‘Local’ and ‘organic’ growing part of diets

At a time when many people feel it is difficult to make farming a full-time job, Cathy McGregor-Smith cannot keep up with the demand for products from her organic farm.

McGregor-Smith and her husband Gary took a risk when they left well-paying government jobs for a romantic ideal of getting back to nature and providing their children with a rural upbringing.

The couple operates the McSmith’s Organic Farm on 250 acres of land between St. Thomas and London. Last week, McGregor-Smith shared her success story at the Local Food For Local Tables Conference held at Brescia University College.

The event was designed to bring local farm producers together with members of the agricultural industry and researchers to discuss opportunities and challenges of buying and selling locally-grown and raised produce and livestock. The conference room swelled with more than 200 participants from across the agricultural sector.

After nearly 25 years as farmers and farm marketers, McGregor-Smith knows it takes a lot of ingenuity and resilience to be profitable in the fleeting business of non-corporate farming.

“Over the years we had to find a way to keep our farm productive,” she says.

Now that the couple had decided to be full-time farmers, they had to find a way to make money after the harvesting season was over.

To sustain the farm year-round, “we just keep adding more products,” she adds. Canned items, hoop houses and greenhouses, and crop diversification helped to sustain the family income.

Luckily, the market demand for organic produce and livestock has also increased in recent years and the McSmith farm grew with it.

“It’s way easier than when we started. Now it’s easy using the words ‘local’ and ‘organic,'” she says, adding the market value for organic products often surpasses the price for non-organics.

“We used to have to deliver (products), now they come to us.”

The McSmith’s have also capitalized on the growing agri-tourism industry. Their farm has turned into a destination spot, with opportunities for families to see animals, walk the grounds and be educated about where food comes from.

Although it took years to develop, the farm has become self-sustaining.

“We basically have a closed system,” she says, noting wheat and grasses, as well as produce scraps grown on the farm are used for feed and the livestock manure is spread as fertilizer.

Frank Miller, director of Hospitality Services at The University of Western Ontario, feels the pressure to buy locally grown and produced products.

When Campbell Soup Company closed a local plant north of London and moved production to the United States, Western switched the soup served across campus to a product produced by a local company.

“We have to be very careful in what we do and how we buy products,” he says.

Although Western is trying to provide as much local food as possible, Miller says it is difficult to find a producer that can keep up to the university’s supply demands. Also, he finds challenges in accessing local farm producers.

With much of the food provided by external suppliers, Miller says suppliers also need to change the way they do business and make a commitment to buying locally whenever possible.