Niche marketing is the solution to prosperous Island farming

MINDEMOYA––A recent meeting in Mindemoya of local stakeholders that included a solid representation of growers, producers, distributors and consumers sought to discern the future direction of the local food movement on Manitoulin, and that future seems destined to flourish and grow.

The plethora of bad news coming out of the national and provincial food distributions systems, including the recent recall of XL meat products due to E. Coli concerns and numerous listeria scares has brought welcome attention to local alternatives to the big chains and corporate networks from which most Canadians get their daily sustenance.

The Future of Food and Farming on Manitoulin Island gathering had plenty of local foods on hand, prepared by local food activist and organic baker Maja Mielonen. The food table included local meats from Burt Farms, and owner/operator Max Burt was on hand as an active participant in the evening’s events.

Arik Theijsmeijer of FedNor and Manitoulin Community Food Network chair Heather Thoma opened the evening by welcoming the participants. Ms. Thoma noted that the evening was being jointly hosted by the Manitoulin Community Food Network, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), the Sudbury and District Health Unit, LAMBAC and FedNor.

Public Health Nurse Linda Belton was kept busy at the registration desk with a hardy group of volunteers as a flood of participants came through the doors.

The ground rules for the discussion and question and answer session were laid down by the organizers, who recognized that there could be some issue irritants between producers, distributors and consumers––everyone was advised to remain respectful and encouraged to be open-minded. The admonition was honoured throughout the meeting, with no sign of any antipathy apparent amongst the participants.

On hand from OMAFRA was Gore Bay agriculture representative Brian Bell, who delivered a presentation on the Future of Food and Farming on Manitoulin. Mr. Bell went through the farming statistics of Manitoulin Island, incuding that Manitoulin is comprised of approximately 1,100 square miles (704,000 acres), some 152,000 acres of which is farmed. “That includes 85,000 acres of unimproved pasture,” said Mr. Bell. “If you take out that portion of the Island that is covered in lakes, you can see we have quite a significant portion of the Island involved in agriculture.”

There are around 130 frost free days in the year, placing Manitoulin’s growing season on par with Barrie and regions of the Ottawa Valley. “For the horticulturalists out there, we are basically divided into two growing regions,” said Mr. Bell. The south side of the Island is basically growing zone 5a and the northern side roughly 4b, with some variance heading westward.

But the whole of Manitoulin is basically dry.

According to Environment Canada statistics, the May to September average precipitation is a meager 300 millimetres of rain. Water is definitely a challenge for Manitoulin’s growers.

“If you look at a colour coded soil map of Manitoulin Island it basically looks like someone dumped a pile of different paints on the paper,” said Mr. Bell. “Most Manitoulin soils are pH neutral, due to the composition of the underlying rock formations. Soil types range from loams through clay with deposits of sand and muck interspersed.”

Although there is a wide variety of soil, farming and agriculture forms a critical part of the local economy. “There are 235 census farms that are responsible for a farm gate revenue of $13.5 million, not including aquaculture,” he said. “When you take into account the multiplier effect of about 2.2 to 5 that is quite significant. The total capitalization of farms is about $175 million.” Among that capitalization are about 16,200 beef cattle and there are six dairy operations and 190 farms reporting cattle sales. Some 39 farms are producing in areas other than beef or dairy.

The infrastructure supporting food production on Manitoulin include a fluid milk processing plant (Espanola), two fish processing facilities, seven aquaculture cage sites, two provincially licenced abattoirs (Massey and Ice Lake), a third in Providence Bay is expecting to be open in a couple of months, two provincially licenced free standing meat plants, one flour processing facility, one egg grading station (region), eight farmers’ market locations (region), and an increasing number of community kitchens. Add to this a significant tradition of local gardening initiatives and the list becomes even more impressive.

Mr. Bell noted that local trends include food-marketing initiatives such as ‘food box’ nutritional programs, farmers’ markets and the development of buying groups are being accentuated by municipal projects, the reappearance of grain and flour processing, locally processed and branded meat, fruit, vegetables and a decidedly apparent increase in the Island acreage devoted to the production of cash crops.

Other local trends Mr. Bell identified included an increase in farms 70 acres or less, an increase in seasonal paid hours, an increase in horticulture acreage, including the grading, packaging and minimal processing (washing and bagging) of food products, and an increase in honey and maple syrup production.

