By MATT MCINTOSH
A multi-phase pilot project is trying to expand all levels of Elgin County’s food industry, and its participants include everyone from small farmers to large retailers.
The project in Elgin officially began this October, and is the second phase of the Sustainable Food Systems Project; a wider initiative looking to strengthen southwestern Ontario’s regional economy by expanding food processing industries close to home.
The benefits, says Tom Schell, the project’s lead business researcher, include protection for local stakeholders from fluctuations in the global market, job creation and a better atmosphere for managing environmental and social issues.
With funding from a variety of sources, including the provincial government, the Southwest Economic Alliance (SWEA) partnered with the London Training Centre to compile two years of research on issues facing the food industries of several local municipalities.
“We interviewed people from all parts of the food value chain here, and looked at the food systems of other countries around the world,” says Schell. “We wanted to see what people thought, and how other places have successfully developed full value-chains for local food.”
They found a majority of people, whether consumers, processors, retailers, or farmers, were in favour of a stronger, locally based food industry. The problem is that Elgin County, like many counties in southwestern Ontario, lacks the infrastructure to process and sell locally produced food.
“We grow tomatoes here, for example, but they have to be shipped elsewhere for processing,” says Katie Burns, Elgin County’s business development coordinator. “We want to make and sell the salsa here too, and that means figuring out what farmers can produce, what facilities are needed to process and distribute it, what the market wants, and so on.”
Determining that information will be the responsibility of a diverse, independently functioning panel organized by SWEA and its collaborators.
“We’re going to include a variety of farmers, nutritionists, representatives from agricultural organizations and large grocers, and others in the panel. Having a variety of perspectives helps to ensure that any proposed ideas have been carefully considered from all angles” says Schell.
This panel should be set up sometime this week, and is the first real step in the Elgin phase of the project, he says.
The panel’s first task will be to develop a business plan that identifies the opportunities and barriers associated with creating full food value chains for local agricultural products.
The business plan should be complete by this time next year, Schell says.
But, Shell says, the Elgin project shouldn’t be viewed as a simple test run. Instead, the plan developed by the Elgin panel is meant to jumpstart the creation of similar systems all across southwestern Ontario.
“We chose Elgin initially because it’s a county that’s fully engaged in local food, and they expect agriculture to become a dominant industry, particularly in the face of a weakening manufacturing sector,” says Schell. “Developing a food industry close to home means we can do more for each other.” BF