An interview with the Honourable Kathleen Wynne, Premier of Ontario and Minister of Agriculture and Food.
Adam Waxman: Why is it so difficult to find local Ontario produce in local Ontario supermarkets?
Premier Kathleen Wynne: Well, it shouldn’t be. At the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, we give out awards to retailers for their displays of produce. That is what the Ontario Foodland brand is about. It’s why we have brought in local food legislation and local food funds. We’ve got $30 million that we’re distributing to organizations and communities to promote local food. The reality is that retail is a highly competitive business, and our producers are competing with other suppliers for shelf space. Ontario Foodland is well-known, and we are rewarding retailers who display their food in an easy-to-find way.
AW: But it does seem that most of the produce I find in the supermarket is imported. On Saturday mornings, I go to the farmers’ market in Stratford. Afterward, I go to the supermarket and sense an antagonism between the two. There are seasonal realities, but why can’t there be a local/seasonal section?
KW: Some of it is about the seasons. That is absolutely true. At any time of year, there is Ontario produce in our stores – but it is uneven, the way retailers display it. We’re trying to push from the Ministry by putting an incentive in place to display Ontario food. I am a big supporter of farmers’ markets. The reality is that farmers’ markets are never going to be able to carry the range of things that a supermarket can carry, so we have to be supportive of both. We’re trying to help retailers and support farmers’ markets. I’ve seen displays in supermarkets of local produce, particularly in season, in one area in the store, and they’ve really advertised it. It is happening, it’s just not happening evenly.
AW: Why do local products cost more than imports? For example, the best garlic in the world is from Perth County, but it costs more than the bleached, imported garlic we get at the supermarket.
KW: I’ve had conversations with garlic farmers about this. They have labour costs, and the garlic coming in from Asia does not incur those same costs. I’m adamant that we need to support our garlic farmers. I really want to see us buying Ontario garlic, because the taste of Ontario garlic is so intense and so much stronger. There are input costs that our farmers have that others don’t, and so again, this is part of why we’re trying to support farmers with the local food fund to market and to raise awareness about their produce. Many people don’t think about where their garlic comes from, and don’t even realize that Ontario garlic is struggling, and so it’s also buyer awareness that we need to deal with.
AW: How do we do that? Our local food movement has taken off in restaurants but it has not reached the home consumer on the same level.
KW: Some of the projects that we will be funding through the local food fund will be marketing to help particular regions and organizations raise the profile of their produce. My hope is that this will further advance local food buying.
AW: As you can imagine, I dine out a lot. One of my biggest peeves is looking at a wine menu and not seeing an adequate selection of our local wines. I’d put some of the wines coming out of Niagara and the Twenty Valley area up against Oregon, California or Italy any day of the week, but I can’t find them in restaurants, and I can’t even find them at the LCBO.
KW: We’ve just put $75 million into another five-year wine-and-grape growers strategy, and again, that is about getting the word out. We’re looking at changing the rules around farmers’ markets, and what can be sold at farmers’ markets. We’re trying to create opportunities for more of our vineyards and our vintners in Ontario, because they are fantastic. It’s about profile. As a government, we haven’t really tackled the restaurant industry on this. Grape growers and winemakers have been doing their own distribution, so it is something that we need to look at, because we could do a much better job of making sure that Ontario wines make it into our restaurants. This is a young industry. Thirty years ago, nobody wanted to drink Ontario wine. Now we all want to drink Ontario wine, and it’s not just wine, its craft breweries as well. How do we expand the distribution? How do we work with the LCBO to make sure they are providing the shelf space? You know, it’s a lot better than it was 10 years ago, and it will continue to improve. The other area is in exporting. There are export opportunities that need to be expanded as well.
AW: Has culinary tourism had significant impact on our local economies?
KW: It’s been critical. Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen particular regions of the province taking on a personality. Prince Edward County being a wine destination, for example. Norfolk County has asparagus and pumpkins, and particular things that they do very well, and they draw people on a seasonal basis. We are seeing that differentiation around the province. It is very important that the government plays a role in promoting that, and that is one of the parts of the Local Food Act – to help regions to promote themselves.
AW: How can we, as consumers, support our farmers?
KW: It’s buying local produce, but it’s also asking the retailers where the local products are, and being really assertive about wanting to see Ontario products first. In situations where there might be a difference in cost, making it clear that those of us who can are willing to pay a bit more for Ontario produce.
AW: But why should we have to pay more for Ontario produce?
KW: What people have to recognize is the volume that our farmers are producing compared to other markets. The relationship between the retailer and the producer, and how those contracts are put into place, is highly competitive. We want to support our local producers and make them competitive with other markets, so the more volume that we can promote, the better off our farmers will be.