Ontario Agriculture Week runs between Oct. 3rd to the 9th and is a celebration of local food. There are many reasons why it is important to support local food producers, ranging from exceptional taste, freshness of produce, shorter transportation routes, local economic stimulus, and protection and stewardship of local land. A conversation with Catriona Ffrench of Cookstown Greens, a certified organic and GMO-free farm in Alliston illustrates the importance of supporting local food producers. Ask your foodservice provider if they offer local options on their menu.
Q) Tell us about Cookstown Greens.
A) We are a certified organic vegetable farm growing over 120 varieties of vegetables, greens, seedlings and edible flowers. We were established in 1988 and since than have developed a reputation for our quality and flavour, which is due to our 3 year cover crop rotations and experience in growing. We sell to restaurants and supply small packages of unique varieties and mixes to over 40 retail stores.
Q) As an organic farm, tell us how your practices contribute to the health of the watershed.
We are certified organic and cannot use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides, therefore there is no run-off of harmful products into our nearby stream. We promote and encourage biodiversity in a number of ways. We grow a large variety of crops, and do crop rotations. Also we use very little, if any, organic fertilizer and mostly use cover crops to replenish the soils nutrients. These actions promote the growth of millions of microorganisms in the soil. All the growth in our fields supports wildlife and living things nearby, which in turn contributes to the life and health of the watershed. As well, because our soil is full of organic matter, and is heavy, it retains water better than dry, sandy soil which means we don’t have to take as much water from the creek.
Q) What do you see as the main economic and environmental reasons customers should support local and organic food producers?
A) There are a number of reasons, including reducing the carbon footprint of food choices, supporting the local economy and giving farmers an opportunity to earn a reasonable wage. In addition, organic farming methods support the health of farm workers, the health of the ecosystem and the health of the soil.
Q) What questions should consumers ask their food service providers to find out about their support for local food?
A) Ask providers where they source their products, and how many local farmers they work with. Ask if they source seasonal products and provide menu items that incorporate local products.
Q) Do you have any suggestions about how food service providers can increase their use of local organic food–considering seasonal variability?
A) I suggest they consistently source seasonal products locally and rely on root vegetables in the winter months!
Q) What should consumers ask for as proof that produce is grown organically?
A) Every farm that is certified organic has a proof of certification. Ask the name of the farm. If a product is not labelled “certified organic by” due to a lack of packaging, ask who the certifying body is. Each certifier should have a database with every farm they have certified.
Q) What is necessary to make access to local food easier for both food service providers and for consumers?
A) We need a better distribution system for local products. There isn’t much right now, besides a few wholesalers–but I am not sure the fact that the product is local is always communicated. We are developing a program/product called Cookstown Greens Select which provides access to vegetables grown on our farm, and from a few other local certified organic farms. As a first step, we are helping the farms access the retail market, then we will expand to work with food service providers. Greens Select products will be grown by standards set by Cookstown Greens, and packaged on our farm. Cookstown Greens Select will be launched in early October, at which time we will share with the public the names of the participating farmers.
Q) How can food service providers (and consumers) purchase your produce?
A) From any of the 40+ food shops we supply, or directly from the farm.
Q) How does your commitment to environmental sustainability extend to all your business practices?
A) We use drip irrigation which uses 30-40% less water than typical sprinkler methods. We use 3 year cover crop rotation (instead of the typical 2 year that many organic farmers use) which is better for soil health and requires less product to be brought in. Recycling is very important to us and we try to be creative and reuse materials where we can. We also try to source as locally as possible both to help the local economy and to reduce our carbon footprint.
About The Author – Aileen MacMillan holds an Honours Bachelor of Environmental Studies degree from the University of Waterloo, and has worked as an independent consultant on environmental projects related to waste management, water quality protection, and environmental education. She has many years of experience working in small business and working collaboratively with teams and individual stakeholders.