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Connecting Our Communities

Making a business case for local food

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Local food advocates and farming industry folks will descend on Guelph next month for the annual Source It Here event.

Source It Here is a joint effort between Foodlink Waterloo Region and Wellington County to join farms and food related businesses together for networking and idea sharing, in an attempt to improve the local food sector in Waterloo and Wellington.

The University of Guelph’s Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in the College of Business and Economics will be the keynote speaker for the event. He was asked to speak last year, but was away in Austria as a visiting professor.

His speech topic is “The Business Case for Local Food: From the Margins to the Mainstream.”

“Essentially I’m a big advocate of global trades. But there’s always been some tensions between the pro-trade folks versus the locally grown folks and I would say that tension is slowly dissipating. That’s the case I’m going to try to make is that coexistence can happen and in fact, local foods are going to become more and more important as we move forward because of globalization. But we also need to recognize the potential for the agricultural community to capitalize on international markets,” Charlebois said.

He references the idea of “terroir,” which is how environmental conditions of a particular region, like climate, terrain, and soil, affect the taste of certain products. He was involved with a few projects around terroir valuing and commodities based on their local regions, which is one way to think about local food.

“You can certainly feed your own in the area, but you can also sell the virtues of a region through the terroir concept. Let’s say for example Wellington County is very good at producing certain commodities, why not actually promote Wellington County across the country and promote the area? To me local doesn’t have geographical limits. …. It’s really about how you differentiate what goes on in that region and promote it elsewhere and how you promote it,” Charlebois said.

He says his talk will begin with a global perspective on trades, turning to where consumer trends are going, and finishing with making a case for local products. Charlebois says the Source it Here event has merit for people interested in or especially people working in the food industry.

University of Guelph professor Sylvain Charlebois will give the keynote speech at Source It Here, a networking event for food industry folks in Guelph on Feb. 8.[File Photo]
University of Guelph professor Sylvain Charlebois will give the keynote speech at Source It Here, a networking event for food industry folks in Guelph on Feb. 8. [File Photo]
“It’s really about getting together and figuring things out. It’s never easy to do that, particularly when it comes to Canada. We live in a vast country, we’re only 35 million people. Local means something different to different people. I spoke to an Italian group a few years ago and for them in Toronto, in Little Italy, local food is actually food grown in Italy that they imported here. We have to be careful before we generalize on what local actually means. Local is about culture. Local is about geography. It’s a mix of both,” Charlebois said.

There are of course economical benefits to supporting local products, farmers, and producers. He notes the sustainability and environmental footprint aspect are equally important to consider.

“I’m going to challenge the group because I know it’s not inherent for them to think about trades, to think about to sell a region through value chains. That’s something that I’ve done in the past with mustard greens in Saskatchewan for example and peaches in Ontario. It’s nice to produce peaches and feed Ontarians, but we’re only 16 million people, why not think about making this commodity a better known one across the world? Selling Ontario through agricultural commodities, it’s a very powerful thing,” Charlebois said.

He says that’s what New Zealand is doing with its lambs and kiwis and Canadians don’t think like that, but they should.

And as anyone who’s tried to buy all their food locally can attest to, it’s not always the cheapest option. As a food bank volunteer in Guelph, Charlebois sees the families and even students at the University of Guelph struggling.

“It breaks my heart. So it’s nice to think about local food and it’s great to think about the reduced environmental footprint, but at the same time I’m always concerned about price points. If we can make sure this actually means we can provide affordable food to everyone, that’s great.”

With imports for example being off season right now, we’re seeing some detrimental effects in grocery stores with higher prices in vegetables, he adds. And if we’re at the mercy of monetary fluctuations that’s not good either.

He believes the key to food sovereignty is coupling production with processing. He’ll make a case in his speech for thinking harder about processing, too, when it comes to local foods.

Julia Gilmore from the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance will also speak at the event on “Leveraging Food Tourism to Grow Your Business.”

The event is a collaborative effort between Foodlink Waterloo Region and Wellington County to join farms and food-related businesses in discussing opportunities for local food producers.[Submitted]
The event is a collaborative effort between Foodlink Waterloo Region and Wellington County to join farms and food-related businesses in discussing opportunities for local food producers. [Submitted]
 There will be a panel discussion with Ben Sachse (Elora Brewing Co.), and Leslie Zinger (Top Market Meats), Mark and Cindy Gerber (Oakridge Acres), and Dr. Susan Durant (Naturopath), Keirra Reid (Little Mushroom Catering) and Julie Clarke (Mountain Oak Cheese), Joshua Whitehead (Green Table Foods) and Jackie Fraser (Fraberts Fresh Foods).

Anna Contini, manager of Foodlink Waterloo Region, says these panel pairings have been done to show the different types of relationships within the local food industry.

“Even perusing the registration list we really have quite a cross section of people, not only from Waterloo and Wellington, but even outside this neck of the woods, just because I think we’re offering something a little bit different that justifies people driving in a ways,” Contini said.

This is the second year Foodlink partnered with Wellington County to expand the event, which ran for a number of years on its own.

“We’ve certainly achieved that objective. We’ve had a lot of interest from our local food partners throughout Waterloo Region,” Contini said.

As for last year’s event, they surveyed participants and the majority enjoyed the format it’s being done in, so there were minimal changes this year. There will be a lunch provided and a networking opportunity with participants setting up booths for a marketplace of sorts to show off their business or product.

“There’s a very rich and diverse local food community in Waterloo and Wellington. It’s a perfect opportunity to come out and learn more not only from our speakers but from one another and get their own information out there, particularly if they’re a local food producer. It’s a chance to market themselves a little bit,” Contini said.

Source It Here will be Feb. 8 at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. To register visit www.tastereal.ca or www.foodlink.ca.

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