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Tyee Photo Essay

Secrets to Supporting Local Food

What the Tyee Solutions team learned in BC and Ontario while reporting this fall's 'Growing the Local Bounty' series.

By Colleen Kimmett, 17 Dec 2010,

Photo 1 of 14

  • Pigs with local food series graphic

    Pigs poke around a pen at Mapleton's Organic Dairy Farm in Moorefield, Ont.. Famous for its ice cream and dairy production, the dynamic farm raises a variety of livestock, grows seasonal crops and invites the public for educational tours to learn about agriculture. Photo: Justin Langille.

  • Arwa De Groot, dairy cows

    Arwa De Groot herds hungry dairy cows from pasture to pasture at Mapleton's Organic Dairy Farm on Sept. 22. A film school graduate, De Groot still enjoys helping her parents run the farm and educating youth about the ins and outs of agriculture. Photo: Justin Langille.

  • BountyWrap2.jpg

    A Mennonite elder takes a moment away from the hustle and commotion of the Elmira Produce Auction. Photo: Justin Langille.

  • Ian Walker, Left Coast Naturals

  • Tiny buds of red-lettuce, Terra Nova Farm

    Tiny buds of red-lettuce emerge from raised bed planters in the greenhouse of Terra Nova Farm in late November. Photo: Justin Langille.

  • Lord Abbey, greenhouse

    The Stop's greenhouse coordinator Lord Abbey. Today, Abbey is helping harvest herbs from the greenhouse that will be used for The Stop's annual fundraising dinner, which brings in roughly $200,000 for the greenhouse, food bank and other local food and social initiatives. Photo: Justin Langille.

  • Julianne Silver, Stop's Green Barn

    Julianne Silver harvests a few ripe red chili peppers from the outdoor gardens at the Stop's Green Barn education and food production centre in Toronto. Photo: Justin Langille.

  • Candace Wormsbecker, Pfennings family farm

    Candace Wormsbecker and a friend harvest peppers from their plot on the Pfennings family farm near Waterloo, Ontario. The farm acts as an incubator for Wormsbecker's organic farming initiative, allowing it to grow and develop into a successful enterprise. Photo: Justin Langille.

  • The Stop, a community food hub

    A busy Monday morning scene at the food bank of The Stop, a thriving community food hub in Toronto's West End. Clients receive a mix of conventional groceries and fresh fruits and vegetables grown in The Stop's gardens. Photo: Justin Langille.

  • Egg producer Karl Hann

    Egg producer Karl Hann in the kitchen at Bishop's restaurant in Kitsilano. Hann is an embattled Abbotsford farmer who thinks that the B.C. Egg Marketing board needs to include non-conventionally produced eggs in its quota supply chain. Photo: Justin Langille.

  • Farmers Market

    Shoppers carry apples, peaches and other harvest treasures away from the St. Jacobs Market in September in Waterloo, Ont. Boasting over 600 local food and craft vendors, the market attracts crowds of locals and tourists year round. Photo: Justin Langille.

  • Solar Panels on a farm

    As the sun shines brightly on a mid-September day, Waton, Ont. soy farmer Dave Ferguson's investment starts to yield profit. Rather than spend money on a new tractor, Ferguson decided to outfit a vacant pasture with a solar panel system that will allow him to sell electricity back to the grid and make money throughout retirement. Photo: Justin Langille.

  • Harvesting, farm, food

    Farmers Hanna Jacobs (L) and Erik Rosenkrantz discuss plans for selling their freshly harvested organic cabbage and heirloom tomatoes. The pair of independent farmers sells most of their produce to a single church congregation in Brampton, Ont. Photo: Justin Langille.

  • Kwantlen farmers

    Kwantlen agriculture students Anna Rollings and Charles Wilson fertilize their modest plot of incubator farmland with fall leaves. The classmates are also business partners who will try grow a community shared agriculture enterprise in the near future. Photo: Justin Langille.


One doesn't have to look very far to find people dedicated to creating a different kind of food system. A system that supports local farmers, respects the environment and is based on equity, fairness and common sense -- not to mention good taste.

This fall, we reporters -- Colleen Kimmett, Justin Langille and Jeff Nield -- traveled to two of the most productive agricultural regions in the entire country: Ontario's Greenbelt and British Columbia's Fraser Valley. Our goal was to examine the challenges, opportunities and barriers to creating this kind of food system.

What we found was that local food systems are flourishing at a community level. Farmers' markets are growing at a national rate of 30 per cent a year, pumping $3.1 billion dollars into local economies. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects, like Urban Grain or Home Grow-In in Vancouver, have no trouble finding members, doubling or tripling their numbers in the first few years.

