Help Ontario Farmers: Eat and buy local

by Sarah Demille

The use of mainly locally sourced Ontario products may not be a brand new idea to hit the market, but  the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair is continuing the path it began last year by ensuring that the food its restaurants use are at least 80 per cent grown in Ontario.

The mastermind running the show is executive chef Robert Campbell of Centerplate, the fair’s official caterer. He and his team are working with a group of more than 15 Ontario farmers to provide visitors with a menu that reflects the agricultural efforts of the Ontario farming community.

Campbell and Centerplate are not the only ones to support Ontario’s local farming efforts. Many of those participating in this year’s fair Thursday were there to help raise awareness about local farming.

Jenny Van Rooy, campaign coordinator for the Farmers Feed Cities! group was cheerfully handing out pins and informing fair goers of the importance of supporting Ontario farmers.

People need to “have a better understanding and awareness about agriculture as a whole and how important it is,” Van Rooy said. “You hear time after time that farmer’s land is being sold for housing developments or golf courses, but we have to realize how valuable our farmland is.”

According to Van Rooy, it is a struggle to get people to understand the work that goes into the food they purchase. She said that one of the biggest hurdles faced by Ontario farmers is the recession, which has cut prices for their products both here and south of the border.

“Our dollar is not good and so we want the U.S. dollar to go down so we can export. We can sell it in Ontario, but we’re not getting a good price for it,” said Joanne Borcsok, an onion farmer from Kettleby, Ontario who was at the fair.

”We don’t have to make lots of money, we just have to pay the mortgage and live comfortably. We don’t have to be really rich.”

Nicole Bzikot is a goat’s milk dairy farmer from Fergus, Ontario who sells her Best Baa Farm products through wholesale and at farmer’s markets such as the St. Lawrence farmers market in Toronto. Bzikot said that outsourcing Ontario’s food made no sense to her.

“People are willing to pay extraordinary amounts of money for gizmos and gadgets, like an expensive Xbox or clothes,” Bzikot said. “But when it comes to good food, they’d rather buy something that’s cheaper and come from somewhere else than spend the little bit extra.”

The local farming community has received a boost in recent years, due to the trend known as The 100 Mile Diet, a local eating challenge started in 2005 by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon.  Associated 100 Mile Markets are now popping up all over Ontario. Van Rooy said that these markets, which are set up within communities to provide members a way to get all of their local agriculture in one location, are doing wonders to raise awareness for the local farming community.

For those who want to make sure the products they are purchasing are Ontario grown, but find the 100 mile limit a little challenging, the Farmers’ Markets Ontario website lists 142 local farmer’s markets for users to choose from.

Aside from going down to the local markets and purchasing the produce there, Borscok said that people have to go to their grocery stores and ask specifically to buy local products if they would like to effect a change.

“It’s really important for people to realize what farmers do and pay them the respect they deserve, pay them the appropriate price for food, and then maybe we might have some younger farmers that want to come into the business so that we can still have our own agricultural market here,” Van Rooy said. “If not, then it’s scary to think what might be in our future.”