Local food love reflected in popularity of food media tour

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Ontario just marked its second annual Local Food Week.

Although there were a multitude of events going on across the province, including a Foodland Ontario-run Twitter party and a one-day farmers’ market at Queen’s Park, the highlight for me was a Farm & Food Care Ontario media tour in the Ottawa area.

It was a highlight because I was able to participate – more on that in a moment – but even more so because it showed me just how far the popularity of local food and media interest in food and farming has come over the last decade.

Let’s flash back to October 2008 for a second.

I was the Interim Executive Director of AGCare (the predecessor group to Farm & Food Care Ontario along with the Ontario Farm Animal Council), and we were partnering with OFAC to run a farm tour for food writers in the Ottawa area.

It was a relatively new initiative for both organizations at the time and I remember our group of food writers, recipe developers, chefs, tour hosts, and guest experts being small enough to fit into a mini coach – with room to spare.

This year, almost a decade later, the 50-plus seat motor coach was full for the seventh iteration of the tour with a colourful mix of culinary instructors, home economists, food writers, recipe developers, and bloggers on board. And I was there as a participant and not an organizer.

In another sign of the changing times, I saw very few notebooks and traditional cameras – those tools have mostly been replaced by smartphones or mini tablets, and tour participants tweeted and instagram’d up a storm throughout the day.

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Through social media, Farm & Food Care was able to broaden the reach of the day’s events, stops, and presentations to an audience far greater than simply our tour group, and that sharing is instantaneous – a far cry from pre-social media days when you hoped to see an article and maybe a photo or two printed in a local daily or weekly paper days or even weeks after the event.

So now to the tour itself. I never cease to be amazed at the willingness of farmers and agri-food businesses to step up and open their doors to the questions and photos of urban food lovers.

Every year they are gracious hosts, and open and honest presenters, talking about what they do and why they do it in front of an eager, curious audience that asks questions about anything and everything they’re seeing and hearing.

This year was no different. Originally, the first stop of the tour was to have been Burnbrae Farms, but the avian influenza outbreak meant a last-minute change in plans. Burnbrae have already committed to next year’s tour and St. Albert Cheese, the only remaining cheese co-operative in Eastern Ontario, willingly stepped in to host the group.

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The co-op’s building in St. Albert was destroyed by a devastating fire in February 2013, and only 18 months later, they were back stronger than ever with a brand new, expanded facility. The co-op is a major employer in the region and they’re justifiably proud of how quickly they were able to bounce back from that tragedy.

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Eric Leveille of St Albert Cheese

The tour, led by Business Development Director Eric Léveillé, included a detailed look at the cheese-making process (they ran a special batch that morning just for us – normally, they process in the afternoons), as well as sampling of their famous curds and some of their award-winning cheeses.

Robin Turner of Roots and Shoots in Manotick wowed the crowd in the afternoon with his open and frank discussions about establishing and running a successful organic produce business when the land you’re working isn’t your own.

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Robin Turner of Roots and Shoots

And of course, because the goal is to attract a foodie crowd, the food and drink throughout the day are always superb, prepared by local caterers showcasing locally produced foods. Yes, on days like this, I really can’t complain about my job!

For Farm & Food Care Ontario, who has been running these tours since their inception in 2006, the goal is to showcase different commodities and types of farming every year; many of the people on the tour are repeat participants who are keenly interested to learn as much as they can about as many different sectors as possible.

They will host another food media tour this fall during Ontario Agriculture Week which will be aimed at participants from the Greater Toronto Area.

This article was originally written for Ontario Farmer, June 2015.

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