It was likely a coincidence that the Frontenac Community Futures Development Corporation (FCFDC) chose to hold an event about the future of local food production on Groundhog Day. But with Maple Syrup producers laying low, farmers sorting their seeds, and restaurants in winter survival mode, it was a good time to get everyone together.
Katherine Howes is doing her thesis on Frontenac County as part of her work towards a post-graduate degree in Rural planning and development at Guelph University. She also has a farming background in Parham, and set the stage for the event with a short power point on her findings thus far.
One of the aspects of the local food industry that Howes has looked at is access to production facilities for small scale and startup food producers. She did so on the basis of the results of Business Retention and Expansion study that was conducted by the Frontenac County Economic Development department in 2012. The study identified commercial kitchens as a “key piece of infrastructure that was needed to grow local food processing in Frontenac County” she said in her presentation.
She contacted all the church and community halls in the county that have kitchens that are, or could be, used for commercial production.
“It was determined that a large number of community kitchens in the county are underutilised and that they have the potential to be upgraded to commercial kitchen facilities, given enough financial support”.
While her research found the owners of the halls are receptive to making more use of their kitchens, the demand among producers is mixed.
For her research, Howes has also interviewed producers.
Of the eighteen producers she has conducted extensive interviews with, seven use commercial kitchen space, but of those producers who are thinking of getting into a new, value added product, only 22% are considering looking for commercial kitchen space.
There was little or no interest in taking advantage of either of the two regional food hubs which offer kitchen and storage space, at least partly because they are located too far away, in Smiths Falls and Hastings County. While there is a need for more commercial kitchen capacity, producers in Frontenac are more inclined to look either at some local rental spaces that are available or can be developed, or at renovating existing kitchens or building new ones to commercial standards so they can work at home.
After the presentation, the main business of Friday’s event centred around conversations at three tables on specific topics: creating consumer awareness, coordination for growth, and infrastructure. Among the diverse participants at the event were farmers, farm group representatives, value added food producers, and representatives from local municipalities and provincial ministries. Participants found their own tables based on their interests and the conversations were broad, but the intention of the event was to focus on finding a way to move forward on the issues that were brought up at the tables.
At the Infrastructure table, issues were raised both about dealing with municipal regulations around zoning and building permits, and about provincial regulations as they apply to food businesses.
“It would be ideal if there were a simple list of requirements, so I know what I have to do to get up and running as a legal producer, no matter how long the list was. But I can’t get that, I don’t know where I would go to get that, and it makes it hard for my timelines and my finances” said Alan Zahara, who is developing a new food business in the Hartington area.
South Frontenac Mayor Ron Vandewal participated in the infrastructure table. He acknowledged that the township has not been able to streamline its own processes and provide all commercial developers, not just those in the food industry, with the kind of list Zahara was referring to, but said it goes both ways.
“We sometimes have people coming to us who think they can go ahead and construct new buildings or do renovations without engineer’s drawings, without professional support for their applications,” he said.
At the table that was looking at consumer awareness, Alison Shannon from Sun Harvest Greenhouses of Glenburnie (just outside Frontenac County) said that the Infrontenac branding initiative has “has led to a lot of awareness and cooperation among producers. Maybe the consumers, the eaters, are the next focus,” she said.
Others mentioned that creating awareness about the availability of local food is an issue that producers face everywhere, and in a county where people are scattered throughout and travel to other centres on a regular basis for food, it can be hard to build a local presence.
The two farmers markets (in Sharbot Lake and Verona) and some of the food stores, such as Local Family Farms in Verona and Lavallee’s Inverary Store are options for consumers to access local products, but there was a feeling that more can be done in the future as far as marketing ‘local’ is concerned.
The networking event was part of an initiative that the FCFDC has taken on for the township of South Frontenac, which has funded a study to identify the gaps in infrastructure and services for food producers and processors.
A final report will be coming to South Frontenac Council later this year.
In addition to a chilli lunch prepared by Local Family Farms, samples of a new Frontenac County product that will soon be available, goat yogurt from a Harrowmsith area farm, was available for sampling. The thick, Greek version, and lighter Balkan version were popular among the crowd. Samples of the tasty, still warm, fresh goat milk was a little less popular, with some participants saying they preferred their milk cold.