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Getting serious about local food

Philly Markowitz is fired up about supporting local farmers in an effort to build up rural communities throughout Ontario’s Grey County

"Supporting local farmers and keeping an authentic farm community absolutely makes sense here.” – Philly Markowitz

Generations of rugged farmers have worked this rugged landscape. They’ve run cattle, they’ve pastured sheep, they’ve planted crops. None of it has been easy. South of Georgian Bay, the county’s highlands are notoriously cold, the ground rolls unpredictably in all directions, and the soil is just plain tough.

If Grey County was an old building, you’d probably call it quirky, with sloping floors, odd stairways and enough low beams to crack your head every time you try to stand up.

That may be why, although the county does have its share of big, progressive farms, it also has the kind of individuality that creates a real advantage for anyone who invests the time to get to know it, coupled with scenery that breeds intense loyalty.

In other words, this is a place that abounds with opportunities, even if it sometimes takes a different set of eyes to see them.

But Grey has another challenge too. A couple hours northwest of Toronto, its tourist areas are thriving, but many of its countryside communities face the same issues as rural communities all across the country. Everybody knows they need some kind of sustainable economic foundation, but nobody knows what that could be. Or at least, they didn’t until now.

Now, the plan is to use local food to bridge the gap between farmers, consumers — and governments too.

Philly Markowitz has been in her job as the county’s economic development officer for local food for three years, and her ideas keep getting bigger.

But maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Getting serious about local

“We recognize that agriculture is a major industry in Grey County in terms of economic impacts and activity,” Markowitz says. “But things are changing rapidly, and there are a number of issues and barriers coming up in the next 15 to 20 years that will make or break it.”

She cites older farmers getting out of the business, and younger people trying to get into it, as well as a big push to urbanization and an increasing reliance on technology.

But her position is proof that the county thinks it can fight back, especially if it takes local food seriously.

Markowitz had been in the county since 1991, was an avid gardener and a passionate local food advocate who was on the board of the Grey Bruce Agriculture and Culinary Association. She had also been a freelancer for CBC for 17 years, done extensive marketing and communications work, and had taken a temporary position in the county’s tourism department. So she was a shoo-in when she applied for the local food job.

“Supporting local farmers and keeping an authentic farm community makes sense here, and it is absolutely a pillar of what the county wants to do in terms of economic development,” Markowitz says.

Grey’s strategic plan identifies agriculture with its farms and local food as one of its seven key strengths. Among the actions outlined in the plan are “to create policies, procedures and tools to encourage on-site food processing, pop-up restaurants, a food business incubator, market gardens and farmers markets, and special events focusing on promoting local foods.”

Other initiatives are underway too. On the drawing board are a multi-dimensional marketing program to promote local beer, wine and cider businesses, plus a unique conference in November that will bring the region’s agricultural and technology sectors together to improve production and resolve on-farm problems.

The future of agriculture in Grey

“If we are going to be an economically sustainable rural and farm community, we have to go where the rest of the world is going — which is to tech innovation,” Markowitz says.

In support of this direction, she’s organizing a conference she’s dubbed Ag 4.0. Her premise is that agriculture has gone through three stages: pre-industrial, industrial and biotechnological. It’s now entering a fourth stage that’s “all about technology — using data, sensors and robotics to come up with creative solutions to problems.”

“We recognize that farmers are not shy about using digital products, but making them is a different thing,” she says.

She’s working with the county’s information technology department on a plan — called the Ag 4.0 Plan — to make Grey the home of a technology business.

The upcoming one-day conference at Meaford Hall on November 3 will explore how technology and digital solutions can help with everything from farm succession planning to building virtual food hubs. There will be workshops, panels and plenary speakers all aimed at coming up with ideas on how Grey can build a more robust agricultural and local food sector.

It will be followed the next day by a farm tour highlighting some of the more innovative farms around the county (see ‘Farm to Farm’ and T&K Ferri Orchards goes up-market’ further down on this page).

As well, the county is creating a “Maker’s Space” where farmers and technology specialists can put their creative heads together to develop new digital tools, like customized monitors and sensors or automated processes.

A contest to develop an agricultural software application is also underway. It is meant to promote the conference, create real-life solutions to problems and bring attention to the technology sector in the county.

Markowitz hopes the conference will attract participants from universities and colleges as well as creative artists like graphic designers plus people from agriculture and technology.

Ag 4.0 seems bound to be a success, given her track record. For instance, recently she worked with Georgian College and the local public health unit to help farmers and entrepreneurs wanting to set up a food processing business learn how to work through all the myriad rules and regulations around food safety.

Food safety school

Markowitz started by conducting surveys with local farmers and talking to them during Grey-Bruce Farmers Week to find out their real needs.

Through that, she and her partners came up with a two-day comprehensive course that takes participants through everything from proper food handling and packaging to the best ways of co-packing.

For this project, Markowitz was able to leverage $5,000 from the county into $50,000 from the province, a local college and other sources. More than 70 people — mostly farmers looking to do on-farm processing — took the course initially.

“We taught them who you need to talk to and when and why,” she says. “Our exit surveys said that participants felt more empowered and less anxious about the process.”

The course was offered first in Grey and Bruce and is now part of the curriculum at Georgian College.

Saints & Sinners

Another big project for summer 2016 was an agri-culinary marketing initiative involving 17 wine, beer and cider businesses, three museums and one interpretive walking tour.

