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Editorial: April 2009

Buying local – Are Canadians convinced?

March 27, 2009  ByMarg Land


For the past three-plus years, it’s been the buzz phrase of foodies and
farmers alike – buy local. Spawned in part by Alisa Smith and J.B.
MacKinnon’s year-long experiment in local eating – described in the
bestselling book The 100-Mile Diet – the buy local movement has led to
an increased interest in local farms and farmers’ markets. And,
hopefully, an increase in farmers’ returns.

For the past three-plus years, it’s been the buzz phrase of foodies and farmers alike – buy local. Spawned in part by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon’s year-long experiment in local eating – described in the bestselling book The 100-Mile Diet – the buy local movement has led to an increased interest in local farms and farmers’ markets. And, hopefully, an increase in farmers’ returns.

But just how many Canadians are following this food philosophy?

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According to the Vancouver Sun, the buy-local food trend is nearing “fad status,” adding that “consumers have suddenly begun to care” about where their food is from and how it is grown. It’s also led to the formation of a plethora of magazines and newspapers – such as Edible Toronto – dedicated to informing readers about local food, including farmers, chefs, food artisans and farmers markets.

A recent study out of Alberta, conducted by Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development in September 2008 (see article on page 18), shows that 90 per cent of Alberta households say they have purchased local food in the past 12 months and nearly one-third plan on doing the same this year. The study also showed that farmers’ markets in the province have increased sales by 63 per cent to $380 million annually since 2004 and revenue from farm activities is up by 21 per cent. Only one area showed a drop in sales, direct farm retail, which is down five per cent to $181 million annually.

In Ontario, the buy local movement has been catching on as well and, in some cases, is gaining support from big business. In 2008, Kraft Canada Inc. hosted 12 strawberry festivals across the province, a clever marketing ploy for its Cool Whip product. Recently, during the Ontario Berry Growers’ Association’s (OBGA) annual general meeting, it was announced Kraft would be expanding its number of berry festivals to 45 during the 2009 strawberry season. The company would also be handing out 150,000 two-litre baskets to Ontario berry growers to help package the strawberry crop.

“They’re realizing buy local is big,” said OBGA executive director Kevin Schooley.

A recent benchmarking and opportunities study conducted by the Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association (OFMMA) showed that the majority (72 per cent) of on-farm markets (which is estimated to be about 750 in the province) have reported an increase in the number of customers visiting their on-farm site during the past two years. This increase in customer visits has translated into gross sales of about $210 million in 2008.

In light of this increased interest in local farms, the OFMMA study reported that more than one-third of Ontario’s on-farm markets are considering additions, expansions and/or renovations to their operations. About 16 per cent are considering additional events and/or entertainment.

OFFMA is also reported the largest number ever of new members joining the organization. Since the beginning of the year, more than 50 farm operations have joined the industry association for the first time, part of a membership campaign and an outreach program by existing members to other on-farm marketers. The increase in membership is described as “phenomenal.”

Meanwhile, in Prince Edward Island, some aren’t convinced buying local is the way to go. In 2008, the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture approached the province’s government, urging them to purchase local food. According to a report from CBC News, provincial government representatives were lukewarm to the idea. “We’re not completely sure (we’d be) getting the best bargain for the province, the taxpayers, in that case,” Bob Smith, the acting manager of procurement services at the time, told the CBC News. There was also concern voiced about jeopardizing trade agreements and retaliation from other provinces, which could affect P.E.I. lobster and potato sales.

P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture representatives didn’t feel buying from local growers would be all that expensive for the government, citing improved quality, safety and support for local growers as important incentives.

South of the border, the buy local movement still has a way to go. A recent poll by Mintel showed only one in six adults (17 per cent) in the U.S. buy local products and services as often as possible. About 30 per cent of American shoppers say they would purchase local but “don’t know where to find it.” A further 27 per cent couldn’t care less where their food came from.

“We found that although the ‘buy local’ mantra has gotten strong media coverage and government support, most Americans haven’t yet incorporated it into their lifestyles,” said Krista Faron, a senior analyst with Mintel.

It would appear Canadian consumers are well ahead of American ones when it comes to supporting local agriculture and farmers. Bravo. ❦


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