Food Literacy for Consumers is One Step Forward for Farmers

Owen RobertsAgriculture’s global profile got a boost last year thanks to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization deeming 2014 the International Year of Family Farming.

Journalists wrote enlightening stories about the fact that nearly all Canadian farms are family owned.

Politicians spoke in glowing terms about the economic, social and cultural contributions made by family farms.

And at least some farmers and farm groups embraced it, recognizing international designations and the spotlight that accompanies them are few and far between.

But now what? That year is over. What lies ahead for family farms?

This could easily be a book. But a good place to start is by looking at what’s going on in Ontario (other than the neonicotinoid issue, which admittedly is pretty hard to overlook).

Earlier this week, the agriculture, food and rural affairs ministry continued its quest to strengthen family farms in its own way, by bringing them closer to consumers through promoting local food knowledge and consumption.

It’s emphasizing to the public farmers’ role in local food production, and the estimated $34 billion contribution farming makes to the province’s economy.

To its credit, the ministry has made support for local food part of the government’s economic plan for Ontario. Granted, there’s much more to Ontario agriculture than local food — most notably, exports, which will be increasingly important as the dollar keeps falling, as well as import replacements.

But this close tie to the economy gives farming another seat at the table, another opportunity to be heard when decisions that affect it are being made at a high level.

That’s vital. Agriculture can and does pound the table about its importance.  It has a great case to make, and the province realizes it.

But unless consumers understand agriculture and support it, the political will won’t be there to back it up.

So the ministry is trying to reach those consumers by appealing to their fondness for local food.

More specifically, the ministry wants Ontarians to have a closer relationship with local food. Tuesday, it announced it had set goals to encourage and increase what’s being called food literacy, an understanding of food.

That drive includes boosting the number of Ontarians who know what local foods are available, know how and where to obtain local foods, and know how to prepare them…vital, given the huge amount of food waste attributed to an inability to prepare fresh food.

And taking it a step further, the province’s effort also aims to support more local food being made available through food services. That has the potential to further bring local food to consumers, through restaurants, processors and manufacturers.

All this could certainly have a positive effect on family farms, particularly the growing number of small farms that are flourishing, thanks to consumer interest in the food supply.

Farm owners should make an effort to turn out for an annual day-long local food summit initiative called Source It Here, on February 9 at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph. Waterloo’s Foodlink and Guelph-Wellington’s Taste Real local food programs have teamed up this year to jointly present the summit. That’s a good move, considering how local food is so regional in the area, and given the organizations’ commitment to making the region a food tourism destination.

Among the speakers at the event will be University of Guelph chef Gordon Cooledge, who’ll talk about how to preserve and increase the value of local food through processing. The university, which dubs itself Canada’s Food University, has rightly taken a leadership position in the local food movement.

Its involvement shows the breadth of local food’s impact, which in Ontario is everywhere you look.

“There is an abundance of farm, fresh and local food that is grown and prepared throughout Wellington County and Waterloo Region,” says Christina Mann, project coordinator for Taste Real. “The key is making connections with the right people who have the knowledge and expertise in getting the food to local tables.”

That imperative sounds to me like the local food sector and the province are on the same page. And that in itself is at least one essential element for the future of family farms.

 

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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