Meet Leigha. She developed a passion for local food during her undergraduate years in a farming community. She became close friends with farmers and saw first-hand where her food comes from. Now, eating local is a part of who she is and she explains many of the benefits. This is her story.
Leigha loves to cook. She’s always making something delicious, whether it be on the stovetop, in the oven or on the barbecue. She has a real knack for it and knows how to mix the perfect ingredients together.
Leigha also has a passion for local food. She believes in sourcing her ingredients from places nearby, wherever she is. In fact, Leigha’s lived in five different communities in her life and has always found places to buy (and grow) her food close to home.
She grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, a northern Ontario town that borders Michigan. After high school, when Leigha was planning to start university, she remembers what had attracted her to her program: “Environmental Studies really appealed to me”, she says. The program she was interested in was called Bachelor of Bio-Resource Management, Environmental Management, out of Guelph. There was a strong business side to it but also a strong agricultural side. Leigha says, “I didn’t know anything about agriculture. I just really wanted to go to Guelph to do my studies but kept receiving these brochures for their Ridgetown campus. I thought it was just another place down the street from the main campus but then I finally got a map and saw where it was and I cried”.
She was upset at having to move so far away to somewhere that was quite rural. “It was nowhere close to where I thought I was going to be,” she says, “and it was like 13 hours from the Sault. So my dad, being the sport that he is, said we should go down there for a tour; because when you are from the Sault, you’ll drive 8 hours anywhere, so what’s another couple, heck, we’ll go 13 hours, we’ll drive all day!” she laughs. “So we drove down. It was a town of 3500 people and they have the college right smack dab in the middle”.
She remembers her first impressions of the campus: “During the tour, I loved it. I fell in love with the people, the place and even though it was smaller than my highschool, it felt like a place where I could be by myself. It was my own thing that I could experience. So I signed up”. That fall she moved into her new residence in Ridgetown.
Leigha jokes, “I ended up moving from a small town in northern Ontario to a much smaller town in southwestern Ontario”.
Despite the rosy picture she had developed in her mind after the tour, Leigha admits it took some time for her to adjust once school started. “It was the biggest culture shock I had ever experienced,” she says. “Everyone around me was a farmer. My roommate was a farmer. The people down the hall were farmers. My next door neighbours were farmers; and they were all competing as to what farms they were from”. She continues, “growing up, my image of a farm was like the family farm you see in books with every single kind of animal. But then all of a sudden I was meeting dairy farmers and cash croppers and goat farmers and pig farmers. They were all so different and from different parts of the province with different objectives and very different occupations”.
“Instantly I was immersed in a farming culture and at that moment in time, I really started to learn where food comes from and how it gets from their farms to my table”.
As she continued with her studies, she says, “I took a lot of agricultural courses. I didn’t take the courses for things like “Dairy Barn Management” or anything like that,” she jokes, “yes, that was a course… But I did a lot of environmental and agricultural sustainability. So more of the social, environmental and economic impacts of creating sustainable food systems”.
Leigha also remembers the friendships she made with the people around her: “There’s just so much more involved when you see the other side of it. I was very fortunate throughout those four years because I made a lot of friends who were willing to take me on tours of their farms. They would invite me over for the weekend and I was milking and washing cows, feeding chickens, collecting eggs, doing beef chores, and really doing all kinds of things that no one really gets to do”. After completing her undergraduate degree, Leigha then moved to Sudbury where she obtained a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.
After she moved back up north, she found that she had to learn all over again where she could source local food in her community. “For me,” she says, “now that I live in Sudbury, it can be more difficult because we are so much more removed from the southern Ontario food system. But the northern Ontario food system is still very strong. During one of my summer jobs I worked for OMAFRA (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs) so I learned so much about what we have to offer and where to get local food up here”.
Leigha now finds herself making different food choices. She says, “it has changed everything about the way that I grocery shop, the way that I cook, the way that I fill the freezer and really the way that I do everything”. She believes very strongly in the connection she formed with the food system of Ontario: “When I’m buying local I’m thinking of the people that I know. It’s not just for the health benefits and the economic benefits but I know where it’s coming from”.
