New agriculture, local food and co-ops in Ontario's North

| December 3, 2015
Photo: flickr/ Sharon Drummond

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The Bring Food Home Conference in Sudbury Ontario this November was an opportunity for hundreds of food, farm, fish and traditional foods practitioners and advocates from across the province to share and learn in a three-day gathering of workshops, panels and tours. The excitement in the north around local food shone through in session after session.

When people say "Ontario's North," many probably do not understand the scope of this term. Ontario's North is a vast area, covering 87 per cent of Ontario's land area. A significant portion of that is Indigenous territory, often still under contested claims. While hunger averages over 10 per cent in Canada, food insecurity in the north is much higher, and represents a crisis for First Nations and remote communities.

At the same time, it is a loosely kept secret that northern farmland is still reasonably priced for production, and that important resources for trapping, wild food harvesting and fishing still exist and are often managed sustainably.

While 90 per cent of us cluster within 100 miles of the U.S. border, with over 20 per cent of the Canadian population huddled around the Greater Golden Horseshoe, there is a food and farming revolution starting just four hours north, and stretching into the farthest reaches of northern Ontario.

Communities in the north as well as the south are exploring the development of food hubs, season extension, community gardens and Good Food Markets that offer fresh healthy food at affordable prices.

For far North populations, these initiatives are critical to food security. Access to healthy food is limited in the north, both by supply ($6.50/ pound for freight means some very expensive potatoes) and by the pricing practices at Northern stores.

Northern stores have been able to build a monopoly on food provision, which encompasses check-cashing to a credit card with high charges and high transaction fees. The fees can be avoided by cashing cheques to an in-store "Benefit Card" which can only be used at company stores.

Limited healthy options and high prices are common at the stores. Northern stores receives the majority of the subsidies for northern food, while only 13 per cent goes to the Arctic Co-ops with their community membership and governance. The stores currently generate the majority of their profit from food sales. North West Company, the umbrella company, reported profits of $134.3 million in 2012. 

Northern communities reported at the conference that they are taking the food chain back into their own hands. Gigi Veeraraghavan of Peetabeck Health Services told us that the Fort Albany community has worked out the complex logistics (from truck to train to plane) to provide a Good Food Market in the area. Their challenge now is that you have to get there early, as the fruits and vegetables sell out fast. In the same "Food Access in the North" session, we learned about collaborations to get fresh food onto local plates: northern community gardens, season extension, and other innovations.

The Crop Up North campaign was also launched during the conference to recruit ecological farmers and food producers to join the local food movement in the north. Crop Up North is the brainchild of various groups including FarmStart and regional partners. The campaign reminds us that there is northern farmland that is still affordable, along with rapidly growing markets and infrastructure, and new food hubs like the Eat Local Sudbury co-op store and distribution hub.

Allison Muckle of the Crop Up North campaign writes:

"there's a growing demographic of young people who are attracted to ecological farming. Many of them are coming from an urban background rather than growing up on a farm. Being able to afford farmland and accessing start-up capital are significant barriers for them to start up a farm business. In northern Ontario, farmland is significantly cheaper and we have unique funding programs specific to farms and business start-ups. We also have a growing demand in the northeast for local, ecologically-grown foods, but not enough supply. I think the idea of farming in the north is not something a lot of new farmers are considering right now, but there are a lot of reasons they should be!"  

Check out the website for more information and an upcoming video on one of the new farms.

Northern chickens anyone? Regional food production in the north, as well as smaller scale and artisanal chicken production, has been short-changed on permission to operate their businesses. The "We Want Northern Chicken" campaign has successfully lobbied for quota that fits the scale of these operations, and the interest in heritage breeds.

Much of the buzz around local food in the north features enthusiastic collaboration between producers and consumers. In Dryden, the Cloverbelt Local Food Co-op is providing online marketing, aggregating from regional producers, and distributing to local Dryden markets as well as key communities in Sioux Lookout and Lac Seul farther north.

Bring Food Home also featured a workshop and panel on food hubs (see Eat Local Sudbury's developing project), how they work and how to start your own.

Desbarats Country Produce provides aggregation, storage, marketing and distribution for the new Mennonite community there. They are selling into the new Mill Market in Sault Ste. Marie, to regional markets, and as far as Thunder Bay through a regional distributor there. The Mennonite community's ice houses are an elegant solution to the challenge of storage; 50 person hours and $15,000 is enough to build a storage room, half-filled with snow in the winter. The thick, insulated walls keep the snow from fully melting, and maintain the cold temperature throughout the warm season.

Meat producers in the North have also been banding together to build more sustainable meat and business practices and to reach regional markets. Penokean Hills Farms is a collaboration of beef and lamb farmers who market and distribute under one brand name; Sudbury West Nipissing Meat Producers' is a group of around thirty meat producers who collaborate with their local abattoir (Creative Meats) to bring high quality and ethically raised meat to local consumers. Golden Beef is a co-op of beef producers in northeastern Ontario that raises animals without the addition of growth promoting hormones or antibiotics.

So, southern readers, if you have been thinking about farming, fishing, harvesting wild foods, or starting a local food business and want to do it in a vibrant, regional food environment, time to pack your snowshoes and rototillers and head north! And for those already in the North, take a bow for your leadership in promoting sustainable food initiatives and food security for all.


Sally Miller works at Local Organic Food Co-ops Network and is writer/researcher on sustainable food and agriculture.



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