by Amanda Kwan
A group of kids with oversized backpacks are gathered around the booth. They’re learning about the role that farmers play in Ontario’s local agricultural industry.
“And why are farmers important?” asks the woman standing behind the display.
“Because farmers feed cities!” the children chant.
The woman hands each of them a yellow rectangular button, which is emblazoned with the slogan the children had just learnt. They scatter from the booth with their prizes pinned to their shirts, ready to be walking billboards for the day.
The ‘Farmers Feed Cities!’ campaign was just one of the exhibitions Thursday at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, an annual event held at the Exhibition Place in Toronto. The theme this year focused on local food grown in Ontario.
Jenny Van Rooy, campaign coordinator for Farmers Feed Cities! said many kids do not know where their food comes actually from.
“They say time and time again ‘The grocery store’,” Van Rooy explained. “It’s human nature to go in there and pick something up and not think about all the work that was behind it and how we actually got it.”
The campaign was founded by the Grains and Oilseeds of Ontario, a coalition of more than 25,000 farm families who represent the province’s seven major crop groups. Their goal is to educate people about the importance of farmers in our everyday lives.
“Without them [the public] knowing where their food comes from, they may not make the proper buying decisions. They may not be focused on buying local,” Van Rooy said. “We’re also losing farmers everyday. Farmers are getting older and older and we don’t have any young farmers taking over.”
In an effort to rejuvenate Ontario’s agriculture industry, the province created the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovations Excellence in 2006. The five-year program awards farmers who have broken new ground in Ontario’s agri-sector.
Lori Smith and Martin Littkemann were one of the 55 regional winners last year. They own the first water buffalo milk farming operation in Ontario, aptly named Ontario Water Buffalo Company, based in Hastings County. Before they began milking water buffalo a year ago, the milk had to be imported from Italy, which already has a thriving industry.
Smith and Littkemann sell their milk to a cheese factory in Vaughan that uses it to produce water buffalo mozzarella. But they say they have been inundated with requests from other cheese factories that want their product, which is still relatively scarce in Ontario.
‘If I had known back in the ‘80s…I would of jumped into the buffalo [industry],” Littkemann said. While they say there has long been a demand for the product in Ontario, it was only recently that farmers in the province began to import water buffalo.
“That’s the funny thing. Maybe it’s just the movement right now of local food…you could never get the wave going,” Littkemann said.
The push for local food and agricultural development has been steadily growing, especially in North America and Europe. Yet for Smith and Littkemann, their local business was made possible by globalized trade. They imported most of their cattle from other countries, like the US and Bulgaria, and they also visited Italy to see how farmers there were able to cultivate a booming water buffalo industry.
Ironically the first water buffalo in the United States actually came from the Toronto Zoo.
Littkemann said buying and consuming local products makes economic sense, and also helps the environment.
“We’re reducing the carbon footprint by making it local…as opposed to flying the stuff in from Italy and selling it,” he explained. “And there’s no reason we can’t produce it here. There’s technology. The people are here.
“In Holland, their motto is ‘If the farmer does well everybody does well’ because we’re primary producers.”
Van Rooy warned that the cheap price of imported foods is threatening the livelihood of local farming families in Ontario.
“Right now it is actually cheaper to import a lot of things but in the future, if we keep importing everything, we won’t have any farmers left here in Ontario.”
Both Littkemann and Van Rooy said the provincial and federal governments could do more to support the local agricultural industry.
“It’d be nice if the government would not let us import things that we can grow right here in Ontario,” Van Rooy said.
Littkemann suggested the federal government give each full-time, food-producing farmer a $500n 000 grant to invest in their businesses.
“So now I’m going to do fence removal, build a building. And I’m going to hire people…so if you want to stimulate the economy, give the farmers money.”