Taking measures to boost food security

Visiting the grocery store, it's eye-opening to see how much of the food we buy is imported.

Not that choice is bad — on the contrary, it's great to have the variety and the quality. But there's no substitute for fresh, local food, produced by farmers who grow their crops and livestock right under your nose, and need your support to survive.

Instinct tells me the situation is improving to favour more local food, given the skyrocketing interest in the matter. The will to patronize local food producers is well-documented in some quarters, and local food campaigns are making sure we know the environmental, economic and nutritional virtues of buying from our neighbours.

But it takes ceaseless energy to move consumers' routine from the cheapest to the best. We know that at last count, it was the big-box stores, not the mid-size supermarkets with their Ontario Fresh campaigns, that were inching forward in market gain. Their strategy is to attract price-conscious consumers.

However, we also know that thanks to the efforts of farmers' markets promoters such as Farmers Markets Ontario and campaigns such as Buy Local! Buy Fresh!, local food has a better chance than ever of making it onto more peoples' plates.

At least, that's the situation in variety-rich southern Ontario, where we're blessed with more bounty than we really appreciate, and an abundance of consumers.

But what about the north? What about cities such as Thunder Bay, where the growing season is appreciably shorter and population and farm numbers are smaller, so the odds of having a strong local food movement are theoretically weakened?

Well, Thunder Bay isn't playing by the odds. Collectively, its citizens missed the statistics and geography lectures that suggested it was too removed from the south and too small to develop its own local food sector.

I had the privilege of visiting Thunder Bay last week as part of Lakehead University's annual graduate student biology symposium, to speak with students about communicating science.

On a subsequent tour of the region — courtesy of local dairy farmer Christina Mol, a 2003 graduate of the Ontario Agricultural College who is now working on her Master's of Science degree at Lakehead — I discovered Thunder Bay is on fire for local food.

The city is home to a fledgling but exciting country market, a vibrant local farm economy built around the productive Slate River Valley nearby, and a progressively minded food security research network at Lakehead, bent on community service learning and bringing it all together for the benefit of northern Ontario.

Farmers are feeling the positive effect of local food. For example, beef and sheep farmer Bill Groenheide, the first of two northern Ontario participants of the Guelph-based Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program, says growing interest in local food is making it possible for his family of six to keep farming, even during these incredibly tough times for livestock farmers.

Customers at the farmers' market pay a 15 per cent premium for his Red Angus beef because he can trace its roots to his farm in South Gillies, just outside of the city.

Groenheide goes the extra step to educate his customers by showing up every Saturday morning at the market, and by inviting them to his farm, so they can witness his low-input production approach first-hand, and see his 45 beef animals and 75 sheep.

He estimates about 10 per cent of those who buy his Tarrymore Farms products at the market accept his invitation. And while it's time-consuming to host farm visits, it's also part of doing business in today's consumer environment.

"Young people are doing their research," he says. "They want to know how you keep your animals and your land. You need to be open with your customers."

That approach is resonating with others. The bustling country market, with its 40 food vendors, has a waiting list of another 40 hopefuls who are anxious to connect with the local-food crowd. The local cattle producers' association is working with the food security network towards its own brand of beef.

Outstanding local food-related businesses such as the Thunder Oak Cheese Farm are growing by up to 10 per cent a year as they try to keep up with the demand.

Lakehead's business students are basing case studies on the local food sector's growth.

They'll have a lot to work with, and their results should be of interest to farmers anywhere there's a potential to connect with local consumers . . . which is pretty well everywhere, no matter where in Ontario you farm.

About The Author

Urban Cowboy

Raising awareness and promoting dialogue about current food and agriculture issues.


Headshot of Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts is a faculty member in the Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications program at the University of Illinois. As an agricultural journalist, he is the past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists and a lifetime achievement award recipient from the Canadian Farm Writers' Federation. His programs and research papers have been recognized nationally and internationally through awards from the Journal of Applied Communications, the National Agri-Marketing Association, the Association for Communications Excellence, and others.