Restaurantuer Rose Diebolt of Tehkummah discussed the challenges she faced in incorporating local foods at her Garden’s Gate Restaurant. “When I first started, I thought I would produce everything I needed myself,” she laughed. “I soon realized I couldn’t do both.”

Her first partnership was with Chuc and Linda Willson who endeavoured to supply her with locally grown lettuce. She soon outstripped their supply and Heather Thoma and Paul Salanki came on board with their fresh produce. Now Pike Lake farms is supplying produce, including “really good beans” and Boo Watson’s Blue Jay Creek Art Farm is supplying produce as well.

Ms. Diebolt noted that it is sometimes difficult to coordinate schedules with busy local farmers, but that most have made heroic efforts to help keep her in locally produced foods.

One of the suggested methods for coordination between supplier and consumer was to form a central online registry.

Local farmer John McNaughton delivered an informative anecdotal presentation of the modern reality of farming through a description of his family cow-calf operation. The lead slide on the screen set the theme for his presentation, ‘When Opportunity Knocks.’

Mr. McNaughton did not shy away from the challenges his operation has faced over the past few years, including the global fallout from the Canadian BSE crisis, but he noted that success has come through hard work, determination and, most especially, innovation and embracing change. “I don’t think you would have found a farmer on Manitoulin with one of these in his pocket,” said Mr. McNaughton, holding up his smart phone. “We try to do at least one experiment a year,” he said.

Mr. McNaughton noted that customers are changing in the industry, adding that in his freezer beef operation, he has changed the cuts of meat to suit his Asiatic customers.

“Agriculture is the second most innovative sector,” said Mr. McNaughton. “Just behind the computer technology sector and well ahead of the automotive sector. We are not farming in our grandfathers’ age.”

Paying attention to dietary trends and changes in consumption patterns, such as a move towards consumption of ground beef as opposed to the 16-ounce steak, need to be embraced by producers, he noted. But the advent of the 100-mile diet provides a great opportunity, as do some of the challenges facing farmers. “Gas isn’t getting any cheaper,” said Mr. McNaughton. “It costs more to ship anything off the Island or to bring anything in.” But within that challenge is the opportunity to seek out local markets.

Producers, especially small farm operations, must avoid competing in the major sectors dominated by the large scale producers. Instead, the future lies in finding niche markets and value added opportunities.

Mr. McNaughton said that he sees great opportunities in local branding and the advent of the new abattoir in Providence Bay.

Mr. Theijsmeijer presented a synopsis of a conference he attended on the future of food production. His talk focussed on two main streams, that of technology, aka the techno food system, and the other on a retro food system. If there was ever a place that discussion might have deteriorated into a brawl, it was in reaction to the techo food options. Since those included genetically modified foods (with a great graphic of a fish/banana hybrid), lab grown food (aka Chicken Little of sci-fi fame) and robot farm workers, such a reaction from the local food enthusiasts in the room might be anticipated.

Luckily, the retro food presentation quickly calmed the general agitation level in the room.

But Mr. Theijsmeijer’s presented thesis showed that the most likely future scenario would involve a balance between technology and some aspects of retro farming. Mr. Theijsmeijer noted that for the first time in recent memory, the global food production system is not producing enough food to feed the planet. The result is the creation of a dynamic tension between the techno drivers of global pressures, price and specialized crops and the retro drivers of locally produced, diverse quality local foods.

This will require an integrated approach and a concentration of green growth. The need was highlighted for the development of a national food strategy. There have been several proposals, one from each of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, Food Secure Canada and the Conference Board of Canada.

The discussion, facilitated by Joan Brady, following the presentations proved to be the most engaged portion of the evening (even topping the delicious butternut cake).

Consensus was that small farming will work better than large, that farmers and consumers work better together, that trends on Manitoulin will be toward local sustainable farms that are about local people and quality of food, Manitoulin specific branding, identification and marketing with an increase in small-scale subsistence food production, more niche markets (garlic, wine, mushrooms) and biodiversity.

“Make Manitoulin a GMO-free zone,” yelled out one participant to general agreement.

Many of the challenges identified to the local food system are familiar refrains, including fuel costs, distances, a lack of policy for small-scale businesses and farms, such as labeling requirements and simplifying regulations. Other issues included income barriers for consumers, with healthy food costing more to access and a general lack of local storage facilities.

Each challenge was balanced by a concurrent and related opportunity.

The discussion highlighted the importance of dialogue across the food system to help match supply and demand.

As the meeting broke up and attendees began gathering up their displays and equipment, plans were already being made for next year’s event.

Michael Erskine