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  What constitutes local food?

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  • Define local. Is it 100 miles or 100 kilometres? Does arrival at market within 12 to 36 hours of being picked count?

    And if one farmer distributes produce from 12 or 100 certified organic operations within a co-operative, does that satisfy a consumer’s local food stipulation?

    While sales of Quinte Organic Farmers co-operative produce have more than doubled within the past three years, the vice-president says the successful business model which won it a 2007 new co-operative of distinction award, is being stretched by big city local food guidelines.

    With the National Farmers Union’s Food Down the Road in Kingston last fall calling 100 kilometres "local," and Local Food Plus drawing the line at 100 miles, producers in smaller, more remote communities may soon struggle for acceptance.

    Peter Finch says that more than one consumer at Toronto farm markets refused to purchase produce from Quinte because it fell outside of her 100-mile radius.

    "The 100-mile thing. It’s a good idea but don’t make it an absolute limit," says Finch, owner of Rolling Hills Organics in Northumberland. "To me that’s an absurd thing. To me it’s about the freshness. If it’s picked that day or the day before, it’s super fresh; especially in a big city.

    "Smaller farmers are going to be further out because that’s what they can afford to buy. But it doesn’t matter. It‚s still as good as you can get," says Finch who regularly sells 150 bags of fresh salad greens a day at the Riverdale Farmers Market in Toronto’s Cabbagetown and at the Waldorf School Village Market in Thornhill. That’s in addition to the colorful, high quality variety of goods he handles for 11 other co-op members.

    He says so many certification processes are now competing for recognition by the consumer that "it’s sort of watering down the standards."

    At three years of age, Quinte Organics includes farms located in a triangle between Northumberland, Prince Edward and Hastings Counties. At its start, receipts of $1,000 signified a good day. In 2007 sales occasionally hit the $3,000 mark.

    Farmers in the Quinte Organic co-operative "care enough about the way their food is produced to stand behind it and discuss its nature with customers at market," he asserts.

    "It’s as much about communication and education as it is about selling. This way of farming is not just chemical-free, or chemical-reduced (as the minimal standards of local foods promoters request); it is also thought through to be healthy and sustainable long-term, with the plants, soil, livestock and the whole farm environment protected and enhanced on a continual basis, verified organic every year by third party certifiers."

    That every farmer doesn’t attend every market doesn’t lessen the effort he puts into growing the crop, says Finch.

    "In the mad scramble to produce local foods and make them widely available, many local farmers are stretched, tending their farms and selling at several markets a week in the city," says Finch. "Quinte Organic rationalizes production and markets by having each farmer grow what they grow and like best."

    That model won it the new co-operative distinction award from the Ontario Co-operative Association in 2007.

    This group of small-scale, family farms began by taking pooled produce to nearby farmers markets with which members were acquainted, and supplemented these with forays into the nearest big city.

    Now, "those (who) choose to, also step up as market managers to look after weekly markets on behalf of the co-op." They are paid for their time and expenses. "These market managers order the produce and meats from each farmer, buying it outright on behalf of the co-op. They then load it at one assembly point and drive the harvest of up to 12 farms in one dedicated conveyance to market."

    At the end of the day the stands at Toronto’s Riverdale, Brickworks and Village Markets, which had been piled high with a beautiful array of produce, have been emptied.

    "All the food that 12 small family farms could supply for that day is sold, and many customers have gone home happy," says Finch.

    So consumers fulfilling a 100-mile criteria would be miles ahead by accessing goods from 12 farms trucked in on one trip.

    "Quinte Organic has tapped into the ravenous appetite of sophisticated city consumers and chefs who crave the freshness, flavour and nutritional value of everything on offer," says Finch.

    "Presently, overall local demand for our fresh local organic produce and meats exceeds our resources as a co-op to supply them," says Finch, admitting the co-op seeks "more committed certified organic farmers in this area to grow for us, and more members to market for us."

    That’s on the horizon. A recent meeting in nearby Millbrook drew more than 100 people interested in joining the co-op, which will continue to supply markets in Toronto, Campbellford, Cobourg, Trenton and Kingston.

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