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Consumers being urged to eat what grows close to home

May 6, 2008  By Marg Zavaros

buylocal02Slogans urging consumers to “Buy
Local,” “Eat Local,” and “Farm Fresh” are making an impact on Canada’s
increasingly competitive food industry. Over the past few years, new
and unique programs have sprung up in rural and urban centers urging
consumers to seek out locally grown produce.

Slogans urging consumers to “Buy Local,” “Eat Local,” and “Farm Fresh” are making an impact on Canada’s increasingly competitive food industry. Over the past few years, new and unique programs have sprung up in rural and urban centers urging consumers to seek out locally grown produce.

 A wide variety of locally grown fruits and vegetables are available weekly at the Simcoe Farmers' Market. Photo by Marg Zavaros

With an unprecedented level of food imports from other countries staring them in the face when they enter their local grocery store, consumers are instead starting to explore the local outlets selling foods that are being grown “on their very doorstep,” many harvested the day they’re sold. With the increase in farm signs, food maps and directories, consumers are being led to urban or rural outlets to buy local produce on a regular basis.           

With food playing a major role in the tourism industry, agri-tourism is the new byword when it comes to attracting visitors to rural areas to savour Ontario’s produce.

Culinary tourism is taking the lead in attracting visitors to restaurants that provide fresh seasonal foods. The timing is perfect for this growing trend, considering the flood of information regarding the importance of eating fresh, nutritious food to promote good health, not to mention the preparation, serving and a fine dining experience everyone has come to enjoy both in their homes and in upscale restaurants.

Nick Van Groningen of NVG Farming Inc. displays his sweet potatoes at the Simcoe Farmers' Market. Photo by Marg Zavaros

During the past decade, Norfolk County, which borders the north shore of Lake Erie in southern Ontario, has become a top producer of a large number of agricultural products. Fruit, vegetables, mushrooms, honey, peanuts, and value-added processed products make up the large variety. This surge in Norfolk’s food production was prompted by the gradual transition from tobacco production – the historic mainstay crop. Presently, the county’s agriculture sector consists of more than 1,600 farms and $1.4 billion in total farm capital.        

Norfolk’s tourism promotional campaign has 200 marketing partners, including 47 farmers. Just two years ago, there were no agriculture partners involved in the program. Norfolk has also established a web site to promote the products of the agriculture partners, featuring Norfolk’s food ambassadors – Two Fairly Fat Guys – who “cook up a storm” using locally grown foods.

“Because Norfolk County is the leading grower of many fruits and vegetables, it’s important for growers to be working together and promoting innovative ideas,” says Clark Hoskin, manager of Norfolk Tourism and Economic Development. “Norfolk has recently joined the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance which connects growers, chefs and food buyers.”
A first for Norfolk is its new Local Food Guide Map, which features number coded locations of the 47 agriculture partners with outlets ranging from farmers markets, farm-gate sellers and u-pick operations. In February, Norfolk won an Ontario marketing award for the “Direct From Norfolk” agriculture marketing campaign.

Urban centres are also creating programs to promote local food produce too. One urban program in Ontario is Environment Hamilton’s “Hamilton Eat Local “ project.

The group was formed in 2005 and began working to create a more supportive environment for local farmers and urban growers. Members assist and encourage Hamiltonians to eat more locally produced food and improve food knowledge and skills in their community while empowering people to utilize neglected food sources. The organization’s website features an online local food directory that helps city residents find locally produced foods. A local newsletter – Farm Fresh Hamilton – is available through subscription and features information on where to buy fresh food grown by local farmers, recipes, farm profiles, and special events.       

From a food map and directory, buyers can source 64 locations selling fresh food in downtown Hamilton and in the rural surrounding areas of Flamborough, Ancaster, Glanbrook and Stoney Creek/Winona.                          

“We’ve learned that many people were previously unaware of the bounty that Hamilton farmers have to offer and they’ve been thrilled to learn about it,” says Sarah Megens, manager of Hamilton Eat Local. “We’ve also received a tremendously positive response from those who have always been passionate local food supporters but required a resource that enabled them to access the food more easily.”

The group has also taken the idea of eating locally to a whole new level. When Environment Hamilton staff noticed there were many unpicked fruit trees in backyards throughout the city, the Hamilton Eat Local group decided to follow the lead of an organization in British Columbia and form a fruit-picking project. The project was launched three years ago and involved just two pear trees. Since then, it’s grown to the point volunteers are harvesting 1,380 pounds of fruit. Of that amount, 100 pounds is returned to the farm owners, 100 pounds goes to the volunteer pickers and more than 1,000 pounds is transported to local food banks and other food agencies. The project has become such a success, Hamilton Eat Local plans to make it the organization’s main focus for the coming season.

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