Buying a bushel of beans from a local farmer may make you feel good and delight your guests, but imagine the impact on local agriculture — and eating habits — if your friendly farmer and his friends could sell truckloads of fresh produce to local high schools, colleges, nursing homes and hospitals.
Through a growing network of passionate growers and distributors, doors to these newmarkets are suddenly swinging open for small Ontario growers. One of the biggest challenges is convincing institutions local food isn’t wildly more expensive than imports, says Paul Knechtel, president of 100 Mile Market Inc., in Kitchener, Ont., which picks up and stributes locally grown produce, meat, fish, dairy and processed products from 160 local farmers to foodservice customers large and small.
An hour north of Toronto, in Bradford, Ont., Larry Cohn, president of Cohn Farms, is installing the latest European equipment to offer customers the highest degree of food
safety and efficiency in the packing and processing of his 700 acres of root crops.With the help of a $350,000 Greenbelt Fund grant over two years and Local Food Plus (LFP), a Toronto-based non-profit that conducts farm audits to ensure a producer is local and sustainable, he’s put together a project to package fresh produce from small, LFP-certified growers to attract large-volume customers.
“Smaller growers weren’t able to do this before,” says Cohn.“They don’t have the money to spend on expensive packing equipment, and they don’t have the food-safety levels in
place, which costs the same whether you’re big or small.”The second-generation grower now has commitments from nine farms this season, offering produce from broccoli to celery, both fresh and fresh-cut. Within two years, he’d like to have 20 to 30 small growers on board.