By Colleen Kimmett
It would seem at first glance, driving down Highway 22 in Woolwich County, Ontario, that the family farm is alive and well. The two-lane rural road is flanked by tall corn fields, large barns and well-kept houses. Produce stands appear at regular intervals at the end of long laneways, advertising sweet corn, carrots, pies, blueberries, pickles. At the bottom of each, a notice to customers: No Sunday Sales.
Sunday is still a day of rest for the Old Order Mennonites who live in the area, and farming is still a way of life. But while the old traditions remain (some farmers use tractors, but no other motorized vehicles) global forces have changed things. When the BSE crisis led to an international trade ban on Canadian beef, many in this large beef-producing region were hit hard. Looking closer at the large livestock barns in the distance, it’s possible to see that many are actually empty.
Farmers were forced to diversify into fruit and vegetable production. In order to help them reach new markets, the community launched a unique initiative called the Elmira Produce Auction Co-operative.
EPAC opened in 2004 and has been growing steadily since. It now has approximately 100 members, and serves as one-stop shopping for larger retail buyers in the region who want to serve a growing demand for local food, but don’t have the time to deal with farmers individually.
It’s been lauded as a way to break down one of the greatest barriers that small-scale farmers face in getting their produce to consumers: supplying large enough volumes, in one place, to attract retail and restaurant buyers.
Delivery vehicles with horse power
Teams of horses stand patiently in the parking lot of the Elmira Produce Auction Co-operative, or EPAC, on a grey fall morning. They’ve traveled from Mennonite farms from around the region, bringing loads of just-picked fruits and vegetables. One of the rules of the auction is that all the produce has to come from within a 75-mile radius.
Inside the auction warehouse, the bidding has just begun. Auctioneer Bill Horst walks up and down rows of wooden pallets, which are piled with boxes of carrots, onions, apples, kale and dozens of other varieties of fruits and vegetables. He’s followed by a cluster of people, mostly men, many of whom are dressed in the Old Order Mennonite tradition: black hat, black shoes, black pants and white shirts. Horst spends less than a minute on average at each lot, prices rolling off his tongue as buyers make their bids.