About thirty-five hopeful local’s met up at Sault College yesterday, looking for their perfect match. And like all hook-up function’s the occasion began a bit awkwardly but after a few generous dollops of wild blueberry jam atop snack crackers the crowd began to loosen up and then the real mingling began.
The Rural Agri-Innovation Network (RAIN) hosted its’ first farmer/chef speed dating event’ in Sault Ste. Marie. With the moniker ‘Growing Connections’, the event is meant to bring together local producers and commercial purchases seeking to acquire local farm goods. For the past ten years there has been a steadily growing consumer awareness about the healthful, economic and cultural significance of eating locally grown food. The demand of it has increased among average food purchasers as well as local chefs, retailers and wholesalers in the Algoma District
The goal for the event, as explained by RAIN event coordinator, Sandra Trainor, “is to stimulate connections between farmers or producers and purchasers in the Algoma District to increase market opportunities and thereby strengthen the local food economy.”
The informal meet and greet atmosphere creates a comfortable environment for farmers to showcase their products. Trainor admitted that marketing doesn’t always come naturally to every grower. “Some farmers are great at marketing- they’re setting up Facebook pages and using social media. But there are also a lot of farmers who are great at growing their food and are not that great at marketing. This kind of event helps them through that.”
So why aren’t farmers and chefs hooking up on their own?
“Time. Usually it’s time,” commented Trainor. “This kind of event is very convenient. Everybody is in one spot to meet one another. It certainly happens outside of these kinds of events but this venue is much more efficient.”
Growing Connections is part of RAIN’s larger effort to create a food strategy that would be endorsed by the City of Sault Ste. Marie. RAIN is a project of the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre and NORDIK Institute.
Trevor Laing, Algoma Highlands Wild Blueberry Farm and Winery, Owner. “We bought the land in 2006 but we didn’t start producing until 2011. We started with fresh and frozen blueberries and now were expanding into the value added product. Eventually we’d like to put in a small winery at the farm.” Trainor was overwhelmed by the volume of blueberries produced in the growing season and sought options to move his fruit. “Last year we produced 60,000 lbs. of blueberries and we did it in twenty days. So you have to get rid of a lot product quickly. I think this year we’re going to produce in excess of 140,000 lbs.” Algoma Highlands have recently developed blueberry jam, blueberry syrup and blueberry BBQ sauce (I tried the BBQ sauce and squealed with joy- DELICIOUS!). His products can be found locally at Scale Meats, Stonehouse Wines and the Voyageur Lodge and Cookhouse. “We’re here today to show our presence. And maybe somebody here might have an idea of how we can make some new products with our blueberries or how we can use our value added products in a new way.”
Dan Denham, Quattro Chophouse, Executive Sous Chef. “I came today because we’re interested in meeting local farmers and getting local produce for the restaurant. Hopefully we’ll be able to work something out to begin bringing something in. We try to use local produce but there isn’t that much available to us yet. Hopefully this will open up some ideas on where we can get what we need. The challenge has been finding the amounts required for such a large enterprise. “We don’t mind bringing in certain vegetables but we don’t want to be without produce. We’re not looking to supplement. We’re looking for an arrangement that can fulfill the entire obligation.”
Jenni Pearce, Pearce Farm, Owner and Farmer. “Pearce Farm is a certified organic vegetable farm. We also produce poultry and eggs. We’re located in Sault Ste. Marie on 3rd Line near Black Road. I’ve been farming there since 2006 and I’ve been certified for the last two years. I came today to showcase my products and introduce them to chefs and food buyers. I’m hoping to do more wholesales this year. I’ve done a small amount of sales into retail and restaurants but it’s mostly been through CSA subscription buyers, the Farmer’s Market and the farm gate. I would prefer to establish a relationship with a commercial buyer and then plant more to service a particular market.”
Shayne Bell- Embers Grill and Smokehouse, Chef and Owner. “I’m here to meet other farmers. I deal directly with one farm but they only supply vegetables. So I wanted to branch out and see what was available locally. I’ve always used local produce since opening our doors. Being a Chef I always want to work with the best products and buying products from warehouse grocers you know the food has been sitting around for a while. The taste of local produce that is picked daily is of the utmost best quality and as a Chef quality is number one. Being in Northern Ontario, the growing season is shorter but when it’s in full bloom I have a farm to fork menu available. I’m really trying to get into local meat. It’s been hard because I don’t like to buy frozen products. It seems like the local beef is only available once or twice a year. To have that available all year round is kind of hard.”
Kelly Burton, Café Natura, Chef and Owner. “I went to the last RAIN event and thought it was really educational and it was a good networking opportunity to meet farmers that I might not have been in contact with so I thought that I would come and see what was going on today. We have a couple of CSA shares and we also have some plots with some community gardens. Sometimes there are vegetables that aren’t available with those things so we will shop at the Algoma Farmer’s Market or Mill Market to get those. However, I find it more convenient when farmers can deliver right to the Café. So events like today is where I meet those people.”
Fannie McFadden, McFadden Acres Certified Organic Farm, Farmer and Owner. “I came to meet Chefs, to share the love. I came here to meet new customers and to interact and to promote our local stuff. I’m hoping for new connections. It’s a different venue for us. We’ve always done home delivery and have been at the Farmer’s Market. So this is hopefully a new venture. I would like to see if we can meet some needs and maybe just start a new relationship. I’d like to talk to people, find out what their needs are and maybe we can supply that for them. It’s a nice introduction.”
Vincent Feletti, Outspoken Brewery, Spokesperson. “We’re a micro-brewery. We sell growlers, kegs and draft beer to local businesses but now we’ve just opened our doors to the public. We’re experiencing a bottle-neck now where we’re getting enough demand that we need to increase our capacity. I’m here today to observe the farm -chef speed dating event and if possible, to find a producer of barley- perhaps someone who is also a malter because it would be great to purchase local malt for our brewery. We source our malt from Toronto and they probably import it. Getting local malt might be a bit of a challenge. But there are so many local breweries in Ontario now- close to thirty, that we could definitely have a local malter somewhere in Ontario that could supply these breweries. We have Northern Ontario Breweries, there’s Sleeping Giant in Thunder Bay, Stack in Sudbury and a few in North Bay. To have all of these very nearby, I’m sure that malt is something that would be in demand and a need could be filled by a local producer.”