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seasonal food

After years of steering shopping carts through the gleaming - but impersonal - aisles of major grocery stores, a growing number of consumers looking for fresh, locally grown produce are turning to farmers' markets to fill their fridges.

The country's biggest food retailers - with Loblaw Cos. Ltd. leading the charge - have taken notice. They're starting to launch marketing campaigns and in-store promotions to tell consumers they don't need to hit up a market to get local produce because it's available in their stores.

Loblaw has emerged with the most ambitious local food campaign, which it calls "Grown Close to Home." Launched last week for the third consecutive year, it showcases items from growers in "your part of the country" and puts a "spotlight on local fresh produce during harvest season," according to recent press materials.

"I think all in all, customers are looking for locally-grown products more so today than ever before and we offer that convenience and the opportunity to purchase them seven days a week," Frank Pagliaro, vice-president of produce for Loblaw, said in an interview.

What the campaign doesn't mention: that the corporate definition of locally-sourced fresh produce is much different from the one used by the farmers' markets they're trying to emulate.

The company says it's making Canadian-grown food more accessible and creating a wide market that otherwise wouldn't exist. But those involved in farmers' markets say the carefully crafted images and promotions being created are inaccurate, irresponsible and misleading.

"The whole thing is almost hilarious," said Robert Chorney, president of Farmers' Markets Canada and executive director of Farmers' Markets Ontario. "What they're doing in no way, shape, or form resembles anything [close]to a farmer's market."

During the Grown Close to Home program, which runs from August to September, about 40 per cent of produce in Loblaw stores is sourced from Canada, and is highlighted with special signage and bins. The company also places tractors at some stores to boost the image of produce fresh from the field.

Loblaw has been airing a new TV commercial, too, featuring executive chairman Galen Weston strolling through a farmer's field in Quebec.

For all the promotion, though, Loblaw's commitment to source food locally - or even regionally - is not enforced.

For instance, Ontario peaches shipped to Western or Atlantic provinces are still considered part of the "Grown Close to Home" program, Mr. Pagliaro said. The same goes for cherries and blueberries that are grown in B.C. and sent to Ontario or eastern Canada.

Many of the farms participating in the program are large operations encompassing hundreds, or even thousands, of hectares.

There are more than 400 farmers involved with the program. David Primorac, senior director of public relations at Loblaw, wouldn't provide a list, but said they range in size from 20 to 120 hectares. However, many farms listed on Loblaw's website - such as Mastronardi Produce and Agri-Growers Ltd., based in Port Williams, N.S.- range from nearly 600 to more than 2,000 hectares. Mastronardi Produce, based in Kingsville, Ont., operates greenhouse operations not only in Canada, but in the U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama, according to the company website.

Dianna Mae Hocaluk, executive director of the Farmers' Markets Association of Manitoba, said it's "fabulous" to have the option to buy more Canadian produce at grocery stores, regardless of how big the farm where it was grown. But said she doubts the Loblaw initiative will help the small Canadian farms who typically populate farmers' markets.

Most small producers don't have the capacity, or the money, to sell to a company like Loblaw, said Andy Terauds, co-owner of Acorn Creek Garden Farm in Carp, Ont., and president of the Ottawa Farmers' Market. Small farmers prefer to sell directly to consumers at markets, where they take home a much bigger portion of the money from sales.

Loblaw has also come under fire for continuing to stock foreign produce while touting its home-grown campaign. Last Saturday, the Halifax Chronicle Herald reported that a woman shopping at a Halifax Atlantic Superstore complained that signs saying "Grown Close to Home" and "Atlantic Grown" were placed close to plums and radishes from the United States and peaches, plums and nectarines from Ontario.

The company later apologized.

Mr. Pagliaro says the company is trying to put an emphasis on local food while still supplying a range of products that aren't grown in certain regions. In some areas, such as southern Ontario, local produce can be sent directly to stores in the region. In others, food must be shipped over long distances. The company is committed to promoting Canadian-grown food, he said.

Other companies, such as Metro Inc., Sobeys Inc. and Canada Safeway Ltd., have also started highlighting Canadian produce on their flyers or in stores.

Metro, for example, has developed a program called "Harvest from Home" that emphasizes products sourced from Canada.

It remains to be seen how far some companies are prepared to go to source local produce. Mr. Chorney said while they may make missteps along the way, he's glad local food is on their agenda.

For his part, Mr. Terauds said he's not too worried about the new competition - grocery stores can't replicate farmers' markets, he says, no matter how many tractors are parked outside.

"There's a completely different atmosphere at a farmers' market than there ever can be at a big box store," he said.