Food and agriculture forum feeds passion
A look around the room at the guests mingling at the Food and Agriculture Economic Development Forum on March 5 showed both impressive support for local food and a diverse collective of community organizers and leaders ready to take action in further nurturing and promoting the local food sector.
Municipal planners and councillors, economic developers, food producers and farmers, food processors, retailers, restaurateurs, food tourism operators and promoters, environmentalists, eaters and anyone interested in creating a sustainable food system in the region were welcomed by Harvest Haliburton, the event planners, to attend and they turned out in droves, causing the free event to be sold out prior to doors opening last week.
Harvest Haliburton, which has a vision to create a sustainable food system for the Haliburton County region as explained by committee chair Rosie Kadwell, has promoted more growing and selling of local foods through numerous initiatives. Since it formed as the Local Food Coalition in March 2008, the committee has hosted six community events, including the March 5 Food and Agriculture Economic Development Forum to facilitate collaboration in cultivating a sustainable food system.
“Food and agriculture is a broad topic but our task today is to hone the conversation in on the economic benefits of supporting food and agriculture in our community and what actions need to be taken to build a necessary structure into our community infrastructures,” said Andrew von Zuben of Bedrock & Brambles, as master of ceremonies at the event, held at the Minden community centre.
He listed the goals of the all-day forum as being to bring key stakeholders and interested community members together, to raise awareness about the agricultural economic development resource guide in our communities, and to generate input on how to continue to build and strengthen food and agriculture as an economic driver in the community.
“This event is all about getting community input and developing consensus,” said von Zuben. “Today’s discussion will be all about developing innovative solutions driven by our common goals. And though it’s important for us to be aware of the difficult challenges, our approach to those challenges needs to be positive and proactive. Today isn’t about debating the state of food and agriculture in our community. It’s about moving from a planning stage and acting.”
An ignite session gave representatives of local food assets and provincial government and organization representatives the opportunity to fill four minutes each with insight into their businesses and organizations, challenges and future goals. Almost 20 people on the list – including Mike Rutter, CAO/county clerk and Amanda Virtanen, director of tourism, Autumn Wilson, program and operations coordinator of Haliburton County Development Corporation and Heather Reid, operations director of Abbey Gardens – engaged the audience with stories of their experience or findings in their research and success stories of how they had overcome a short growing season and increasing regulations.
Lila Sweet, speaking as an employee of Rhubarb restaurant, spoke of the initiatives being taken at the restaurant and Boshkung Brewing Co., and spoke to some of what needed to be addressed for local food to flourish more, including the need to develop innovative approaches to dealing with land soil and short growing seasons, the need for municipal decision makers who will take a stance on local food and food businesses, and an investment in infrastructure such as a local egg grading station, portable abattoir and permanent market structures.
Faye Adamson, of the Haliburton County Farmers’ Market Association, said that the markets had earned $50,000 in 2009, and last year made more than $566,000 in sales.
“Farmers Markets of Ontario, of which we are a member market, found in their 2011 research that every dollar spent in the farmers’ market results in between $2 and $3 spent in the community,” she said. “Even if we conservatively use a multiplier of two, the farmers market had an economic impact of over $1.1 million last year alone.”
Shane Dykstra, vice-president of the Haliburton County Farmers’ Association, highlighted some of the numerous educational public appearances the association had undertaken to help to educate the public about food producers in the area and even basic agriculture.
From the Haliburton County Garlic Growers Assocation, Deb Barnhart, chair, talked about the work members had done as citizen scientists within a three-year project in helping to create pest-management protocols, and the success of the annual garlic festival.
“Of course, the jewel in our garlic crown is our annual Garlic Festival which has grown from the initial attendance of 500 to 1,500 over the last five years,” she said. “On average, vendors were earning $3,000 for six hours of work. $500 an hour, guys. If that isn’t a success story, I don’t know what is.”
Andrew Graham, owner and operator of Graham’s Farm Market, spoke to how rewarding it was to see improvements year after year at the farm he manages with partner Shannon Blanchard, and how a greenhouse and increased staff has allowed the pair to grow outside of the perimeters of their typical growing season.
“Recently, I was asked what is required to support a local farm in Haliburton County, from a financials perspective,” he said. “I believe a farmer deserves a living wage. It’s a very risky profession: physically, mentally and financially. This means for a farmer to remain in the business it has to be worth your while.”
Graham said that for a farmer to net $50,000 annually, they would have to have gross sales of $90,000. With just 90 frost free days a year on average, and he said he had seen as few as 65 a year, it would mean a farmer needed to sell $1,000 in produce a day for those 90 days, which coincide with a high tourism season.
“That is no small feat,” he said. “But once a farm has achieved these sales, we as a community have supported and built a sustainable and resilient local farm.”
Randy MacDonald, owner and operator of Fresh @ Killara Station, spoke to the four businesses that had naturally evolved at the former Emmerson farm on Gelert Road over the past five years, including the farm, a dog breeding business, a dog boarding business and SueMac Designs, and how he and Sue MacDonald had adapted to the land and welcomed sharing the property with the community.
