There is nothing like biting into an Ontario peach at its in-season peak — or a strawberry, or a tomato.

There is no doubt that locally grown, fresh produce tastes great. But, along with better flavour, buying local means that millions of dollars are kept in the province each year.

The full scope of agribusiness in Ontario is huge: the province’s agri-food system generates over $35 billion in GDP every year and supports close to 800,000 jobs. These numbers include not only food producers such as farmers, but food processors and distributors as well.

Sheik Khan is one such food processor. He is the President of Sheik Halal Farms, Canada’s largest halal duck processor. Around 25 years ago, Khan started his operation small, working with the local Mennonite community to procure locally raised ducks for his Halal food processing business. He built his business from the ground up, and went from processing 10 ducks per week to the 4,000 per week Sheik Halal Farms processes today.

Khan is continuing to expand his business, with the help of a $75,000 investment from the Greenbelt Fund. “I saw a big demand in the market for halal chicken, but in order to increase production, I needed to buy new equipment,” says Khan. “For the last two years, since I’ve started doing chicken, annual sales have grown from $3 million to $8 million. Next is the organic chicken market. I plan to grow sales to $20 million over the next few years.” Khan currently has 30 employees and that number is expected to increase.

The Greenbelt Fund is a non-profit that partners with the Government of Ontario to deliver the Local Food Investment Fund, in support of local agriculture. The Fund has invested over $12 million in more than 190 projects, like Khan’s, across the province since 2010, with the aim of getting more Ontario food onto Ontarians’ plates. The Greenbelt Fund’s focus is on supporting entrepreneurs like Khan, and investing in projects to reimagine how food is bought and sold in Ontario.

Flanagan Foods is the largest family-owned food distributor in Canada, serving more than 6,000 restaurants and foodservice operations throughout Ontario. Recently, the company received $42,000 from the Greenbelt Fund to implement a plan to source local foods first.

“We’ve always dabbled in local food,” says Peter Bozzer, Director of Procurement at Flanagan Foods, “but we’ve never listed and marketed food as local before. By working with our supplier base to help identify what foods are already defined as local, as well as changing our procurement strategy to buy local, we expect to increase our local food sales by $1 million in 2017.”
“This better serves today’s consumer,” comments Bozzer. “People want to know where their food comes from. And keeping money in the province is an economic good news story.”

“About eight years ago, we realized that a tremendous amount of Ontario’s food was imported,” says Burkhard Mausberg, CEO of the Greenbelt Fund. “We asked an agricultural economist to give us an estimate of what it would look like to our economy if we could take 10 percent of our top food and beverage imports in Ontario and replace them with local products.” The answer? “We would add another quarter-billion dollars to our GDP and create another 300 to 400 jobs. That’s at only 10 percent. If we can grow them here, the economic value stays here.”

Mausberg adds, “When we buy local, we’re not only supporting our economy and country, but also our family and neighbours — our farmers, food processors, and distributors — not to mention that we significantly reduce carbon emissions that affect climate change.”