Local Food & Wine Convergence is a Great Opportunity for Ontario Farmers

Owen RobertsThe devil is in the details of a new two-year pilot program in Ontario designed to bring local food and wine together in farmers’ markets. But if the agri-food sector has enough patience to see it through, I believe everyone involved – farmers, wineries and consumers – can come out on top.

Starting tomorrow, Ontario’s best wines, crafted entirely from homegrown grapes (called Vintner’s Quality Alliance or VQA wines) will be able to be sold at farmers’ markets in Ontario, alongside local food.

The farmers’ market program addresses the province’s desire to stimulate the economy by further promoting local food and beverages. VQA wine sales in Ontario soared to $268 million last year, up a phenomenal $100 million since 2008.

Overall, Ontario’s wine and grape industry contributed $3.3 billion to the province’s economy in 2011. But despite this growth, the wine industry has long argued its potential to expand would be further enhanced with greater exposure to consumers.

Selling wine at farmers’ markets is a step towards making that consumer connection. And according to the Wine Council of Ontario, it’s a way to promote local farming and local food, too.

“Sales of VQA wines at farmers’ markets create another needed opportunity for Ontario’s wineries to connect with consumers — in this case closer to home, side-by-side with our farmers,” says council president Hillary Dawson. “We encourage Ontarians to use the opportunity of matching their local food with local wines crafted from 100 per cent Ontario grapes. What grows together, goes together.”

Great slogan!

About two dozen wineries have received approval from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario to sell their VQA wine at farmers’ markets, through what’s called an “occasional extension” of their on-site winery retail stores.

This is a highly regulated business, and the Attorney General’s office took a good look at the proposal. In the end, one staffer there told me, “the decision to provide VQA wine sales at farmers’ markets through extensions to existing on-site retail operations is appropriate, given that licensees already have the relevant knowledge and experience appropriate for retail sales, including due concern for social responsibility considerations.”

A lot of hand wringing and what-if scenarios related to alcohol sales at farmers’ markets caused government bureaucrats some sleepless nights. Legally and administratively (not to mention morally), there’s a world of difference between selling grapes at a farmers’ market stall and selling wine.

Nonetheless, and to their credit, they pressed on. And what a boon for those who frequent the farmers’ markets participating in the program.

Think of it like a restaurant. You pick out a steak or a bunch of asparagus, and have vendors or wine reps suggest a wine to match…which they just so happen to have on hand! Great! I imagine having a winery near your booth at a farmers’ market wouldn’t be bad for a vendor’s business, either.

Once you leave the farmers’ market, you’ll still stop by the LCBO for whatever else you want or need. Farmers’ markets will not replace the LCBO. But the scenario of fresh, local Ontario food matched on the spot with great wine — which by virtue of being made in Ontario is local by some definition, even if it’s not produced in your area code — is tantalizing.

Some big unknowns exist for this program, though, which I guess is why it’s a pilot.

First is the commitment by wineries. While appearing at busy farmers’ markets will enhance a winery’s profile, I’m not so sure about the economics of it. Is it profitable for a winery even an hour or so away to pack a truck with a few cases of wine, and spend a half-day hawking it at a farmer’s market? Many wineries, even though they produce top-of-the-line VQA wine, don’t have the horses for this. However, they might find the additional labour costs of doing so offset by the fact that they don’t have to shell out a portion of their sales to the LCBO.

As well, it’s likely Ontario craft beer producers and fruit wineries that have storefronts like the VQA wine producers will also want to take part. Right now, it’s just for VQA wine producers. But after all, the whole idea of selling wine at farmers’ markets originated with fruit wine producers. I suspect they too would like to participate in the inaugural experiment.

And finally, anyone who has frequented farmers’ markets knows there are cultural reasons some food producers would not want their products associated with alcohol.

Right now, farmers’ markets that will feature VQA wine sales are mostly in big cities:  Hamilton, Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton and London, among them. But Ontario is home to more than 200 farmers’ markets and 140 wineries that make VQA wine. While officials from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food have no estimate for the anticipated number of approvals, they say they expect more shortly.

“It will be a widespread pilot,” said one.

But will it be popular and permanent? I hope so. It’s certainly a step towards liberalizing antiquated liquor laws here, and if it’s treated responsibly, it will make the farmer-food connection stronger yet.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as

@theurbancowboy

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