“As the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, this is a very important issue for us.”
– MAFRI MINISTER ROSANN WOWCHUK
The Manitoba Food Charter continues to make inroads with Manitobans, after hosting both a sold-out conference this past weekend and signing more signatories to its visionary document.
This is the second winter the group has hosted a Growing Local: Getting Vocal conference, this year attracting over 250 people and leaving 70 more on a waiting list. The event attracts mostly urbanites keenly interested in agriculture. Many attendees said they would like to try their own hand at small-scale farming, grow their own food, or link more closely with existing farmers.
The Manitoba Food Charter grew out of more than 70 consultations across the province between 2004 and 2007. It is the first Canadian provincial charter. It is a vision statement that states, among other things, that “a just and sustainable food system …. is an economically viable, diverse and ecologically sustainable system.”
The Provincial Council of Women is one of the groups signing and endorsing the food charter this spring. The council represents about 30 women’s organizations that are focused on issues affecting women and their families. Others signing on in 2009 included the Reseau Communautaire, a Franco-Manitoban umbrella economic development organization, and Spence Neighbourhood Association and the West Broadway Development group, both inner-city community development groups.
In opening the event, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI) Rosann Wowchuk spoke of her own experience growing up on a farm and how food secure her family felt each fall after putting food they had raised themselves away for winter.
“It could snow. It could blow. We had what we needed. And what we needed was food. That’s what everybody needs and that’s what we have to continue to work for,” she said. “As the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, this is a very important issue for us.
MAFRI’s food traceability and buy local initiatives aim to forge stronger links between farmers and consumers, she added.
There weren’t many Manitoba farmers present but included among them was Altona’s Ron (Joe) Braun.
Braun started growing seven acres of high-value vegetables and fruits such as tomatoes and melons in 1984. He quit grain farming altogether in 2002.
Today he sells his fruit and vegetable crops wholesale as well as direct at the Altona farmers’ market. Braun says his decision to get out of cereals was due to the cost of expanding the larger farm to keep up.
He found the Growing Local conference interesting as well as alarming. “It’s because of all the disconnects between farmers and the buying public these groups are making us aware of,” he said.
Keynote speaker Co-operator editor Laura Rance spoke of the need for a broader understanding of sustainable agriculture, and the need to take approaches in farming that bring the best of production systems such as zero tillage and
organic farming together. There is a critical need to get more people living in rural areas, Rance said. “If we had people living in small towns we’d have a better base to build a local food economy and build local markets, ” she said.
A highlight of the event was a banquet featuring Manitobamade foods and beverages served up by top-notch chefs. The menu featured braised bison, greens wraps, elk with foccacia, chili chocolate chicken, vegan shepherd’s pie, arctic char and pickerel ceviche, saskatoon shortcakes – all washed down with local fruit wine from locally made wines, beers, ciders, herbal teas and even locally roasted coffee.
Workshops at the conference offered participants a chance to learn basics skills such as urban gardening and tapping maple trees. Other sessions looked at the importance of farmers’ markets, community gardens in the urban centres and Manitoba’s North, and creating local food distribution systems.
One session, billed as “Growing New Farmers” looked at barriers and opportunities for those with no ties to farms land try their hand at farming. The opportunities lie with small-scale ventures that forge close links and alliances with customers, said speakers at that session.
Katherine Rothermel, 48, a speaker in that session, spoke of how she and her husband
recently retired from careers in the military to buy 25 acres of land in Ontario and start a community-shared agriculture venture. Today they have about 100 customers in nearby Kingston. But their fast-growing customer base isn’t the only reason Rothermel is so enthusiastic. “I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing and I’m where I want to be,” said Rothermel.
The Manitoba Food Charter aims to have adopted a new name by March’s end, its executive director Kreesta Doucette said.
The group also plans to hand over a report to the provincial government next month containing 35 recommendations it says will help improve food security in this province. They want multiple departments of government to see what role they can play, said the MFC’s local food policy analyst Stefan Epp. “Food security encompasses not just agricultural issues but the economy, health care, social equity, the environment and so on,” he said.