We learned that some farmers will go to great lengths to supply customers with what they can't find on the supermarket shelves. Like Jim Grieshaber-Otto in Agassiz, B.C., who found and refurbished a 90-year-old grain cleaner to supply local flour to a bunch of city folks, or Karl Hann in Abbotsford, who drives to Vancouver from Abbotsford three times a week to deliver fresh organic eggs right to his customers' doors. In Elmira, ON, we met a group of Mennonite farmers who invested cooperatively in an auction warehouse, a kind of one-stop shopping for local retailers who don't have time to deal with individual farmers. Deb Reynolds at Home Grow-In convinced Fraser Valley farmers to invest in a distribution centre and retail store for local products on a busy street just blocks from Vancouver's City Hall.

We learned that, despite the troubling statistics about agriculture, young people are getting into farming and finding success with small-scale production geared specifically for farmers' markets. In Brampton, Ontario, we spoke to Eric Rosenkrantz at the McVean Incubator farm, who, along with his business partner, pulls in $25,000 off each of his three-acre plots each season. "If I'm getting by, and this is working, then I'm happy," he told The Tyee. "The business, I realize, can grow if my production methods improve and I get a bit more land."

We visited the Kwantlen University's farm school, one of a handful of venues in B.C. where eager students can learn the ins and outs of, what program director Kent Mullinix refers to as, human-scale food systems. UBC's 8-month long Sowing Seeds sustainable agriculture practicum is entering its fourth year. Much like the Kwantlen program, it's a mixture of practical classroom learning and hands-on experience.

Scaling up is key

So if we have people willing to grow food locally, and people willing to buy it, what's the problem? Essentially, it's a matter of scaling up.

Our predominant food and farming system is designed to serve distant markets, not local ones. The reason why primarily comes down to cost. When Ontario's minimum wage increased to $10.25, farmers like the Pfenning family found it even harder to compete with growers in California who pay their workers half that.

"People have to understand that $10.25 an hour minimum wage means that their potatoes have to cost more, they have to," says Pfenning. "The true cost of production has to be paid."

The wage differential is compounded when you get into processing. In 2008, the closure of a CanGro canning facility in Niagara forced at least 150 farmers to rip up fields and peach and pear trees because they suddenly had no market. The pending closure of a Bick's pickles plant in nearby Delhi, Ontario, will impact some 200 cucumber growers nearby.

"This decision will provide greater manufacturing and sourcing flexibility, enabling us to be more cost-competitive," a Bick's spokesperson told the local paper.

At a Museum of Vancouver event, Tyee editor David Beers asked experts to create a recipe for strengthening the local sustainable food economy in B.C.'s Lower Mainland. Watch the results.

While it's hard to imagine life without lemons, or coffee or sugar, it simply doesn't make sense to export or import products we can grow here. And the gap in the post-harvest processing sector is one in which jobs and money drain away. How many jobs?

Local Food Plus (LFP), a Toronto-based non-profit focused on local sustainable food production did some calculations. Executive director Lori Stahlbrand says they found that, in Ontario, if 10,000 families shifted $10 of their weekly grocery budget from imported food to local sustainable food, it would pump enough money into the local economy to create a hundred new jobs. LFP's mandate is to link large institutional and commercial buyers (like universities and restaurants) with local, sustainable certified farmers.

"These institutions are spending millions of dollars on food every year," says Stahlbrand. "We write the language that goes into the requests for proposals for food service contracts. It helps to scale up the whole system, it helps to educate the public through these institutions, it's a part of how these institutions can meet their climate change requirements."

Building a soft infrastructure

This kind of soft infrastructure -- relationships and business networks -- are just as important as barns, warehouses and processing plants.

In Vancouver, New City Market is a vision of a food hub that would serve as space to store, sell and buy local food, but also a place for public education around food. Food hubs like this one are viewed as essential to creating a local food system. But they have to be designed to serve the specific needs of a specific community.

Like The Stop Community Food Centre. When it first opened its doors in Toronto's Davenport West neighbourhood in the early '70s, it was one of the first food banks in the entire city. Now it offers the emergency food bank service -- a three-day supply of food, twice a month -- plus members can drop in for a meal four days a week, grow their own vegetables in a community garden, buy discounted produce at a weekly farmers' market, or take cooking classes.

The Stop works on the premise that without food infrastructure, viable farms, civic engagement and personal empowerment, food banks are simply a stop-gap measure in the fight to eradicate hunger. Even in Canada there is significant class disparity when it comes to access to food; never mind local sustainable food. Food bank use spiked sharply in 2008/09 during the recession and continues to climb. In a typical month this year, 80,000 people in Canada used a food bank for the first time.

The Stop's program director, Kathryn Scharf, says that food is a way to make poverty and social justice relevant to everyone -- because everyone eats. Everyone enjoys a good meal. And for the first time in her career, Scharf feels that this is a moment, that food is a galvanizing force with the potential to incite real change. This was a common sentiment amongst many people we talked to, including farmers and food activists who are close to retirement. Now is the time for political leadership and comprehensive planning.

"We are going to need something much more comprehensive than farmers' markets," says Scharf. "The scale of the solution has to match the scale of the problem."  [Tyee]

Read more: Local Economy, Food,

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