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When food and farming gives you that “O Canada” feeling

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is on the hunt for a marketing agency to promote Canadian food and agriculture for the next five-ish years, offering $25 million. Ottawa’s decided that through a national get-to-know-Canadian-food campaign, it wants to build consumer confidence and pride in Canadians who farm and fish and highlight the advantages of buying the food they produce.

“Consumers in Canada can be extremely proud of Canadian producers, who continue to innovate to meet the growing demand for food, while finding solutions to challenges such as environmental sustainability,” says federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau. “The campaign should tell the story of Canada’s agri-food sector and reach audiences on an emotional level in order to instil pride and confidence in the country’s food systems.”

Her search is bound to attract a lot of interest – governments pay their bills, and the assignment will be as fascinating as it is challenging.

For example, we know from the writings of Canadian food pioneers like Elora’s Anita Stewart that Canada is a regional food nation. We are a collection of local food developments. What’s local in parts of Quebec will be alien to parts of Manitoba. What’s local in parts of BC will be alien to parts of Saskatchewan. What’s local to us here will be alien to parts of Saskatchewan.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not good, or that we shouldn’t be proud of all of it and celebrate its heritage, uniqueness and quality.

Reaction to the campaign’s announcement has included concerns it could confuse consumers, because provinces also promote local food.

So what? When it comes to diversity, provinces are in the same boat as Ottawa. What’s local and unique in Elmira is an anomaly in Windsor. What’s local and unique in St. Boniface is an anomaly in Steinbach. It’s all part of our rich food culture … and if indeed promoting it in multiple ways is a risk, then it’s a risk worth taking.

Here’s why. If the marketing company with the winning bid is smart, and I’m sure it will be, the national and provincial campaigns could benefit from each other, by coordinating their efforts and making sure they’re not duplicating efforts.

There is ample Canadian food to promote; there’s no need for such a high-profile campaign to cover paths that are already being blazed.

Rather, it’s an excellent opportunity to find new ways to tell the stories behind foods and ingredients that have made regions like Woolwich Township renowned. People want to know who is behind those local foods and ingredients. And that points squarely to farmers.

But there’s another angle.

Research by the Guelph-based Canadian Centre for Food Integrity shows Canadians’ biggest concern is the rising cost of food.

So as part of these national feel-good stories, how about explaining ways that Canadian farmers keep the price of food down, through the many approaches they take to produce it?

It’s an aspect of food production seeped in history and prevailing to this day. Farmers have always been pressured to keep their costs down, mainly by those further down the value chain. Farmers have found research and technology to be one of their biggest allies; even though it costs money, the returns in lower costs of production help them keep their part of the value chain in check, while simultaneously ensuring safety and quality.

This approach might help Canadians understand farmers’ contribution to addressing what keeps them up at night. The biggest part of their food dollar is not going to farmers. Not even close.

The national campaign will do a service to local food. I look forward to seeing it roll out and reading details about the successful marketing company’s plan.

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