For three years we carried occasional reprints
of the weekly radio commentaries of Elbert van
Donkersgoed, then Strategic Policy Advisor of
the Christian Farming Federation of Ontario (CFFO),
Guelph, Ontario. They appeared under the column
title “Letters from Ontario.”
About a year ago, van Donkersgoed became the
executive director of the Greater Toronto Area’s
Agricultural Action Plan. Continuing the tradition
of weekly commentaries from the CFFO is John Clement,
the group’s general manager. With his permission,
we will continue occasional use of the CFFO columns.
This month, Elbert is back as a special guest
December 14, 2006: Depressed prices for
bulk grain commodities, mad cow disease, droughts, pests,
the soaring loonie and control of the food pipeline by still
fewer food merchants have cast a long shadow across our farm
sector. But there is a new agriculture emerging out of the
shadow of the ongoing farm crisis. The signs are all around
Farm families are changing their approach to farming. They
have diversified into off-farm occupations and businesses.
More than half of farm family income now comes from non-farm
sources. The decline in farm numbers is slowing and is likely
to disappear soon. Pension farmers, lifestyle farmers and
second career farmers are on the increase. Pension farmers,
defined as at least one member of the farm family collecting
Canada Pension, already make up 25 percent of Ontario farmers.
Farm business income has become a contribution to farm family
income. On average, farm families meet most of their family
needs from non-farm sources and subsidize their farm businesses—probably
more than governments subsidize farming.
Food retailers are also changing. Meeting consumer needs
is spawning a renewed emphasis on local food and social responsibility.
Back in July, a poll in the UK found that “More than
three-quarters (85 percent) of adults in the UK believe that
restaurants and pubs should use locally sourced food….”
In June, the retailer Food Lion, with 490 outlets in North
Carolina, launched a campaign, “got to be NC products.”
That same month Japan's largest retailer created dedicated
shelf space for local produce. Much earlier, a study by the
Leopold Centre, a sustainable agriculture institute in Iowa,
found that more than 75 percent of consumers chose products
labeled “grown locally by family farmers” as their
Even Wal-Mart is changing. I suppose the transnational’s
May announcement of dedicated shelf space for organic food
was just part of dominating another market segment. But it
means more. That Leopold Centre study also found that consumers
would choose products “grown locally by family farmers”
over organic options. Wal-Mart is missing out on the bigger
market—shelf space for local food.
Retailers are also making interesting socially and environmentally
responsible choices. At the beginning of August, Ben &
Jerry’s Scoop Shops, famous for their ice cream, made
headlines in the UK with their plan to serve fairtrade vanilla
ice cream in Europe. Their message: “Don’t buy
what exploits somebody else.” Two days later their co-founder
was in Toronto launching a public awareness campaign to encourage
Canadians to “Lick Global Warming” with Jack Gibbons
of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance.
Even governments are changing how they view the food chain:
Is it environmentally responsible? In 2005 the UK government
launched a study on “The Validity of Food Miles as an
Indicator of Sustainable Development.” Their Department
for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs tracks the cost of
food in tons of carbon dioxide produced. A July headline announced,
“Cost of food miles grows to 18m tons of carbon dioxide.”
The story described a jump of 6 percent in the number of "food
miles" by road and air.
Back in August, I encouraged municipal politicians and staff
at the annual general meeting of the Association of Municipalities
in Ottawa to see past all the crisis talk in agriculture and
recognize that a renewal of agriculture is happening. Interest
in local food is opportunity all around us. The concern about
food miles has added cache. Consider the commitment by Alisa
Smith and James MacKinnon to eat only food produced within
a 100 mile radius of their Kitsilano, BC home. The diary of
their experience has become an Internet phenomenon of sorts.
There’s a farm shop in Yorkshire, UK called Weeton’s.
Their motto is “Where Food is Fresh from the Farm.”
Their claim to fame: they are on the latest “The Best
100 Shops in the World” list that includes the likes
of Bloomingdale in New York.
Local food is great food and an opportunity for all who want
to be part of the renewal of agriculture!