Focus on Growing, Diversifying and Partnerships: Agriculture and Food Processing in Northern Ontario

June 2, 2014 - In support of efforts by the Province to identify the challenges and opportunities regarding the agriculture and food processing sector, an inaugural conference was recently held in Dryden, Ontario to shed light on new development strategies. The ‘For the Love of Food & Farming’ conference was organized by the Kenora District Soil & Crop Improvement Association with the support from the Dryden District Agricultural Society, Cloverbelt Local Food Co-op, Dryden District Horticultural Society and Food land Ontario. There were several speakers in attendance that shared a wealth of knowledge, but those guests who spoke specifically to Northern Ontario were: Leo Hunnakko, an expert in northern climate greenhouse design, Jen Springett, President of Cloverbelt Local Co-op, and Alan Mol, President of Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association.

Leo Hunnako, presented his extensive project on Greenhouse 365, Greenhouse Growing Nutritious Food Year Round in Northern Regions, which covered his research on northern climatic and environmental conditions. Leo designed a greenhouse that can withstand overnight temperatures of minus 34 degrees Celsius, while using little supplementary heating and electricity. The GH365 does not look like your typical greenhouse – it is a uniquely designed, heavily insulated solar thermal facility. A greenhouse vegetable production facility is only viable if operated year-round. The feasibility of growing vegetables in northern climate greenhouses over the winter is an important breakthrough with very positive potential. Leo makes the case that greenhouses provide an opportunity to ease away from the global industrial food network, enabling consumers to access year-round local, healthy foods at a lower price. Such region specific greenhouses can provide an extension on our short growing season and expand our capacity to grow food.

Jen, President of the Cloverbelt Local Food Co-op, explained how her co-op cultivates and facilitates farmer-consumer relationships; promotes naturally grown, fair priced healthy food; and provides education and resources regarding environmentally sensitive agriculture. One of the key ways that the Co-op accomplishes this is through their online farmers’ market. This online farmers’ market is a first of its kind for the region, and is sustained through the strong support of general membership and ingenuity of producer members to support and feed the community – creating an environment for knowledge sharing to take place. The Cloverbelt Local Food Co-op online market identifies itself as another option or tool in conjunction with the already long established Dryden-Oxdrift market. However, it is unique because it has the capacity to include producers from further away, such as Kenora, Rainy River, and even Thunder Bay, without any undue cost to participants. This collaboration has expanded the access and distribution of local food in the community, supporting and sustaining the growth and diversification of the agricultural economy in the region. On April 26th, 2014 Jen and the family at the Cloverbelt Local Co-op were presented with the Dryden District Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Award for Environmental Stewardship.

Alan Mol, President of Ontario Soil & Crop Improvement Association, also spoke to the existing and emerging priorities in the agriculture and food processing sector. Alan covered Growing Forward 2which is a comprehensive federal-provincial-territorial framework aimed at encouraging innovation, competitiveness and market development in Canada’s agri-food and agri-products sector. More specifically, to address the unique agricultural qualities in Northern Ontario, farm, food and bio-product businesses, collaborations and organizations can build their own plan and select opportunities to help grow profits, expand markets and manage risks.

The purpose of Growing Forward 2 is split into a two-step process. Step one is capacity building which entails building funding assistance to increase the ability of producers to anticipate, understand, and plan for the demands, opportunities, and risks facing their businesses. This is the step where producers can access 50% cost-share towards projects under capacity building: education, skills and development training, assessment and audit, and planning.

The second step of the framework is geared towards implementation, which is the final component of funding assistance. Using a merit-based evaluation procedure, only the very best projects receive cost-share. Funding assistance in the implement stage includes the following challenges: environmental and climate change, assurance systems (food safety, traceability and animal welfare), market development, animal and plant health, labor productivity enhancement, and finally, business and leadership development. Next on Alan’s agenda was the Species at Risk Incentive Program (SARFIP). SARFIP is funded by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) through the Species at Risk Stewardship Fund, and the Government of Canada through the Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk. SARFIP is available to farmers across the province and offers up to 80% cost-share towards a set of Best Management Practices (BMP). Projects can be applied to croplands, grasslands, riparian areas, wetlands, or even woodlands.

Finally, Alan introduced The Grassland Habitat Farm Incentive Program (GHFIP). The GHFIP offers funding to complete farm projects that strengthen operations while supporting grassland birds. These species rely heavily on the meadows, pastures and hay fields provided by local agricultural operations. GHFIP aims to support farmers who provide this habitat by improving existing agricultural management practices. This innovative program relies on a competitive bid system and environmental benefit index to identify and reward proposed projects that show the greatest environmental merit for the government dollars invested.

Each one of these guests who spoke at ‘For the Love of Food & Farming’ conference highlighted and provided several innovative opportunities and measures to grow and diversify the agricultural industry in Northern Ontario. It will be interesting to follow future emerging economic strategies in agriculture and food processing, and discover further contributions to building sustainable local food sources.


Authored by Cheryl Reid

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