Local food systems in Manitoba on the minds of young, small farmers

Agri-food policy must focus on more than economic development and food safety

Female hands holding an aubergine

It’s an icy winter evening and I’m visiting at the kitchen table with Lydia, a fellow young farmer living near Dunrea, Man. Every so often we are distracted by the clickity-clack of hooves. There is a baby goat in a box by the coat rack. Its mother kicked it out, Lydia explains, and in this weather without shelter it won’t survive.

Like many farmers, both new and seasoned, Lydia and her partner are embracing small-scale, sustainable agriculture and are focusing on selling their food directly to families throughout the province by developing community food networks. All of their family income is derived from these sales, which is an accomplishment for any farmer, never mind ones who are young and first generation.

Lydia is part of a growing number of food producers and eaters around the world who are building local food systems that benefit community, economy, and health, and that give people more power and control over their food systems.

Governments are starting to understand that grassroots local food systems are increasingly important and of interest to citizens.

Early this year, a Manitoba government-mandated working group called Small Scale Food Manitoba issued a report highlighting over 20 recommendations to create a more viable regulatory and political environment for small, local food producers.

The province appointed two staff positions to specifically support local food initiatives, is developing online resources and food-processing manuals, and has expressed an interest in giving small, local farmers a voice in policy-making.

In addition, the Manitoba Egg Producers, the provincial egg-marketing board, increased the quota exemption of laying hens from 99 to 300. This allows small farmers to provide more local eggs without facing barriers of costly and often unavailable quota.

While government and some elements of industry have taken positive steps, they are still catching up to Manitobans who have been proposing these and other solutions for years.

In 2005, Manitobans called for better public policy for community food security, releasing the Manitoba Food Charter, a document written after an extensive process of community deliberation between farmers, eaters and indigenous peoples in more than 70 meetings across the province.

In 2013, many supported The Real Manitoba Food Fight after the province confiscated cured meats from a local farm just months after awarding a prize to the same producers for meat deemed one of the most exciting new farm products in the province.

Momentum from The Real Manitoba Food Fight created Sharing the Table Manitoba, a diverse coalition of people concerned about local food systems who are interested in seeing government incorporate the priorities of food producers and their urban, chef and eater allies into policy.

Sharing the Table Manitoba believes that policy must focus on more than just economic development and narrow understandings of food safety. Citizens must have a say in decision-making and policies that affect community food systems. We are working to bring citizens together to ensure that these systems nurture individual and ecological health, community well-being, and economic development.

This is the momentum that has brought me to Lydia’s farm, and back in her kitchen our conversation flows to these topics easily — policy has to take into account the needs of the community or disconnects will remain between government and citizens participating in community food systems. At the individual level, world views are shifting, we see it specifically in our own conversations as farmers, and broadly in the new wave of Manitobans choosing to plug in to their local food communities.

The right to healthy, culturally appropriate food, and the right to determine how our food is grown are two pillars of food sovereignty — a concept being taken up by many people around the world who are demanding more just and sustainable food systems.

Food sovereignty involves asking tough questions about where power is located in our food system and challenging corporate agribusiness and government authorities to remember that food must remain in the commons — in community. Until this nut is cracked, community food systems will struggle to grow. Sharing the Table Manitoba is excited to deepen the conversation around local food and expand the change that is possible.

The energy in Lydia’s kitchen is palpable. The local food movement in Manitoba is relatively young, but these are exciting conversations. Both Lydia and I are embedded in the places we farm, and our relationships with the land and the people we feed keep us excited about raising and growing good, healthy, sustaining food. Yet we are also eager to connect with people in other places to work globally for a more just and sustainable food system.

Here in Manitoba, local food producers and allies are ready and willing to share a table and discuss the future of food in Manitoba. The province is welcome here and is invited to listen, learn and to open up the closed spaces of policy-making to the many people in communities around the province building a healthy, just and sustainable food system.

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