Where do you get your food from? When Jamie Reaume, executive director of the Holland Marsh Grower's Association asks this question, "19 out of 20 people name a supermarket. When, in fact, we get our food from farmers - famers who work on farms somewhere in the world," Reaume says.
From a community economic development point of view, food and farming are very important to the local community. Farmers are independent business people who provide an essential product - like vegetables, fruit, berries, meat and dairy, and who spend money on wages, farm supplies and items for their own use. Our local farms can also play a key role in protecting our environment and promoting the health of our communities.There are business opportunities to be found in this sector - whether through farmers' markets that supply locals and tourists alike or the development of regional distribution systems for institutional and commercial buyers.
While farming may not be described as a "growth industry", the agriculture and food sector still plays a key role in our economy. According to the most recent census data, there are over 57,000 farms in Ontario. Simcoe County as a region is strategically positioned to benefit because it is situated on prime agricultural land, it has close proximity to major markets such as Toronto, a strong tourism industry and a strong farming heritage. However, before these untapped economic, educational, and health opportunities can be fully realized, there are some barriers that need to be addressed.
In Simcoe County, the average age of farmers is 53.5 years old (2006, Statistics Canada). And, while statistics specific to Simcoe County are not readily available, in Ontario the average farmer's income is $20,000 (2009, Roberts). Because income can be low, retirement plans often include selling farmland for other development purposes. There is a growing interest in farming for younger farmers, but the high cost of start-up can limit entry into the sector. In addition, there are some legislative and institutional barriers that can inadvertently constrain this sector from reaching its full potential. For instance, inaccurate labelling, seasonal procurement instability, lack of distribution mechanisms, and health inspections geared toward large-scale operations that pose a challenge for locally owned slaughter houses.
This issue is especially relevant in the Orillia Area Community Development Corporation (CDC) part of Simcoe County where cattle, lamb, sheep and dairy make up the bulk of the farming in Ramara, Rama, Orillia, Oro-Medonte and Severn. But rural character is still an important part of the area's cultural heritage and is cited in almost every economic and planning document reviewed by the CDC in 2009. Farming can provide for a basic need, economic opportunity and a more secure future if we want to develop sustainable and more self-sufficient communities and regions. After all, everyone has to eat.
The first step is to get to know the farm community and understand where the challenges and opportunities lie. Farming is not a new subject. With the rise in concern about food safety, the environment and new bans on the export of foods, consumer demand for locally produced food has significantly increased. There also appears to be a growing interest in producing your own food given the number of community garden groups, gardening and knowledge exchanges, and the availability of farming courses and materials that have cropped up in the last three years in and around Simcoe County.
For the CDC, this venture into investing in the farming and food sector started in 2009 through a series of "Adding Value to Your Farm" workshops offered by the Ontario Ministry of Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) to current farmers. In 2010, connections were made with the Simcoe County Farm Fresh, a not-for-profit, farmer-run, Simcoe County-based marketing organization and the newly formed Simcoe County Food Partners Alliance, a not-for-profit, food-policy and education organization. This year, the Orillia CDC partnered with Nottawasaga Futures and their Green Economy Centre in support of a farmer focused forum called Ag Knowledge. Our local agricultural community was invited to participate in the event, which focused on two important issues identified by our local farming communities: a national/provincial food policy and the opportunities and risks of alternative revenue streams for Simcoe County farmers.
In collaboration with the Food Partners Alliance, we will also be supporting a second educatinal forum, where a variety of speakers will focus on topics around developing a sustainable food system, including environmental, economic and planning/policy impacts. This event will take place later in April of this year. Through our involvement, we hope to hear what farmers have to say, what they want to do and find ways to support them. We hope that farmers in ur area will respond positively and be encouraged to talk to us and build a long-term relationship that will see farmers, the community and the environment prosper.