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Local food producers finding retail pathways in Ontario

Province's annual Foodland Awards recognizes grocers for promoting local food
farmer holding produce with locally grown sign
Ontario farmers produce more than 200 food commodities.

As the province touts the benefits of locally-grown food appearing on shelves in retail outlets big and small, the relationship between Thunder Bay, Ont.-area stores and local producers continues to sprout.

"Several local retailers promote and sell local farm foods, including George's Market and Metro," Murillo-area fruit and vegetable farmer Wendy O'Connor said on Tuesday (June 25).

READ: Metro merchandising SVP on the appetite for local

The province's annual Foodland Awards recognized in particular this week three Greater Toronto Area stores for exceptional promotion of local food two years in a row.

In a news release, Agriculture Minister Rob Flack, a London-area farmer, highlighted the link between "locally grown fruits and vegetables" and a healthy provincial economy.

Rich Ciponi would likely agree with that.

The controller at Thunder Bay's George's Market, said that because so much of grocery prices consists of freight costs, it makes sense to stock as much local food as possible.

"It's also more environmentally friendly," Ciponi said.

Ciponi added: "Although we are a bit limited here in the North, we always have had some things that are local to some degree."

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George's Market is known in the city for featuring local produce and baked goods. Ciponi said there's usually not a lot of paperwork involved; some invoices from farmers and small businesses are handwritten.

"We start small, and go from there," Ciponi said.

O'Connor said farmers looking to sell their goods in local stores would do well to approach retailers in advance with some samples of what they have to offer.

And coming with assurances of quality and quantity helps, too.

"Establishing a personal relationship is very helpful," she said.

Cam Maijola, who co-owns The Odena supermarket in Kakabeka Falls, said he's open to the idea of featuring local food products. But he said retailers have to be confident that what ends up on their shelves meets health and safety standards.

That's why, Maijola said, it's sometimes easier for retailers to deal with established, corporate suppliers.

While locally-raised meat often appears at farmer's markets, it rarely appears in supermarkets. That's because many local producers are limited in terms of being able to provide a steady, regular supply.

In the interim, producers like Ashley and Tim Janssens maintain small, on-site stores where customers can purchase government-inspected meat right from the farm.

"We are working toward expanding, but we don't want to over-extend ourselves," said Ashley Janssens from the family's bison operation near Oliver Paipoonge's Stanley Hamlet.

One of the obstacles small operators face when trying to become bigger is the difficulty of being able find labourers who are capable of operating farm machinery, Janssens noted.

In its news release about its Foodland awards, the province said Ontario farmers produce more than 200 food commodities. More than 187,000 people are employed in the food-retail sector, the province said.

It said another 118,000 people work in the food-processing sector.

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