The Thunder Bay District features a variety of farms. The single largest use of farmland is crop production with 45,943 acres or 80% of land in 2011 being put to this use. The main field crops grown in the area are barley, wheat, oats, corn, soybeans, potatoes and hay crops. 36 Despite the relatively short growing season, the growing days in this region are long and there are clay deposits suitable for raising good crops of grasses and grains for livestock feed and pasture. Since land is comparatively inexpensive, many farms in the area are dedicated to the raising of livestock for meat or dairy. In addition to beef and dairy farmers, Thunder Bay is seeing a growing interest in the production of pork and specialty meats like lamb, goat and rabbit. 37
There are a few farms growing grains for human consumption or for seed. There is a single local flour mill in this area which produces partially-sifted, whole wheat and rye flour and has the capacity to clean grains as well. 38
Until recently the area was home to an egg farm that sold to grocery retail, institutions and distributors. With the sale of the farm’s egg quota, they have reduced the scope of their operation to wholesaling eggs brought in from Manitoba and offering grading services for eggs produced by local small-flock farmers. 39
Many of the farms in the Thunder Bay District are dairy farms. Some of this milk is pasteurized by the two dairy plants located in Thunder Bay and is packaged in cartons and milk bags for sale in grocery stores within the District. Milk produced locally is also transported to plants in other parts of the province, as determined by the Dairy Farmers of Ontario. Nearly all of the dairy products other than milk that consumers enjoy are sourced from outside the District, mainly west from Winnipeg. For well over a decade, one dairy farm has been making cheese from the milk they produce on their farm for sale in the Thunder Bay market. In 2015 an additional farm began operations producing milk and yogurt bottled in glass jars.
Vegetable farming is experiencing an upswing in Thunder Bay, due to customer demand at the retail level. Vegetable farmers focus on hardier crops like root vegetables and tubers, onions, and cooking greens like kale and spinach. The current smaller-scale operations are able to sell most of their raw product at the farmers’ market or through other avenues like community supported agriculture. There are not a lot of big producers growing wholesale quantities of vegetables in this area. 40
A number of existing farms in the area have expanded to meet the growing demand for local food while others are undertaking value added activities on their farms. This is being driven by growing consumer interest in locally produced foods and local efforts to promote greater awareness and involvement in production activities aimed at the local market. Restaurants, caterers, grocery stores, and public sector institutions are also starting to source food from the area, increasing demand for all varieties of product. Related to this, there has been an expansion in artisanal and niche markets. Businesses have for years been making products such as jams and jellies, canned goods, and baked goods for sale at farmers’ markets and grocery stores. It is becoming more commonplace for these processors to use fruits, vegetables, grains, and other products grown in the area.
There are currently no measures of assessing growth in demand or supply, although the Get Fresh! Guide provides a sense of the number of retailers sourcing local food. According to the Get Fresh! Guide, nearly 20 restaurants and caterers are purchasing food from the Thunder Bay area. 41 The amount of food bought varies considerably by business. Some caterers, for instance, use local foods in most of their caterings while others offer local only on request. The same is true with restaurants where some use local throughout all or much of the year, whereas others incorporate local on occasion, such as for a seasonal dish.
The number of farms reduced 5% from 252 in 2006 to 239 in 2011. 42 The land used for farming decreased 4.5% from 61,850 in 2006 to 59,072 in 2011. Still, northwestern Ontario’s farms are on a growth path. The total farm capital market value increased 6.5% from $132,999,547 in 2006 to $140,723,410 in 2011. 43 Total gross farm receipts also increased during the same 5 year period. This was also in an era of little support from government and policy makers for small farmers and agriculture in northern Ontario, and at a time when there were smaller markets for locally produced goods and where municipal, provincial, and federal regulatory frameworks were more restrictive for growers.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that in recent years, the trend of losing farms is reversing slightly. Newer farmers seem to be starting smaller scale operations. This is likely due in part to opportunities in market vegetable production (which requires less land) and the cost of farmland, which while considerably less than in southern Ontario, is some of the most expensive land in northern Ontario. Still, farmland in the Thunder Bay District is relatively affordable and many growers are able to purchase land to farm on. Between 2006 and 2011, for instance, the amount of self-owned farmland in the area increased by 3%. 44 And although the amount of land being used to grow food in the District is considerably less than what it was 50 years ago, this means that land is available to expand the farming sector should demand for local foods continue to grow. It is also feasible to grow more food in urban areas, such as through urban farms, rooftop agriculture, and greenhouses.
There are significant opportunities for established farms to grow and meet demand for local food, as well as for new farms to start up and fill gaps in the market. Whether it be beef, eggs, vegetables, or dairy, farms in the District are only supplying a very small amount of the overall demand. It is possible that new kinds of farms—orchards growing cold hardy varieties of pears and apples, for instance—could come onto the scene. There are also opportunities to diversify farm operations, such as by adding on-farm processing, to generate additional farm income, create jobs, and expand the tax base for rural area.
In order for growth to continue, demand for local food will need to continue. There is also a need to address shortages of skilled labour and infrastructure gaps, foster further linkages and communication across the supply chain, and develop funding sources to support growth in production.