Barriers to wholesale | A decade ago, supermarkets were not interested in stocking local food but times are changing
GLENBURNIE, Ont. — The land Allison and Greg Shannon farm north of Kingston was first recorded as farmland in 1867, the year local MP John A. Macdonald was cobbling together Canada.
In those days, it would have been in the country. These days, it is part of Kingston.
And in their own way, the Shannons are playing a small role in a new pan-Canadian vision — the local food movement.
They started in 2002 on a small plot of land owned by Greg’s father with a vision of a hydroponic greenhouse to serve local consumers.
“Our idea was to grow local food and market it locally, promoting pesticide-free and nutrition,” says Allison. “It was a very simple concept. Now I think the local food issue has become much more complicated than it needs to be.”
Their Sun Harvest Greenhouses changed its focus as it tapped into growing local food demand and faced resistance from major grocery store chains against stocking local food on their shelves when they can get it from their warehouses where supply and consistency are guaranteed.
“At first the focus of the business was to be wholesale,” says Greg. “But the market quickly told us to go retail if we wanted to make it.”
The result has been an evolution over the past decade from a greenhouse on one-third of an acre of land to a larger greenhouse, a retail store and 23 acres of outdoor crops that include a U-pick but also harvesting for sales from their store and into the city.
“We really got into the retail side by default as we saw where the market was,” he said. “Now we have a market garden store and a significant retail side.”
The farm also delivers fresh tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and berries to local restaurants and some independent stores willing to work with local suppliers. It also grows potatoes, sweet corn, beans and garlic.
“The customer really wants local produce, to know where it came from, to know it is healthy and nutritious but I guess we didn’t realize at the time the barriers that could arise in getting store shelf space,” said Allison.
They would not reveal financial details of the operation, but Sun Harvest is considered a success story in Ontario’s booming local food movement, a market that Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Mark Wales says is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Kingston, a picturesque and historic city perched on the shores of Lake Ontario between Toronto and Ottawa, has many high-end restaurants and the local food movement is strong. Many restaurants buy local produce and print the name of the supplier farm on the menu.
Chez Piggy, founded by Zal Yanovsky, a member of the 1960s rock group The Lovin’ Spoonful, is an example. With a partner, he turned an abandoned limestone stable into a restaurant that draws busloads of foodie tourists from Canada and the United States.
Greg said Kingston “is one of the most sustainable cities in the country” with a strong local food ethos.
But the past decade has been a journey for the young couple, who are both 45, met in agricultural studies at the University of Guelph and decided they wanted to become farmers.
“When we started, local food wasn’t on the radar screen but it has evolved,” he said.
“Local food was a given for our grandparents but our generation was raised in the box store era. I think the younger generation now is rediscovering the benefits and attraction of local.”
Larger grocery chains have seen the same development.
“Now the multinationals are on the bandwagon and offering sections of ‘local’ but is it really local?,” asked Allison. She said the lack of definition of local has confused the issue.
“Local doesn’t seem all that complicated. It is seen as a complex issue but it doesn’t have to be.”
Despite the summer success, there is a down season. Cash flow at Sun Harvest dries up in the winter.
“April 1 is the happiest day of the year,” she said. “It’s the day we open and the day we finally have cash flow again.”