Stacey Corcoran describes how innovation and support for local food may be leading to a renaissance in Local Food Infrastructure.
Throughout history wherever you find farmers there have been others filling vital roles as processors and distributors. Excellent local food infrastructure such as canning and freezing facilities, grain processing, dairies and cheese makers were all within reach to facilitate delivering more products to customers. Farmers and home gardeners also had access to cold storage lockers (in addition to a root cellar in every home) that made storage crops like potatoes, carrots and cabbage viable options all year round. Kingston area was no exception; as recently as the early 1980s, Prince Edward County had the second largest canning industry in Canada. Just two decades later, that industry has completely disappeared as the local food system was abandoned in favour of inexpensive, imported food from large ‘one-stop’ supermarkets. Whereas all aspects of the food industry were once handled by a multitude of small, locally-sourcing distributors and processors they have been replaced in merely a generation with a food system dominated by a handful of large multi-nationals. The near extinction of small-scale processing presents a significant barrier to family farms who do not generate enough volume to interest commercial processors. Small farms must choose to either complete value-added processing themselves, sell only in-season produce, or face considerable pressure to ‘get big’.
Thankfully, local food movements are gaining traction in many places, including an extremely viable movement in the Kingston area. After a concerted education campaign and programs and funding to help new farmers get established - there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of local food in Kingston and area. However, as more local farmers enter the marketplace there is increasing pressure for better local food infrastructure that would enable farmers to expand their seasons, offer more value-added products, lower the food miles attached to items requiring extra processing like meat and dairy, and expand the access that eaters have to high-quality local food year-round. Like all infrastructure projects, these are costly ventures with long start-up times and steep learning curves. There must be a feeling of optimism about the long-term stability of demand for local food and a willingness to take on risk and uncertainty. There are many such entrepreneurs in Kingston area and several exciting projects in various stages of development.
A major issue for local poultry farmers is lack of proximity to a high quality abattoir; currently farmers must ship their birds to either Foxboro or Mountain to reach the nearest inspected abattoir. In addition to the extra food miles from the round trip, travel is stressful for animals unaccustomed to the process, and stress hormones do not exactly contribute to flavourful meat. These out-of-town abattoirs handle thousands of birds per day during the poultry season. Farmers who do not book well in advance could find themselves with no appointment at all and there is often no room for flexibility due to weather or other variables. The vast majority of Kingston area poultry farmers are small-scale operations that function outside the quota system and are usually unable to secure sought-after appointments near Christmas or Thanksgiving. That means Kingstonians hoping for fresh, local (and especially organic) poultry for the holiday table may be out of luck. Furthermore, for most small-scale growers offering fresh poultry is out of the question unless the slaughtering is done on-farm, as food safety standards require refrigeration for long-distance transportation. While a local abattoir would not be guaranteed to solve these issues, there is no doubt that additional abattoir capacity in Eastern Ontario would be valuable and alleviate some of the strain on existing providers. National Farmers Union (NFU) Local 316 (Frontenac and Lennox & Addington Counties), with a grant from Frontenac County, is currently conducting a feasibility study to determine potential demand for a local abattoir.
Above: An architect’s rendering of the new Limestone Organic Creamery building once completed (Gervan & Associates).
Another exciting project will break ground this spring giving Kingstonians access to locally processed organic dairy products for the first time in decades. Limestone Organic Creamery will open in late autumn 2011 at Limestone Stables (formerly Earthrise Organic Farm), home of the Groenewegen Family, located on Sydenham Road just north of Elginburg. Francis and Kathie grew up on dairy farms in the Kingston area; Kathie at their current farm and Francis in Harrowsmith. Their children, Patrick and Olivia, plan to farm as well and with the opening of Limestone Organic Creamery the Groenewegens hope to see their small family farm supporting three families.
The creamery will process milk from their farm for sale direct to consumers at the farm store onsite and through a home delivery service. A full spectrum of fluid milk products in glass bottles (skim, 1%, 2%, whole, unhomogenized, buttermilk and chocolate) and butter will be offered, with plans to add yogurt and cheese in the future. Their arrangement will deliver dairy from farm to store with less than one food mile; pretty impressive. Limestone Organic Creamery will fill out their product line with Organic Meadow products including cream, yogurt, kefir, sour cream, cheese and ice cream. Other products will be available for purchase onsite including farm-raised organic beef, pork, and poultry as well as eggs, bread and other baked goods. The Groenewegen Family is also looking for an individual or couple interested in growing organic vegetables on their farm; interested parties should contact them directly. Please check their website www.limestonecreamery.ca for updates and information on signing up for home delivery.
One other distinct gap in our local food infrastructure is the scarcity of cold storage for winter storage crops. Capacity is needed not only for farmers and market gardeners but also on a much smaller scale for home gardeners. Recognizing this need, Francis and Kathie Groenewegen plan to build a cold storage facility in the basement of their new dairy building. The bulk of the space will be used by the dairy and the on-site vegetable gardener but there are plans to build small storage lockers that could be rented by home gardeners for their personal use. This is clearly not a complete solution as large-scale storage space is desperately needed, but as Kathie put it, “it seems a shame not to put the basement of the building to good use. We don’t need all the space ourselves and this could be one more piece in the overall infrastructure solution.” As an enthusiastic home gardener, I am certainly looking forward to more cold storage options. Market gardeners and farmers should take heart as well: the NFU New Farm Project team is exploring the idea of a cooperative cold storage facility for growers - those interested should contact Ian Stutt (firstname.lastname@example.org).
There is one vital piece of the infrastructure puzzle that has not been discussed: distribution. Small-scale growers typically handle this themselves with market or farm-gate sales and deliveries to local retail outlets or restaurants. This arrangement means that a restaurant or store needs to place multiple calls to many farmers to secure supply and arrange deliveries, and represents a significant drawback to going local over conventional where only one call to a large distributor is required. There are also costs to the farmer because (often scarce) resources have to be allocated to distribution that could otherwise be focused on growing. The Kingston area is very lucky that an industrious entrepreneur, Wendy Banks, has been filling the distributor niche. Her business,Wendy’s Mobile Market, delivers food from local farmers and producers to both commercial and residential customers (see profile below). As more restaurants and retail outlets transition to local food, the demand for distribution systems to move goods between farmers and consumers continues to grow.
It is an exciting time in the local food movement in the Kingston area as these infrastructure investments will enliven and support the growth of small-scale farming for years to come. Of course there remains room for improvement with cheese-making, blast-freezing facilities, grain-milling, and small-scale commercial canning (to name a few) as niches that ought to be filled in the future. I look forward to the emergence of other local food businesses and new ways to source and enjoy the fruits of our countryside.
Eaters are enjoying increasing convenience as there are numerous retail outlets in the City of Kingston that carry a significant selection of local food including Tara Natural Foods, Old Farm Fine Foods, Glenburnie Grocery, and The Village Co-op. These are supplemented by businesses offering home delivery (Desert Lake Gardens, and Wendy’s Mobile Market), Community Supported Agriculture (http://csafarms.ca/index.html), Kingston Public Market (www.kingstonpublicmarket.ca) as well as numerous smaller seasonal markets throughout the City and countryside. Further information on sources of local food is available using the NFU Local 316 Local Food Locator (at fooddowntheroad.ca) or through the Tourism Kingston food website (www.kingstonfood.ca).
Stacey Corcoran has previously written for and edited this newspaper.