Local food on offer from Ontario’s Golden Garden

By MPP Toby Barrett

Nothing beats the flavour of farm-fresh strawberries – a long-time symbol of local food.

Home-grown food has come full circle. Years ago, family farms grew produce to feed their families and then sold the excess. Now, local farmers are satisfying consumer demand for local fruit, vegetables and meat, as well as answering the question of what goes into that food.

The 100-mile diet takes the concept one step further, guaranteeing food is locally produced, with less pollutants and energy.

Similarly, a certification program dubbed Local Food Plus ensures the consumer knows where a product came from and if the farmer is environmentally responsible. Being associated with Local Food Plus has become a new marketing tool for farmers.

During the last session of the Ontario Legislature, the Local Food Act, 2013, was introduced by the Government. The effort to recognize local food is admirable, but the proposed legislation is too much stick and not enough carrot. For instance, the act sets targets for local food, yet does not address farmers’ complaint of increased regulation. Although well intended, legislation must also be cognizant of the fact most food is produced and distributed – imported and exported – with the benefit of massive economies of scale.

Agriculture is Ontario’s number one economic sector, but the Ministry of Agriculture, combined with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Ministry of Environment, comprise less than two per cent of Ontario’s operating budget. There is something wrong with this picture.

My colleagues MPP Ernie Hardeman and MPP Bob Bailey, announced an amendment to the Local Food Act recently which would create a 25 per cent tax credit for farmers who donate their products to their local food bank – thus covering some of their cost of production. This could work well in our area given the diversity of our fruit and vegetable production.

In today’s global economy, it’s not hard to visit your local grocery store and see food on the shelves from the United States, China, India and beyond. Our local farmers have to compete against these farmers who can grow food with pesticides long banned in Canada, and with labour at a fraction of local wages. There is also a possibility the product is grown on former rain forest or other locally-valuable farm land. Often the produce is picked before ripe or chemicals are applied to keep it fresh.

As a consumer, you have not only the choice to buy local through roadside stands and farmer’s markets, but also through your grocery store. But Ontario’s first crops of spring, asparagus and strawberries, are examples of cut-throat marketing. We often see American asparagus and berries on store shelves while fresh Ontario product is available.

Ontario is a leader in environmentally sustainable farming. With the highest forest cover in southern Ontario, area farmers lead the pack. Retention of the forest cover, and planting of wind breaks, were done out of necessity after farmers watched their precious top soil blow away during dry weather. We must preserve the soil necessary to ensure the future of farming.

As summer progresses and more crops mature, the number of roadside stands selling fresh fruits and vegetables increase. So, too will the options for local produce at farmer’s markets. Buy local with the confidence you are doing the right thing!