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Is local food good for farmers?

Canada’s social sciences council is investing $2.4 million in local food research. Here’s what they hope to learn

Alison Blay-Palmer has been studying and promoting local food systems for nearly 20 years, and her enthusiasm for the topic is greater than ever.

Blay-Palmer is director of the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., where she explores the big questions around sustainability.

Those big questions include social justice, a factor rarely considered in mainstream ag research. For her, looking into economics means not only farm incomes, but also migrant labour, access to affordable food, and what she calls food “re-localization,” or “closing the loop” — to retain as much money as possible in the community.

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And yes, this is federally funded research, although not exactly ag research.

Last fall, Blay-Palmer was named International Government Innovation Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at the Waterloo-based Balsillie School of International Affairs.

Even more recently, she obtained $2.4 million over five years from the national Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to look at community food projects that are happening across the country and around the world.

SSHRC is the federal council that normally funds historians and sociologists, as well as English professors and creative writing centres.

So why is SSHRC funding an agriculture project, when most federal ag funding comes either directly from the federal agriculture department, the National Science and Engineering Research Council, or via various incentive programs targeted at industry?

Blay-Palmer, after all, has already received ag funding through channels that might seem more regular, including $200,000 through an Ontario agriculture ministry pro­ject called New Directions for research into food hubs.

Partly, says Blay-Palmer, it’s because as a university professor who has access to grad students and other research assistants, she tends to steer clear of research funds that are needed by other organizations and groups.

As well, SSHRC seemed a natural fit because her academic background is in geography and environmental studies.

But it also has to do with the nature of the project. Called the Food: Locally Embedded, Globally Engaged (FLEdGE) project, her SSHRC-funded research will assess how they can better meet the burgeoning demand for local food, and she will then feed the results back to industry and government for action.

The study is being conducted in partnership with researchers in seven “nodes” across the country: the Northwest Territories; Alberta/B.C.; north, southwest and eastern Ontario; Quebec; and Atlantic Canada.

To explain why the study is needed, Blay-Palmer points in part to statistics showing farmers need off-farm income.

“Farmers are facing economic instability,” she says. “For many farmers, if it weren’t for off-farm income, they wouldn’t have a farm.”

Figures from Statistics Canada can support this. In 2013, the average annual total income for farmers was $117,388, with just more than $90,000 of that coming from off the farm.

But the study is about more than economics. She believes something else is wrong with the way food production is perceived and pursued.

“Food is about so much more,” she says.

“Food could be a linchpin for addressing all kinds of issues,” Blay-Palmer says. “Sustainable” approaches to food production could help in many areas, including efforts to control poor health and obesity, unemployment and environmental degradation.

Meanwhile, Mary Beckie is working on the same project in the West from her position as associate professor at the University of Alberta.

Beckie says that while Ontario is a hotspot for this kind of research, Canada, as a whole, is far behind the U.S. and Europe.

“I can count on one hand the number of people out here looking at this topic,” Beckie says.

“There’s a growing demand for local that’s not going away, and we should be capturing more of that market because of the economic and environmental benefits to be had,” she says, adding that studies in the U.S. show demand for local is outstripping even demand for organics.

FLEdGE has three main goals.

First is better integration of the food system across boundaries and supply chains. An outcome of this work would be to get farmers, governments and civil society organizations to develop a national food policy.

Second is scaling up and out by increasing the number of local food initiatives and building processing and marketing capacity. Beckie refers to this as “growing the middle” between primary agriculture and retail.

Third is innovative governance, or finding mechanisms that allow government and other institutions to act more cohesively. Blay-Palmer uses the Canadian Energy Strategy, agreed to by the provinces and territories last summer, as a potential model for food.

The study is ambitious in its scope, examining any initiatives that, in Blay-Palmer’s words, “shorten the distance between the farmer and the eater” — including community supported agriculture, alternative retail models, food hubs, online farmers markets and others.

There is a lot of local food activity that can be studied in almost all regions of the country.

In Ontario’s Grey County, for example, its Local Food Project has been going on since 2007 and in April 2013, Philly Markowitz was hired as a full-time local food economic development officer there. Her vision is to attract, retain and support food-related businesses, including farms.

Markowitz’s duties include helping small and medium-sized businesses attract customers, learn about new technology, obtain grant funding and more. She understands and takes into account the social justice, food security, environmental stewardship and other aspects of her work, but focuses on its economics.

Of the people she works with, she says, “If there’s anything I can do to help their bottom lines and make their businesses sustainable, that’s a plus. My mission is to keep the small and medium-size businesses supported so we can have a true rural community — that’s how I get up in the morning and go to work.”

There are a number of activities going on in her region. The Grey Bruce Culinary and Agriculture Association publishes a food map and runs Foodlink Grey Bruce, a website that lists 450 businesses that sell their products and services online to customers. Recently Markowitz worked with Georgian College to offer courses to producers and processors about understanding food safety regulations.

Many local and provincial governments have recognized the potential contributions local food systems can make. Ontario has had a Local Food Act since 2013, and Alberta has a similar bill that’s expected to pass in early 2016.

Alberta’s legislation is aimed at ensuring “a resilient, sustainable and strong local food economy and agricultural land base.” It is comprehensive and aimed at procuring more local food for more public institutions, promoting sustainable farming practices, attracting new entrants to farming, and recognizing indigenous food sources and systems.

The legislation would even set out “to improve and maximize economic return and food security” by better protecting agricultural land and supporting infrastructure for food processing and distribution.

While the results of the FLEdGE study are still five years away, Blay-Palmer is confident that working on and investing in local food production systems will produce greater stability for farmers and their communities. “Our food system is broken,” Blay-Palmer says. “It doesn’t work.”

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