Leigha is thankful for the experience she gained from the farms she visited. She explains how food is produced in our province: “I can’t speak to all farms, but Ontario has some of the strictest agricultural standards in the world, especially for meat and dairy production. The standards that the farmers have to adhere to are very, very high. So if you are buying things from overseas or from the bigger farms in the states, you don’t necessarily know the legislation, you don’t know what the farmers were allowed to put into the meat or what they were allowed to use as far as pesticides. But the Ontario legislation is very easy to read and get your hands on so it’s easy to learn about. In general, Ontario farms are a lot smaller so the conditions are nicer. I’ve never been to a farm in Ontario that I was disgusted with, and I know that stands for a lot of Canada. My friends who have toured the bigger farms out west have said the same”.
Friends with Farmers
Now that she has made personal connections with farmers, she says, “we buy our meat wholesale. We buy our pork wholesale. Over the Christmas holidays I had supper with my pork farmer and his wife because he’s a friend of mine from school. I’ve been to his farm many times, I’ve seen the operation and I know how it’s done. I know the conditions that the pigs are living in”.
Leigha feels good about buying from the people she knows. She says, “farmers have to be the most dedicated employees on the planet. Their farms are their pride and joy. It’s not just their job, it’s their life”.
Leigha: “I know a guy who will sleep in his car in the barn during calving season just to make sure that he’s there in case a cow is having a problem when she is giving birth; and he does this year, after year, after year”.
“It’s that connection that the farmers have to the animals. I couldn’t imagine any of them ever mistreating them. They’re just an upstanding group of people who do a really good job at producing what they produce”.
To learn more about local food in her new community of Sudbury, Leigha decided to volunteer with a local food organization. “I sat on the Board of Directors for a two-year term with Eat Local Sudbury and that was a really great experience to get to know farmers from this area,” she says. “I had kind of known some from the summer job I had at OMAFRA but really, northern Ontario is so tiny as far as the agricultural community goes. So it really was good to be a part of something so progressive. They’re really working hard to get agriculture recognized in northern Ontario and they’re doing some great work. They have so much information available if you have questions and they even have a shop where they sell local food. If you want to start buying wholesale or if you want to tour a farm or see where something is produced, that’s one of the best places to go”.
Leigha says that it doesn’t matter where you are from, you can always find somewhere close to home to buy local food. Here in Sudbury, she also shops at the local farmer’s market downtown. “Sudbury has a beautiful market that’s kind of a destination in and of itself,” she says. “There is a lot going on there, it’s really fun to go. There’s also a small market in the town I live in, just outside of Sudbury, and it’s right within walking distance for me”.
She has also started producing her own food, right in her own backyard: “My boyfriend, Fran, and I started a garden recently so I’m learning more about that. My very first year didn’t fare so well: I planted the beans about seven inches deep and they’re probably still growing out there!” she laughs. After a couple years of trial-and-error, Leigha feels that she’s made some progress and says the last two years were very productive. As for meat, Leigha buys wholesale pork from her friend down south. “We get a pig every year,” she says. “We also know a beef farmer so we get beef from him. That’s an easy way to get our meat for the year. We also do a lot of hunting and fishing so that supplies the meat that we don’t necessarily get from farms”.
She has also found herself experimenting with food preservation in the past few years. She says, “I’ve started canning a lot of my vegetables. So instead of letting things go to waste when there’s a surplus, I taught myself how to preserve. I’ve done a lot of blanching and freezing of my leafy green vegetables. Anything else, if it could be turned into a pickled-something-or-other or a salsa or something baked or frozen, that’s where it ends up”. Even though it took some time to learn, Leigha says it’s worthwhile to do some research or get help from a friend, family member or neighbour. “It’s a little bit of experimenting,” she says, “I read a lot of cooking blogs and cookbooks and I talk to people that have done it before. A lot of farmers’ moms that I know have been canning, preserving and baking since the dawn of time so they always have good advice for me”.
Leigha also has some tips for finding and purchasing local food: “I always try to eat in season. I really make a conscious effort to only eat what is being grown at that time”. She says you can typically get a lot of greenhouse vegetables in early spring: “The greenhouses in southern Ontario will start producing a lot sooner than we can start growing things in the north. So if we’re down south, visiting friends and family, I just do a quick tour of the mennonite counties and pick up some vegetables there. You’ll see the leafy things come out first like spinach and lettuce. Lettuce doesn’t keep long but spinach freezes well so you can store a bunch for future use”.
