I was lucky enough last month to be part of the Eastern Ontario Local Food Conference (EOLFC) where we dove into the building blocks of the local food community in Eastern Ontario. I had the opportunity to meet some of fantastic food producers and other food actors who are doing amazing work to ensure that our food system remains resilient.
That was the theme of the day: ‘resilience’ – and as the terminology has become frequent in the food space, I've been reflecting on what it really means. The analogy that best sticks with me is that of a forest fire - we instinctively think of forest fires as bad, but in fact a resilient forest is one that goes up in flames occasionally. Rather than being totally destructive in nature, periodic fires are actually beneficial and allow new plants to thrive which would not have been able to otherwise. It is a natural cleansing and renewal that helps move the forest forward in its life-cycle. As humans, it is hard to see sometimes that this type of destruction can be positive and helpful, particularly when it comes to our habits and expectations of normal.
At EOLFC we discussed two shocks within our food system. The first - climate change, the second - a rising cost of living. Rather than fighting to keep our system as we now know it, a resilient food system means that we have an opportunity to tear down some of our current understanding and expectations to start again fresh with an opportunity to grow. To achieve this change requires change from all the players in our food system - from consumers, to retailers, to processors and farmers.
"A resilient food system means that we have an opportunity to tear down some of our current understanding and expectations to start again fresh with an opportunity to grow."
Here are some of the highlights from different actors in our food system on how to build a resilient food system and make the best of disruptive forces:
Tackling climate change and biodiversity
At EOLFC we heard from primary producers that there is a lot of opportunity to innovate and adapt to climate change. Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) is an excellent support for Canadian farmers and helps them offset the financial costs of farming on their land in a more integrated manner. The program is voluntary and allows for community-led, farmer-delivered conservation initiatives. The mission is to respond to both climate change and biodiversity loss through engaging the primary owners and users of our natural land resources.
Creating economic resilience for food producers
Funny Duck farms shared their experience growing and raising a variety of food so that in years when the garden doesn't fare well, their animals do instead to provide stability to their income. We also discussed traditional methods of polyculture farming and integrated organic farming techniques that result in a more diversified product offering, and provide additional economic stability for producers.
Hens foraging at Funny Duck Farms.
Increasing direct access through ‘grow-your-own’
As technology intersects with growing consumer demand for local, natural, organic, and direct-from-producer products, there has been huge advancement in tools like Modular Farms, indoor vertical farming (both large and small scale), and backyard greenhouse products. It can be easy to see this sort of disruption as a negative one for primary producers and traditional farmers – but with our new perspective of resilience – we can see the enormous economic opportunity for businesses to provide products and services for home-grown produce, and also further growth in overall demand for fresh produce, meaning that grow-your-own will not necessarily cannibalise sales for commercial producers.
Encouraging effective and collaborative community engagement
Food distributors, food hubs, retailers and community supported agriculture (CSA) can all be focused on helping people better connect with the food producers and manufacturers in their community. Just as grow-your-own technology can be complementary to products from farmers and growers, I prefer to see different models of community engagement to be compliments for each other, rather than competition. There are many bodies working towards the purpose of educating consumers about food systems, and increasing access and availability of healthy products from producers who are positively impacting communities and the environment. We are stronger working together and, rather than seeing new actors as disruptive to the status quo, we can seize the opportunity to go back to the drawing board and always continue to learn from the best
Some great examples of community engagement and collaboration:
- Wendy's Mobile Market began in response to an increased demand from people in her community for more locally grown and made food. The mobile market is a physical store and distributor to restaurants and hubs.
Ontario Agri-Food Venture Centre was established to help farmers and food entrepreneurs grow. Specifically, the centre fills a critical gap between processing in a commercial kitchen and going into a co-packer. Their complete range of services - food packaging, product development lab, food storage, business support - helps food entrepreneurs experiment and grow their product to be retail ready.
- Beau’s All Natural Brewing is well connected within their community. In May 2016, they took the bold step of selling out…. but rather than selling to a multi-national conglomerate, they sold the company to their employees. Fifty per cent of that staff/owners of Beau’s live and work in Vankleek Hill, Ontario, a community of less than 2,000 people.
Localize is a software and service company that enhances existing efforts to build resilient food systems through connecting consumers with the stories behind their food and connecting grocers with unique and growing food producers.