine, marked with the VQA logo at the LCBO and in many grocery stores.

Look for Ontario-produced wine, marked with the VQA logo at the LCBO and in many grocery stores.

But there’s no much more to the price of beer and wine than meets the eye, though, particularly given the way governments impose sin taxes. Plus there’s the price of land to grow the grapes, hops and other raw commodities, labour, distribution, marketing, etc. Many producers think the LCBO should do more to help them reach consumers, given that local alternatives to imported beer and wine are available year-round. Some branches do — the Scottsdale LCBO in Guelph does a good job of promoting local, and has built a following with its Ontario Riesling challenge. More LCBO outlets should follow its example, particularly given what consumers say is the biggest impediment to local food sales: that is, access.

Posted in Guelph Mercury | Leave a comment