The best time of year to buy local food, she says is in the summer and early fall, especially in northern Ontario. She says, “as soon as the markets open you can get homegrown veggies like green onions and peas. Peas freeze great too so if you have a bumper crop of peas or if they’re on sale from Foodland Ontario at the grocery store, just get a whole bunch, blanch them and freeze them for future use”. She continues, “late summer you can pretty much find local everything at that time such as peppers and garlic. That’s the bountiful time, so usually around the end of August I’ll start making salsas and doing a lot of the preserving. The last couple years I’ve made pickled peppers, green and red tomato salsas, pickles, beets and pretty much anything that you can put in a jar. I’m sure there’s a recipe for it somewhere!”
As for meat, Leigha says her and Fran typically get their beef for the year at the start of summer. It comes to them frozen and vacuum sealed so it keeps well all year in their chest freezer. They pick up their pork in the fall. This helps to offset the amount of meat they have throughout the year.
Leigha says that late fall is when all the squash and the root vegetables are ready so if she’s at the market she will grab a whole bunch of squash because it freezes well. “You can puree it and freeze it and then you can bake with it,” she says. “I have a little bit of a semi-cold storage so I’ll grab some turnips, squash, beets, potatoes and keep them downstairs”.
As for the winter months, Leigha realizes that it can be more difficult to find fresh local food. But that’s when all her hard work throughout the year pays off: “winter is when we will eat up everything we have in the freezers. I always try to put away spinach and swiss chard because then I can have some greens in the winter. We’ll start eating all the canned things, the beef, the fish we caught and any deer that we got during hunting season. Then, come springtime, we start all over again”.
Leigha believes that a large part of her connection to food came from her family. “My mom always shopped local growing up,” she says. “It was more of a financial decision at that time. She always bought from a farmer down the road. I remember he had a beautiful garden. She also used to go to another lady who had a garden bigger than my house. My mom would always go there to pick vegetables and we always had a garden at home too”. She says, “both of my grandmothers also spent a good part of their lives in remote mining communities in northern Ontario so they were beyond thrifty with food. They knew how to turn nothing into something”.
She also learns a lot from Fran’s family: “His mom grew up in a family of eleven kids and they were a farm family. The first time I ever canned I did it with her. So she’s always sending me recipes and canned goods. She has a huge garden and I just can’t believe the things she makes”.
Leigha is proud of the fact that she is also able to benefit financially. She says, “I absolutely believe that I am saving money. I’ve never actually calculated the dollars and cents of it but when I hear other people talking about their grocery bills, I spend nowhere near that. We save a lot buying wholesale meat and not buying a ton of vegetables out of season. I still buy some fruit in the winter because we kind of have to but I think we save a lot by not buying the same foods all year round”.
Leigha’s advice for sourcing local food, wherever you are, is “you just have to check out what’s in your area. If you have a farmer’s market or if you drive by a farm, see if you can stop in. It’s easily overlooked but local food has always been there. As long as we’ve been alive on this planet we have had local food. So it’s just a matter of seeking it out. If you can’t find something, start a garden. Anyone can start one and there are a lot of resources online. You don’t need much, just some dirt and some seeds. You don’t even need a big backyard. I’ve seen gardens on rooftops, in pots, on decks, in boxes, inside, outside, in flower planters… if you can get something to grow, you can have a garden”.
Leigha feels that anyone can also develop a passion for buying and eating local. “It becomes a slippery slope in a good way,” she says. “When you start learning about agriculture and learning about where your food comes from, you learn a lot about the environment and about the people around you. It gives you a sense of community once you establish where those food sources are”. She adds, “hands down, some of the best people I’ve ever met have been farmers. So you might also make some good friends in the process!”
As for the future, Leigha says, “I would love to have a bigger garden and I want to learn more about canning and preserving”. She adds, “local food has really become a part of me. I don’t even think about it anymore. I used to make it a goal to shop and eat local but now it’s become what I do. I feel very informed and I wish that everyone had the opportunity to learn the things that I’ve learned”.
Get in Touch
If you want to learn more about local food, or have a ideas, suggestions or comments for Leigha, she welcomes you to contact her via email or in the comments section below.