“We chose this sector to promote because the multiplier effect is 12 to one — every $1 spent returns $12 to the local economy,” Markowitz says.

The promotion — Saints & Sinners — is tied to the area’s colourful history of bootleggers and prohibitionists. Other elements include a tourist map showing the participating businesses, a passport that can be stamped at each stop, and a “growler” — a branded brown jug that visitors can carry from place to place. There will also be a dedicated website, book launch and pop-up events around the region.

Other duties

Beyond the big events and projects Markowitz also provides businesses with advice and assistance in obtaining grants from places like the Greenbelt Foundation and the province.

While she’s happy to speak to anyone, her efforts are concentrated on farmers and others who have a business plan, are up and running, and able to demonstrate that they have a viable business. Their plans also have to fit with the county’s objectives.

“It’s mostly about taking ideas to the next level,” she says. “We support everybody — small mom-and-pop operations to those with 30 employees and 3,000 acres,” she says.

She is also busy doing outreach and promotions twice a year — in June, during Local Food Week and in October during Agriculture Week.

The bottom line is maintaining viable rural communities, Markowitz says: “If you keep the farmers on the farm, you keep the farm kids in the local school, and shoppers in the local stores — and you keep communities alive and thriving.”

Farm-to-farm: The Dornoch Hops strategy

What started as an idea to set up a craft brewery turned into a thriving, innovative hops operation for Cherie Swift and her husband Richard Elder. Their business is on a 95-acre farm just outside Dornoch in Grey County, Ont.

“We realized during the course of gathering information for the brewery that there was a very large shortage of hops grown in Canada,” Swift says. “So we decided to go the agricultural route.”

Dornoch Hops was started in 2012. Rather than selling the hops to brewers, the couple decided they could help out the entire industry and do well for themselves by propagating and selling hop plants to other growers.

“We sell right across the country from B.C. to Nova Scotia,” Swift says. They sell to large commercial enterprises and to backyard growers who want to brew their own homemade beer.

Swift says there’s a huge interest in growing hops. The couple belongs to the Ontario Hop Growers Association, which attracts 200 to 250 people to their meetings.

The business is progressing again in 2016 with the installation of a micro-propagation laboratory. The lab will be used to grow plants from tissue instead of stems.

“Our plants will be of a higher quality, virus-free and disease-free,” Swift says.

They will also be less expensive than the imports from the U.S., which can run to $8 a plant. At the current exchange rate, that makes hops plant buying extremely costly.

With the new propagation method, Dornoch Hops are specializing in the five varieties of hops that are most used by brewers. Orders were being taken in 2016 for delivery in spring 2017.

Besides selling the plants, Swift helps new growers with production advice. She is a firm believer in getting three variables right:

  1. Know how and where you’re going to market the product. Talk to microbrewers and find out what varieties of hops they’re brewing with.
  2. Know the variety resistance to disease and get the right variety for the climate and geography where they’ll be grown.
  3. Select for yield. Productivity varies among varieties. It pays to do your research carefully.

“Hops are a perennial grown on trellises over small acreages,” Swift adds. “We’re talking five, 10 or 15 acres, so you have to be careful about what you’re planting and make sure you get the most bang for your buck.”

T&K Ferri Orchards goes up-market with super-dense plantings

Specializing in super-sized apples from super spindle orchards has been very good business for Tom and Karen Ferri of T&K Ferri Orchards and Apple Market located just outside Clarksburg in Grey County, Ont. They have 22 acres of orchards, with 20 of those planted in the high-density, super spindle system that’s more common in Italy, where the land base is smaller.

“We have 57,000 trees on our property with 2,500 to 2,800 trees per acre,” Karen Ferri says.

The next-highest density orchards are tall spindles, which have about 1,200 trees per acre.

The family’s motivation for the business is that “we want to grow apples, not wood.”

The system’s advantages are many, including having the trees go into production sooner — three to five years instead of the traditional five to seven.

The foliage is less dense, so they use only half the pesticides of other orchards — saving them money and better protecting the environment. The trees are tightly packed in rows, making automated pruning and harvesting possible, which reduces labour costs. Irrigation costs are also way down because of the reduced acreage size.

Finally, they can manage their crops better. They get 40 to 50 premium, large-sized apples per tree and, barring natural disasters — like they had with a late frost in 2012 — they can also predict crop yields earlier in the season. The banks and buyers and Ferris all love that aspect of the business.

But getting into the super spindle game isn’t cheap.

“When you’re investing $40,000 an acre at startup, you want to see returns sooner rather than later,” Ferri says.

T&K Ferri sells Honey Crisp, Mutsu, Gala, Ambrosia, Cortland, McIntosh and Golden Delicious apples to two wholesalers who then sell on into smaller markets. The orchard also has an on-site market where they sell apples, press and sell their own cider and offer other local products.

Aside from the weather extremes nature throws at it, other challenges for the business are the lack of consistent commodity prices for apples, the high cost of insurance (at $20,000 per year, they’ve decided not to get a policy), and cheap imports, mostly from the U.S.

Ferri has been actively involved in Grey County’s economic development committee, representing agriculture. She’s found the experience rewarding because of the networking opportunities and finding new markets she can tap into. Her business is part of the Apple Pie Trail, a year-round culinary promotion that includes orchards, bakeries and restaurants in the Georgian Bay area.

The business caught the attention of the province, and in 2014 was a regional winner of the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.

This article was originally published as “A different slice” in the September 2016 issue of Country Guide.

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