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Going Grocery Shopping? Don’t Forget to Look for Local!

4 August 2012

Buying local has become a slogan of choice for many consumers today. But when it comes to the food you consume, it becomes an even bigger matter. Buying local meat, produce, and vegetables isn’t just about supporting farmers (although that’s a nice derived benefit,) and it’s certainly not about convenience (American apples are right beside the Canadian ones in the store.) Buying local food, to the consumer anyways, is about eating the freshest and the best. And now, farmers across Ontario are making that easier for us, as they try to expand their business, too.

Jim Clark was one of the farmers that started it all. Being an Ontario cattle farmer his entire life, Clark quickly became tired of seeing ‘Alberta beef’ labels on just about every piece of beef in the grocery stores.

“We produce some of the best in the world and we don’t showcase our own products,” says Clark, who’s also a member of the Ontario Cattle Feeders’ Association. “I want it so when a farmer walks into a store they can say, “That’s my beef, that’s my brand.” So far, he’s done a lot of good work to make that happen.

Back in 2001, Clark had 25 cattle a week that he branded as Ontario Corn Fed Beef to sell to consumers. Today, he has 4,000 (yes, still in just a week) that he sells to 241 Loblaws stores across Ontario. His hard work has paid off, and it’s paved the way for other farmers.

Whether it was Clark’s efforts, or just noticing that more Ontarians are interested in buying local, more farmers are finding new ways to promote and sell their product.

Rowe Farms currently has seven locations throughout the City of Toronto to sell their antibiotic and hormone-free cattle; while Beretta Beef is a micro-brand that’s especially familiar to the people in King City, just north of Toronto. Likewise, Bluewater Beef is a cattle company that has promoted their grain-and-grass-fed beef so well in Lambton County that any resident can point to the label and tell you exactly who it is, where their farm is, and what their best products are.

But while getting into grocery stores is always in hot pursuit for the farmers, there’s another that’s taken a different approach. This farmer, Bryan Gilvesy, takes a more modern approach; which makes sense, seeing as how “buying local” is a very modern concept. Instead of actually branding his cattle with the traditional poker, Gilvesy instead simply raises grass-fed cattle and then sells it directly to boutique stores and restaurants.

“If you look at regions like Champagne, in France, what are they known for?” asks Gilvesy. “We haven’t been doing a good job in Canadda describing those kinds of products. That’s what is coming next.”

But it was perhaps Gilvesy’s next statement that hits home – and our dinner tables – the most. While it might be all fine and good for the farmers that are getting their product out to more people, and subsequently more cash in their pockets, what does it mean for the consumer? According to Gilvesy, everything.

“More than anything,” he says, “the consumer is driving this. The Ontario farmers stepping up to the plate, whether it is us or the corn-fed boys.”

And a look at the sales show that he’s not wrong. The OCFA decided in 2007 to focus on corn-fed beef, putting it into Loblaws stores and seeing how consumers reacted to it. The result? Sales went up, and consumer surveys showed that they loved the product. It was after that trial run that Ontario Corn Fed Beef, Jim Clark’s product, started appearing in grocery stores across the province. As of last year, you can now find them not just in Loblaws, but in Your Independent Grocer, Zehrs Markets, Zehrs Great Food, and Valu-Marts.

But you can still find this beef at Loblaws; and soon, Canadian beef is all you’ll find in these stores.

“Our intention as an organization is to get to 100 per cent Canadian beef in the next couple of years,” said Sal Baio, senior vice-president of Loblaw Companies Ltd. And they’ll have to to if they want to keep up with consumer demand. A recent study from BMO Financial Group just showed that when Canadians go to the grocery store, they’re looking for local.

Looking at the pie chart above, you can see that survey showed that consumers are willing to pay 16 per cent more for local fruits and vegetables; and 19 per cent more for local meats. While most respondents of the survey (28 per cent) gave supporting farmers as the biggest reason for buying local, 14 per cent said it was for the freshness factor, 10 per cent said it was better for the environment, and 9 per cent cited safety reasons, as the biggest reasons why they shopped local.

Another interesting fact revealed by the survey was that those in Atlantic Canada were the most concerned about being able to buy local; while those in Ontario and British Columbia were willing to pay the most for it.

“Consumers appreciate the quality of food products produced by local farm families and recognize the importance of supporting an agricultural sector that accounts for one in eight jobs in Canada,” said David Rinneard in a statement issued along with the survey.

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