PRESCOTT-RUSSELL — For the last decade the Eastern Ontario Agri-Food Network has been a regional network in name only. Long funded only by Prescott-Russell, the not-for-profit recently started a fundraising blitz across Eastern Ontario, spearheaded by executive director Tom Manley.
It was his idea. He was hired as a short-term consultant for a now-extinct committee “trying to develop a sustained and structured local food movement in the region,” he said. His recommendation? Join the network. So it did. Then the network hired him to develop a local food movement on a bigger scale.
So Manley’s been making the pitch for funding across Eastern Ontario. Prescott-Russell is funding the network $40,000 per year for the next three years. Manley would like each county to match that, based on their population. For Stormont-Dundas-Glengarry, that would mean $25,000. He’s asking Cornwall for $35,000. Overall he’s looking to bring in $100,000 from the counties and $50,000 from members, sponsors and stakeholders. SD&G and Cornwall heard his pitch but referred his request to staff for analysis last month. Manley plans to hire the equivalent of 1.5 full-time employees.
What’s in it for Eastern Ontario? Stimulating farm growth is feeding a niche and tax base that municipalities rely on, Manley said. “Farming is doing well but the number of farms is on the decline. (There are) barriers to commercial farming. We feel that younger farmers, second-career farmers, will go into direct sales. That’ll be the rejuvenation of rural economies and populations.”
Eastern Ontario has lots of independent food businesses: Upper Canada Creamery, Glengarry Fine Cheese and L’Orignal Packing are ones he can name off the top of his head. But what they’re lacking are supply chains and marketing. There’s no established supply chain, no distribution channels, and they have to fight for local shelf space, he said.
Manley sees a big opportunity in smoothing that out, helping producers bring products to market, and develop a brand for the region. The long-term goal is to have a food scene as robust and well-known as in Niagara or Prince Edward County. When urbanites in Ottawa, Brockville or Western Montreal think of taking a weekend getaway in the country, Manley wants them thinking of Eastern Ontario.
Manley has been an active player in Eastern Ontario agriculture for some time. The former owner of Homestead Organics, an organic farm-supply business, went bankrupt in 2018. The company had rapidly expanded, including buying a feed mill in Western Ontario, but its reach exceeded its grasp. By the time it went belly up it was about $4 million in debt and had about $1.3 million in assets.