Local food demand soars in Alberta

Consumers continue to clamour for food produced in the province, but the increased demand come with its challenges

Demand for food grown and made in Alberta continues to be on the upswing, according to a recent provincial survey.

The survey, released last September by Alberta Agriculture, shows that the market value for farmers markets reached $924 million in 2016, which is nearly quadruple what the value was in 2004. As well, the report says market value for products directly purchased from farms or ranches grew to $303 million, a 60 percent increase since 2004.

“This is not just an Alberta phenomenon,” said Eileen Kotowich, a farmers market specialist with Alberta Agriculture. “Consumers want to know the people who are growing and processing their food, and they want to ask them questions about how they raise their crops and animals.”

The survey also notes that more restaurants are choosing to serve Alberta food ingredients on their menus. Market value in this category reached $395.6 million in 2016, a 5.8 percent increase since 2012.

Alberta Agriculture has been doing the survey since 2004. To compile the numbers, specialists did a 22-minute telephone survey with 1,200 Albertans. Responses were divided based on population, and 800 of them came from the Calgary and Edmonton regions, while 400 came from the rest of Alberta. Respondents were 18 years and older and were able to speak about their past food purchases.

The survey found the main driver behind more consumers buying local is because they want their food prepared safely. Following that, many are going local because they want to support family farms and want products that are tasty, fresh, high quality and nutritious.

“Because they have that chance to talk to the producer, they have more trust in the safety of the food they are purchasing,” Kotowich said. “There’s more trust involved when they have a chance to look you in the eye. When it’s coming from a large food processor or large organization, there’s no face there, so they will call into question the safety of the food.”

As well, many farms are becoming more transparent due to the surge in demand for local food, she added.

“We have so many more producers who are saying, ‘come out to my farm,’ ” she said. “With the Open Farm Days program, it started with 20 farms five years ago and now we have more than 100 farms this year. It’s fantastic; they have nothing to hide and can share their stories.”

Even the province’s agriculture ministry is taking note of the increased demand. Officials are slated to bring forward new legislation this year that aims to grow the industry. They might establish a local food definition, create a local food week, and apply current federal organic regulations to organic products that are made and sold in Alberta.

“The biggest thing for most producers is to get more awareness with local food,” said Jason Andersen, who runs Kathy’s Greenhouse near Kitscoty, Alta., and is president of the Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association. “It would be great to get more events happening. There’s definitely more demand.”

While more demand is good, he said it can be hard for some growers to keep up. For example, some of them aren’t yet able to invest in large storage units. If they had those units, they could operate year round, he said.

“It’s costly to do that. Most people can’t react fast enough on the infrastructure side of things. If they do, they’re sticking their neck out quite a bit.”

As for the survey, Kotowich said they hope to do another round in 2020. As well, they’re hoping to get more data on local food being sold to grocers and others in the supply chain.

“We’re not clear at this point how large the local food industry is. We hope we can at some point get a handle on it,” she said. “But it is much bigger than just farmers’ markets and guys selling from their farms. The data we have is really one small piece of the pie.”

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