AT THE SPIRIT TREE ESTATE CIDERY, Tom Wilson and Nicole Judge are intent on answering customers’ questions. Their infant son sits on the sales counter resting against his mother as if he’s spent his life in this pose. The young couple looks tired, but totally engaged. They are living their dream, after all. These agricultural entrepreneurs produce and sell cider, a selection of local vegetables, cheeses, spreads and fruit including about a dozen varieties of apples. They also serve up artful breads and other goods baked in a wood-burning brick oven.

Local residents flock to Spirit Tree’s straw-bale-constructed cidery, the latest addition to Caledon, Ontario’s, improving local-food scene. Seemingly overnight, it has become a gathering place for friends to exchange ideas over a glass of cider and flatbread pizzas.

Over in the village of Palgrave, at the far-east end of Caledon – a rural conglomeration of fields, forests and towns in Toronto’s urban shadow – Barb Imrie is adding the last few ingredients to a batch of cranberry muffins. Her red hair is mostly caught up in a long ponytail, though she casually swipes at stray hairs as she makes her way about the kitchen in the United Church basement. Imrie will be able to offer these muffins for sale now that the church kitchen has received commercial certification from the health department.

When it comes to local food, Ontario has taken great strides over the last decade, but do they add up to a revolution? Is the province on the verge of tipping away from years of farmer discontent and agricultural decline to become a dynamic food-based economy that links what we eat to our health?

Some of Ontario’s more revolutionary ideas have evolved from the Metcalf Foundation and Ruth Richardson, who headed up the organization’s environmental program until 2009. Recognizing that Ontario’s – indeed Canada’s – food system was “broken,” Richardson, a passionate foodie, brought together a range of agencies involved in the sector and supported by the Metcalf Foundation. After a year-long process, the group identified the need to, as Richardson puts it, “paint Ontario’s food landscape.”

The resulting report, Food Connects Us All: Sustainable Local Food in Southern Ontario, published in 2008, put into words what Richardson and others recognized: “Food is connected to every major problem we face as a society – rising medical costs, poverty and hunger, declining farm incomes, the paving-over of farmland, wildlife protection, urban sprawl, youth unemployment, and communities at risk.” Since government hadn’t picked up the ball, the Metcalf Foundation also created and launched Sustain Ontario: The Alliance for Healthy Food and Farming. The group is spearheading efforts to develop a food system that is healthy, ecological, equitable and financially viable by addressing issues that connect healthy food and local, sustainable agriculture.

The failure of our governments to understand these links is made evident by how they organize their ministries in silos that seldom work collectively. In Food Connects Us All, the Metcalf Foundation points out, “We have separate ministries for agriculture, health, economic development, community development, and the environment, as well as a multiplicity of non-governmental organizations, each focused on a single piece of the problem.”

A quick dig or two unearths how this silo approach has compromised efforts to connect food, health and the economy in Ontario. At Spirit Tree, for example, the young couple’s dream weathered a nightmare of regulatory hurdles despite the fact that Caledon has some of the most progressive agricultural and rural policies in the province. Wilson had to plant native trees around the perimeter of his property to hide his apple trees, then he had to shell out almost $125,000 to install a storm-water-management system, a biofiltration plant and a grease tank that far exceed his operation’s demands. The litany of requests from three different agencies took an extra two years and prompted Allan Thompson, a Caledon councillor and long-time farmer, to rage, “If Noah were trying to build his ark today, the bureaucratic process in Caledon would have stopped him.”

Imrie, meanwhile, had to raise $14,000 to upgrade the Palgrave United Church kitchen so it could be certified. The funding she received isn’t available to for-profit businesses, and the cost of certification is prohibitive to most small canning or baking enterprises, so the environmental educator, who works days for the Toronto District School Board, secured the certification so that others can use the kitchen to make food products for sale. The facility will also support an organic farm being established on nearby land owned by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.

As its complete name – Sustain Ontario: The Alliance for Healthy Food and Farming – suggests, the organization’s mission is to take agriculture and food out of silos. Lauren Baker, Sustain Ontario’s director for its first two years, describes it as “a heterogeneous network of people, ideas and initiatives from diverse sectors and regions.” The understanding that unites members is an agreement that a healthy, ecological, equitable and financially viable food system is needed to replace Ontario’s current broken one.

This vision isn’t universal, however. David Sparling, a professor and agri-food innovation and regulation chair at the University of Western Ontario, is keen on sustainable agriculture, but he questions how large a role local food can play. “You could close Saskatchewan if Canada wants local,” he quips. Sparling recognizes that local producers are hamstrung by lack of infrastructure. “The challenge with local is that it’s hard to connect a whole lot of small producers with large markets.”

Rod MacRae, a professor at York University and respected advocate for agricultural change, sees “no connection between local and sustainable agriculture,” but says we should be trying to achieve both. He predicts a rosier future for local food: 50 per cent penetration for supply-managed products like eggs, milk and chicken. But like Sparling, he points out that there are hurdles: “Rejigging the supply chain is slow and difficult.”

Thanks to the Metcalf Foundation, some new ideas are being floated to deal with the gap in the centre of Ontario’s local food chain. In 2010, Sustain Ontario produced Menu 2020: Ten Good Food Ideas for Ontario, one of five reports commissioned by its benefactor, collectively referred to as the Metcalf Food Solutions reports. (See “10 Ways” for a list of all five papers.) They identify some of the changes required if Ontario is to have a “multifunctional” food system. The People’s Food Policy Project (PFPP), a three-year-old, pan-Canadian initiative that also promotes the multifunctionality of food, will submit its food strategy to the federal government this spring.

And Neil Currie, general manager of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, is working on another national food strategy. He says that the 37,000 farm families he represents want government to adjust policies that favour imported goods at the expense of domestic ones. It’s a situation brought home by Steven Chase last November 19 in The Globe and Mail. While small producers such as Imrie are forced to certify their kitchens at considerable expense, Chase notes that virtually none of the more than 33 million litres of apple juice from China, 11.8 million kilograms of pickles and relish from India and 4.9 million kilograms of cashews from Vietnam were touched by federal inspectors.

In her article (“Fire in Their Bellies,” page 27), Margaret Webb writes, “The chances of the federal government implementing the PFPP’s policy are about as likely as Walmart declaring itself a non-profit.” MacRae adds, “There is no revolution in Canada. We are just an evolutionary society.” Maybe. But there is no denying that Ontario’s food landscape is changing. Whether it comes about as the result of a revolutionary or evolutionary process, the question remains: Will the basic food system change to become the holistic, collaborative and healthful endeavour painted by the Metcalf Foundation?

Nicola Ross founded the Caledon Countryside Alliance. For more details and contact information, visit peel.cioc.ca/record/CAL0242

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