One of the biggest complaints about local food is that it’s hard to find. Sure, farmer’s markets are popping up in many neighbourhoods, but the issues involved in getting local food to local tables, particularly restaurant tables, are many and diverse.
As part of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, a panel discussion and networking event that connected farmers and chefs took place on Monday, November 5th. Panel members included moderator Lori Stahlbrand from Local Food Plus; Tobey Nemeth, Chef de Cuisine at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar; Elizabeth Harris, organizer of the Brickworks Farmers Market; Mark Trealout of Kawartha Ecological Growers; Dan Taylor, Economic Development Officer of Prince Edward County; Paul Finklestein from the Screaming Avocado and Food Network Canada Show, Fink; Barry Monaghan from Fresh Start; and Sasha Chapman of the Globe and Mail.
Each participant took a few moments to discuss the question, “What is the most important thing farmers can do to address local food opportunities?”
From there, opinions varied. Chefs, of course, want easy access to ingredients and often need huge quantities. Toby Nemeth pointed out that her restaurant, known for its frites, goes through a thousand pounds of potatoes per week. Dealing with one small local farmer just isn’t feasible. She would prefer to work with someone like a growers organization such as the Kawartha Ecological Growers, who can take care of the administrative aspect of getting product from the farms to her kitchen. Many chefs are just too busy to spend the time searching out small quantities of local supplies to make the effort worthwhile.
Mark Trealout explained how his system works, allowing both chefs and farmers to deal directly with his organization to allow an easier chain of contact and to free up the time of both chefs and farmers to do the work they know best. He suggested that farmers need to organize themselves and work together to form co-operatives for their areas to allow them more time on the farm, not driving back and forth to the city, or spending time sitting in traffic when they could be harvesting crops, milking cows or any of the other myriad tasks that make up the life of a small farmer.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Elizabeth Harris of the Brickworks Farmer’s Market explained that the farmer’s market was a social event for buyers, chefs and vendors (farmers). This system allows the farmers to have instant feedback from the end customers, and helps to grow the worldwide phenomenon as people want more local food, and want to know the farmers who grew their food.
However, at the networking session after the discussion, I met a lot of farmers who are not interested in participating in farmer’s markets, as they do not feel the time commitment is worthwhile. Many farmers are preferring to sell at their own gate, adding other attractions to bring customers to them instead of them having to travel to the customers. Others still just don’t want to deal with the public at all, concentrating instead on their job of planting, growing and harvesting, and allowing organizations like Trealout’s to take care of the sales and customer service aspect.
The event also included a presentation by Susan Benson of Ontario Culinary Tourism on the group’s newly released website. As almost all tourism includes a culinary aspect, and more and more people are travelling to specific destinations because of the food, opportunities for restaurants, growers, markets and food stores continue to expand. With tools to assist in marketing and promotion, as well as a search engine to locate Ontario grown products and ingredients, the site is sure to be an asset to not only growers, producers, and restaurateurs, but to tourists looking to experience the food and drink of various regions of the province.
So while opinions will continue to differ on the best way to sell and promote Ontario food, it seems we are well on our way to finding solutions that suit everyone. Farmers now have the choice of bringing their goods to market, organizing and selling through a co-operative, or welcoming customers onto their farm and selling from the gate. With the assistance of the Ontario Culinary Tourism website, visitors will now have a better handle on not just their dining options, but on the best way to truly experience all the wonderful culinary delights our province had to offer.