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Urban Cowboy: The Horn of Plenty is changing this Thanksgiving

Breaking from the tradition this Thanksgiving
Photo courtesy of Fraberts Fresh Foods in Fergus

Thanksgiving here has always been a time for traditional fare…but food wise, what if your traditions differ from others?   

That’s the state of the union this year. In Canada, what defines tradition is changing, as our society diversifies. In fact, a new study of 400 crop producers by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture shows that nearly one-fifth of them have tried growing a new, different crop in the last five years.

You wouldn’t know it from the roadside, where your view of Ontario field crops consists primarily of corn and soybeans.

But there’s a lot going on behind the scenes – not only on the land, but in research labs at the University of Guelph and elsewhere, where many new crops and new varieties of conventional crops originate.

Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Minister Jeff Leal is fond of pointing out that Ontario already grows more than 200 different commodities. That’s worth noting when talking about the drive for new crops. Already, there is a lot of variety.  

But farmers want to grow more. Agriculture federation Director Peter Lambrick says Ontario farmers are innovative by nature, always looking for opportunities to diversify, expand and improve their bottom line.

Filling market niches can be profitable. In fact, the federation’s research shows changing markets and emerging opportunities are among the main reasons farmers chose to try a new specialty or non-traditional crop.

Other reasons include crop rotation and environmental benefits, and reduced risk overall through diversification.

Farmers are reading the tea leaves. They’re paying attention to trends that show how this country’s population has changed since their grandparents farmed.

New Canadians bring with them an appetite for different foods. A lot of those foods – sometimes called world foods, those that can be produced, harvested or processed here and reflect the diversity of the province’s population -- can succeed on the farm, if producers have a little guidance. Our climate is favourable and our farmers have the smarts.

With that in mind, the agriculture federation is encouraging the province to keep its foot on the gas, supporting Ontario-grown world crops with policies and programs that source Ontario products and ingredients by local farmers, processors, distributors, retailers and food service businesses.

Pitching in is the Agricultural Management Institute, which just started offering an online planning tool to help farmers pencil out whether or not a non-traditional crop is for them. It features five interactive modules that users work through on their own schedule to develop a business case for diversifying their farm.

“We know Ontario farmers are interested in growing new crops, and are looking for timely information on marketing a crop, finding buyers and locating processors,” says federation President Keith Currie.

This is a program whose time has come. As far back as 2012, Guelph researcher Glen Filson determined world crops could be worth more than $60 million per month in the Greater Toronto Area alone. Now, five years and thousands more new Canadians later, it would be reasonable to suggest that market could be approaching $800 million a year.

What an opportunity for Ontario farmers, particularly now with the local food movement firmly entrenched here. For their part, consumers get fresh product grown with exacting, sustainable standards. Everyone wins.   

So Happy Thanksgiving to you, no matter what’s on your table. Let’s be mindful, though, of those whose tables aren’t so adorned with food, those who are struggling mightily with the rising cost of getting by, those who find the cost of food a part of the struggle.