On Friday, December 9, the Township of Leeds and the Thousand Islands hosted an agricultural summit at the Lansdowne Community Hall. Approximately eighty people attended the event, including MP Gord Brown and MPP Steve Clark. Attending from North Grenville were Councillor Donovan Arnaud and North Grenville Economic Development officer Teri Devine. Also in attendance was a state assemblywoman from nearby New York state and an economic development manager. During her address, the assemblywoman noted how interesting it was to hear that both regions, despite being in different countries, have very similar economic challenges. She felt it was important to have regular dialogue between the two regions and that we could learn a lot from each other.
The keynote speaker for the morning was Rebecca Mackenzie of the Culinary Tourism Alliance. Rebecca was an excellent speaker and shared a lot of relevant information about culinary tourism. In her 20’s, she helped Prince Edward County develop their ten-year food tourism strategy and the ‘Taste Trail’ program (including wineries, craft breweries, distilleries, cideries, restaurants, and specialty food shops) that is recognized as a world class food tourism initiative. At one point she stressed how important it was for culinary/local food tourism to appeal to millennials. She said that, by 2020, this group of 18-39 year olds will dominate tourism by controlling half of the world’s tourism dollars. This group will use their online research skills to choose where they will spend their money. They’re also looking for an authentic ‘behind the scenes’ experience, where they can learn the where, why, and how of how things are done and made.
Rebecca had some very specific advice for local food tourism businesses. Perfecting your onsite visitor experience, telling your story effectively, online and in person, making it really easy to buy products from your business, and regularly innovating and bringing new products into your market, were some of her key pieces of advice. Rebecca pointed out that China is a key market for tourism. With a growing middle class and the largest population in the world, China spent $292 billion on tourism in 2015. Like millennials, Chinese travellers are also looking for an authentic experience, but they also want good food and good wine.
After a local food lunch of roast beef, steamed vegetables, mashed potatoes, coleslaw and other farm table favourites, the afternoon portion of the agenda kicked off with local North Grenville resident, Katie Nolan of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs, moderating a discussion panel of local food entrepreneurs. Wendy Banks of Wendy’s Mobile Market, Bruce Davis of Gananoque Brewing Company, and Charlie Forman of Forman Farms made up the panel. Each one talked briefly about their business, and then the discussion moved into questions from the moderator and the audience.
Some of the takeaways from the panel discussion were that, as a business owner, you’ve got to be creative and resourceful to solve some of your problems. The panel also talked about the need for perseverance as a business owner. Charlie said that he tried to grow quinoa at his farm this year, but it ended up being the worst crop failure he’s ever had. However, he plans to try again next year, because he thinks it will work and it’s potentially very profitable. One of the many questions from the audience was what each panel member felt was the best tool for attracting new customers. Without missing a beat, each member responded that social media was simply the best way to attract new customers.
Overall, the summit was very informative and a day well spent, with lots of time for questions and networking. Maybe there’s an opportunity to host a similar event in North Grenville? Our North Grenville Rural Summit is supposed to take place every two years. Perhaps, in the years when there’s no rural summit, there could be an agri-food summit hosted at the former Kemptville College. Creating a municipal rural affairs and agri-food committee to help organize these two events would be a great first step.