Keep Your Friends Close and Your Farmer Closer

The Farmers' Table

‘Farm-to-table’, ‘farm-to-fork’ and ‘farm-to-consumer’ – whatever you call it, is it a trendy movement or the new way of sourcing local food that is here to stay?

Making the decision to support local farmers and to care about where your food comes from is on the rise. There is no doubt that great food is grown and raised in Saskatchewan. Farmers’ markets are more popular than ever, and more of us want to eat food that is sustainably raised from smaller, local producers.

With local food rising in popularity, new ways of connecting farmers with consumers are emerging. Industry West talked to a few Saskatchewan farmers and entrepreneurs about local food production, farmer-consumer relationships and the future of eating local in the province.

Traditionally, smaller farms in Saskatchewan have been selling through farm gate sales and farmers’ markets. Farm gate sales—where the farmer sells directly to the customer—has no middleman but it’s time consuming for the farmer and buyer. Another model frequently used is CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture. Customers buy a ‘subscription’ or ‘shares’ of farm products which provides the farmer with funds needed to buy seeds or livestock and get the growing season started. In return, the customer receives products from the farm.

The Farmers’ Table

To facilitate access to local food for consumers and making the process easier for the farmer, channels are changing and new ones are emerging with the help of social media and online marketing. Community groups such as The Farmers’ Table are facilitating the marketing channel between farmer and consumer. Helene Tremblay-Boyko is one of the founders of The Farmers’ Table. The organization, made up of a group of Saskatchewan farmers, markets their products through a website where customers can place an order to be delivered to a pick-up spot on a pre-determined date.

“It is truly farm-to-consumer,” says Tremblay-Boyko. “No middlemen at all and we are building direct relationships with the customers.” The farmer benefits because the food is sold on delivery which is a huge advantage. “At a farmers’ market, products may not get sold and need to be brought back to the farm,” she adds. For customers, the benefits are also clear: no middleman involvement plus quality food that adheres to the production standards The Farmers’ Table sets for its producers. That means they all follow a sustainability protocol that doesn’t allow for use of antibiotics, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or growth hormones, and all animals are pasture raised.

Tremblay-Boyko says that the interest in local sustainable food has grown dramatically over the past ten years, with more options for the customers who want to buy local. Looking ahead, the Farmers’ Table’s objective is to get more farmers onboard to complement the product offering as well as replacing and replenishing current products.

Farm One Forty’s LaRoche Family

Like Helene Trembley-Boyko, Arlie LaRoche shares similar sentiments on the growing interest in local, sustainable food. LaRoche runs Farm One Forty together with her husband Brett in Vanscoy, southwest of Saskatoon. On 140 acres, the LaRoches’ raise primarily livestock such as beef, pigs, chicken and sheep, with some vegetables and some grain for feed. The farm focuses on a holistic management of livestock which creates a sustainable ecosystem between soil, plants and animals.

LaRoche started the farm as a hobby farm and was able to go full-time farming in 2013-14. She sees that the public’s interest in local, sustainable food has become more popular in the recent years. “I think there will always be some people who are not interested [in this type of farming], but it will become more the norm, and more mainstream,” she says.

Farm One Forty sells products from the farm mainly by pre-order through their website. Customers pick up at the farm or have the items delivered. The customer base expands mainly through social media and word of mouth.  Their policy is to never grow more food than they think can be sold. “We are super transparent,” she says. “There is a higher level of trust when customers can actually meet me in person and ‘shake my hand’.” Farm One Forty invites visitors to farm tours and arranges an annual Farm to Table event where an invited chef prepares a meal from the farm’s products. LaRoche also finds fulfillment in providing people with a real perspective on where food actually comes from and how it is grown. Farm One Forty’s tagline is ‘Reconnecting Folks with Real Food’, because the educational part of reminding people where food comes from is essential.

Tim and Carla Shultz

For Tim Shultz, co-owner and CEO of Regina’s Local & Fresh, the goal is “to create a better, more sustainable local food system in Saskatchewan.” Local & Fresh currently targets consumers with a busy lifestyle and allows them order local products online that are conveniently delivered to their doorstep. Shultz has plans to expand the business to create a more complete distribution system for local food including selling to independent restaurants, and a physical store stocked with local products.

Shultz started as a producer passionate about creating ways of marketing local foods to consumers. “Our vision was to create a business that would connect the consumer to the producer just like the producer was out there him/herself but to allow that producer to do what they do best and enjoy doing, which is to produce food,” he explains. Shultz personally meets with every producer that supplies his business. All products are sampled and the production standards verified.

Building strong relationships with consumers is equally important. “We believe in that strong relationships are key to building trust between consumers and the food they choose to purchase,” he says. “The local food movement is fuelled by a longing to have a relationship with the food we eat. As soon as we lose that, it becomes a product sitting on a shelf with other options, that product has become a commodity.” In the future, Schultz would like to see a well-rounded selection of local products in conventional grocery stores and sees a business like Local & Fresh building that logistics and distribution chain.

641 Grill & Motel Eddy Burger

With increased interest in local food, more Saskatchewan restaurants also source local. For Kali Eddy and her husband Mathew, local food is what they do. 641 Grill & Motel is located in the Qu’Appelle Valley at Craven, where the access to local growers and food producers is plentiful. The Eddys are not only running the restaurant, they are also the supplier of the ground beef and some pork from their own farm. “It isn’t just farm to table, it’s our farm to your table’,” says Eddy.

The 641 Grill & Motel serves rustic comfort food and as much of the food as possible is locally sourced. The highly popular Eddy burger is a great example: the beef comes from the Eddy’s own farm, the bacon from a different farm and the onion rings, buns and sauce are all made in-house.

It is important to Eddy to use local products because they live in a small town which survive on local support. ‘Local’ isn’t just a trendy buzz word to Eddy. “When we say local we actually know the people by name and they live in our community, or play sports with our kids”, she says. “Small towns survive on local support.”

Convincing people to pay a little more for a higher quality product than they typically would in a small-town restaurant has been a challenge. For Eddy, telling the customers about the concept, their own farm and the other local suppliers has been the key and it is working. “They [customers] have come to appreciate the quality and uniqueness and with that often comes a higher price,” says Eddy.

Tremblay-Boyko, LaRoche, Shultz and Eddy all agree that the eat local movement isn’t just a trend. It is becoming the ‘new normal’ and it’s going mainstream. They see continued growth and expansion in the future, whether it is a succession plan for the farm or development plans for the business. Moreover, the relationship between farmers and consumers is critical. The added marketing power from online ordering and social media is changing how local farmers and customers connect. Educating consumers about options and increasing knowledge about how food is produced while facilitating access to locally produced food enables customers to make informed decisions. “Our food has story, and people need to know that in order to appreciate what we are trying to do,” concludes Eddy.