FARM 23 - Eat Local Huron finds success with Farm Crawl tours
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
After an up-and-down first year, which included a devastating fire to the company’s initial Westfield headquarters, Eat Local Huron has now settled into a rhythm, connecting Huron County residents with local food producers.
This is built into the endeavour’s business model, serving as an online hub for local producers and Huron County customers, but it was Eat Local Huron’s well-attended Farm Crawls last summer, fall and winter that really served the purpose of connecting people with the farmers who grow and produce their food here in Huron County.
Chris Spaleta, the founder and executive director of Eat Local Huron, in an interview with The Citizen, said it all began when he and some of his friends were discussing local food in Huron County. They said that the county is blessed with some of the best producers in the province right here in our own backyard, but that the food could be difficult to get and sold all across the community, making it very time-consuming to go from producer to producer. A centralized hub for local food, he said, made sense when they stopped to think about the challenges associated with procuring local food in Huron County.
He said that while farmers’ markets had done a good job of bringing local producers together, their roster was often not comprehensive and farmers’ markets, by nature, are seasonal, meaning there wouldn’t be any access in the colder months, which, in Huron County, could mean as much as half of the year.
He said some local stores have done a good job of collecting Huron-produced food and putting it all under one roof, but, with Eat Local Huron, Spaleta and his team sought to create a “shop local” hub online, connecting the residents of Huron County with the producers doing excellent work right in their backyard. Furthermore, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March of 2020, an emphasis on remote purchasing and contactless delivery made the idea even more prudent and Spaleta and his team applied for a grant to make his dream a reality.
He gathered some like-minded producers from throughout the county and formed a board of directors to oversee the new project. That early team included Katrina McQuail of Meeting Place Organic Farm near St. Helens and Tamara McMullen of Firmly Rooted Farm near Belgrave and the team continued to grow from there, as did the Eat Local Huron offerings.
The business was soon up and running in Westfield, when an electrical fire devastated the Eat Local Huron home base and warehouse, forcing the business to press pause and rebuild from the ground up in a new location, settling temporarily in Bayfield before finding a more permanent home in the Seaforth area.
Since then, things have been going smoothly and Eat Local Huron has been steadily adding to its roster of producers, offering not just the staples, but other interesting creations as well, from now over 60 producers from throughout the county. There are offerings of lavender and coffee, as well as fermented foods and maple syrup, in addition to standard offerings like meat, cheese, milk, bread and other baked goods. In fact, that is one of the things Spaleta said makes him most proud - the selection of items and the breadth of products being offered. It’s amazing, he said, what is being produced in little, tucked-away corners of the county.
Once the company found its footing again after the fire of last year, Eat Local Huron procured a tourism-related grant and moved ahead with a side project that would eventually become its very popular roster of Farm Crawl tours.
The idea, Spaleta said, originated with McQuail, who sought to further connect producers and customers. This is nothing new for McQuail and her parents Fran and Tony who, for years, have opened their farm up to visitors, hosting tours and open houses on a regular basis to break down the walls between producers and consumers.
As travel restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic were loosening and things were opening back up in Ontario, Spaleta said that McQuail and the rest of the Eat Local Huron team saw the Farm Crawls as a great opportunity to encourage people to travel, meet new people and learn more about how their food is produced and the people who are producing it.
Not only were people able to tour local farms and learn more about the operations, but other producers would often get involved and set up pop-up markets on Farm Crawl stops, which made for a really comprehensive experience.
Spaleta said the Farm Crawls were overwhelmingly successful in regards to attendees, but the producers also got more into the concept as the months went on, all culminating in the winter market that was held at two locations just before Christmas.
As far as the future is concerned, Spaleta hopes to continue the Farm Crawls, though they will likely be largely scaled back and dependent on producers opening their properties to people, rather than the elaborate, organized tours that so captured people’s imaginations last year. However, no exact plans have been finalized just yet.
As for the future plans for Eat Local Huron, Spaleta said he hopes to continue working to connect consumers with local food, but there are some other interesting projects in the works, such as a pilot project to locate a handful of refrigerators throughout the county for producers to drop off items that could be taken by those in need at no cost.
Rather than food going to waste, which Spaleta said has been a concern with farmers’ markets and other farmgate sales over the years, the items could be included in these refrigerators in order to help someone in need as food costs continue to rise. Reducing food waste has been another goal of Eat Local Huron, so this is another step towards achieving that goal.
Thus far, The Den in Goderich has already signed on to be a location for one of the refrigerators with more to come. Spaleta said that Libro Credit Union has also come on as a sponsor for the project, which he hopes will roll out later this year.
For more information on Eat Local Huron, to shop or to sign up, visit online at eatlocalhuron.ca.