Local food moving to the mainstream
By Allison Finnamore
One of the hottest trends in food marketing these days is the local food movement. Promoting the benefits of buying agriculture products grown right in consumers’ backyards is breaking through in nearly every sector.
The marketing is taking many forms, too. Some programs point out how far food travels to reach consumers’ plates, while other promotions highlight the economic and health benefits of purchasing food grown closer to home.
The marketing seems to be working. Statistics show the public trend towards purchasing sustainable food has increased 92 per cent since the beginning of 2007, according to Mike Schreiner, vice president of Local Food Plus, an Ontario-based local food organization.
“What’s clear to me is that the local food movement has gone mainstream,” Schreiner says.
By pointing out that local food supports local agriculture, which supports the local economy while protecting farmland, Schreiner says it creates a winning combination for producers. In addition, local food programs need to stress that food purchased from nearby farms is often as affordable as non-local food, and of higher quality. Price is often the scapegoat of why shoppers stray to imported food, but Schreiner believes consumers are willing to pay more now.
“The number one desire of consumers is an authentic food experience. People want the real deal and they vote with their dollars,” he states.
And while it creates the opportunity to turn much of agriculture into a “value driven market,” Schreiner also acknowledges the realities encountered by farm producers. It’s hard to compete with imported food produced in countries with lower wages, but he maintains that consumers are ready to make the switch to local food.
“Buyers are willing to pay more for products that reflect their values,” Schreiner says, adding that if local food practices are agreeable to neighbouring residents, customers will support the initiative.
Schreiner believes this rising interest is about to plateau and hold steady.
“We’re in this huge spike upwards – the interest is going to wane soon and local food is going to become the new norm,” he predicts.
In 1999, Bob Kerr and his team decided to focus on growing for the local market. The driver? Farm income was declining with traditional farming practices. He saw the need to identify a niche market and opted to venture into organic food production, embracing the opportunity to promote local food at the same time.
Kerr farms 1,700 acres of crop and pasture land at his farm in Kent County, Ont. Of that, 1,100 acres is certified organic land where he has field-scale production of crops like tomatoes, eggplant, asparagus, squash, feed corn, soybeans and green peas for both processing and fresh food markets as well as beef.
“The commodity prices were low; farming was not as profitable,” Kerr recalls. “What could we do to get back to a decent level of income? I set out to make changes and farm organically and develop niche markets.”
Kerr believes in a strong future for local food production with room for the industry to expand. However, he cautions producers just entering the field to be patient as they develop their new contacts and get themselves established as local producers.
“It’s a new opportunity to make a living and make a better living as the market develops, but there is a learning curve,” he says.
Kerr says the key ingredient to success is selling shoppers on the opportunity to buy locally grown food.
“Local food is important because that’s a competitive advantage that the greenhouses in Mexico can’t take away from us. It opens new markets and creates new opportunities for local farmers.” ?
Local food production programs abound across the country. In some cases, agriculture producers are joining together to form marketing groups. In other cases, the grower groups are taking on the job. Various levels of government are also starting local food promotion programs, with provincial governments, counties and municipalities in various locations in Canada getting in on promotion.
Here is a brief overview of some programs across the country:
Ontario’s Local Food Plus is a non-profit organization bringing “farmers and consumers to the table to share in the benefits of environmentally and socially responsible food production.” Producers and processors go through a certification system and are linked with local purchasers.
Eat B.C.! campaign is a provincially operated program targeting restaurants, grocery stores, farm markets, universities and cafeterias and some health care facilities.
Select Nova Scotia is a provincially driven program backed by support from the food services sector, agriculture and grocery stores. The program is working to increase awareness and consumer knowledge. Increased consumption within government is also a goal. Already, local products have been made available in health care and justice institutes.
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