Speakers also included Gena Robertson, executive director of SIRCH; Kate Hall, research consultant, who spoke to an agriculture report for Haliburton County; Catherine Oosterbaan, agriculture and rural economic development advisor for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs; Jocelyn Beatty, rural planner with OMAFRA; Danielle Collins, policy analyst with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and Larry Clarke, co-chair of U-Links Community-Based research.
Keynote speakers Steve Duff, chief economist with OMAFRA, and Heather Candler, agriculture and rural economic development advisor with OMAFRA, spoke to the room before lunch, which was served by SIRCH’s Cook It Up team and showcase d local ingredients.
Duff gave a snapshot of the Ontario agriculture profile based on the census of agriculture, which is conducted every five years. He said provincially, about 51 per cent of Ontario farm operators don’t work full-time on the farm, and that even the largest farms in Ontario have significant off-farm income.
“Compared to the provincial level, Haliburton County has seen a more rapid loss of total farm numbers, and total farm area, loss of farms making less than $10,000 in sales, loss of farms with acreage between 70 and 250 acres, increase in land prepared for seeding and reduction in the number of all farm operator categories,” he said.
He noted that in Haliburton County, 31 farms sell direct to consumer, which is 53 per cent of total farms, compared to the provincial average of 15 per cent.
Duff’s observations included that data suggests farmland rental rates in Haliburton County were by far the lowest in the province. Only three per cent of all land in Haliburton County is currently assessed for farming, and with roughly 278,000 acres of vacant residential land, that could mean an estimated additional 33,000 acres of farmland for crops and grazing, in small non-contiguous parcels.
In discussing living expenditures in the area, he said that rural residents as well as any lower income consumer are increasingly concerned with stretching their food dollar.
“In most rural communities, while food is a much larger portion of incomes, food is also something with much greater visibility and understanding,” he said in his presentation. “The ability of a community, and its food producers, to understand the local balance of food demand and production and the income situation of its residents is vital to maintaining an economically resilient local food system.”
Haliburton County’s challenges include: a relatively small full-time population, smaller households, a lower than average household income, low levels of local and fresh food production relative to its full-time or summertime population and a lot of land that is not suitable for farming interspersed with land that is suitable for farming.
On the other hand, Haliburton County faces several opportunities, he said, because it has a summer population that at least doubles, a relatively high percentage of farms that sell fresh products direct to consumer, considerable underutilized small parcels of land assessed for farming or that could be used for small-scale farming and considerable amounts of land owned by summertime residents that are non-farmers and may be willing to rent some of their land at what are the lowest rates in the province.
In speaking to economically resilient local food, he said farmers need to know their costs in order to appropriately price their products and develop a sound value proposition to articulate to consumers, while consumers need to understand what value propositions matter most to them: price, quality or other attributes, understand what attributes the product offers and recognize seemingly similar products may be different due to value propositions that are not physical in nature.
Candler spoke to agriculture economic development, giving an overview of the Agriculture Economic Development resource guide, sharing key agriculture economic development concepts and introducing a range of agriculture economic development activities that Haliburton County might explore. She spoke to what she called a really complex web of relationships between people and the land and agriculture-supported communities.
“As with any business, economic practitioners and municipalities play a really important role in the health of those businesses,” she said. “So in the past, a top-down approach may have been standard, but the focus in agricultural development today is really shifting. Today the expectation in economic development is that communities will mobilize to stimulate growth in their economy. Supporting agriculture and food businesses through community economic development strategies begins with the recognition of agriculture’s many contributions to the community, the challenges that you’re all facing and the opportunities that are there.”
Municipalities can introduce land-use planning legislation into their official plans that enable on-farm processing and provide educational workshops for farmers on what they need to know to take advantage of value-added initiatives, she said, adding: “It takes a village to support agriculture.”
In the afternoon, participants chose a topic discussion of their choice to brainstorm and develop an action plan by setting a goal, time frame, and identifying who should take the lead on the project and what resources were needed to achieve the goal, aiming to address local food sector challenges. Topics included selling and branding local food; culinary and food tourism; municipal food planning; agricultural economic development officer/committee and the needs of our community and a burning question, which centred on climate change and a living wage. Harvest Haliburton now aims to write a report, and host a round table in the future with any leads identified in the action plan. The event invite promised that “[F]rom planting to policy, we will identify real solutions that will net real results, including producing more food in Haliburton County and growing our local economy.”
Participants at the event were receptive both to the forum, and to the goal of developing strategies to advance local food.
“It was fantastic to have a room full of enthusiastic folks engaged in local food security while incorporating economic development,” said Graham after the event. “It took a lot of effort for Harvest Haliburton to put on a great event like that and I hope they put on another.”
“There’s definitely momentum in the community around the importance of local food and agriculture and all the benefits that come from leveraging it,” said Virtanen after the meeting. “I think that the participation throughout the day just underscores how important it is that we, as a community, continue to work together in support of each other.”
Virtanen praised the work of Harvest Haliburton, and said she hoped the conversation could continue and projects could be moved forward.
For more information on Harvest Haliburton, or to see the presentations and keynote speakers’ slides from the day on the Harvest Haliburton website when they are updated, visit www.harvesthaliburton.ca or follow Harvest Haliburton on Facebook.