By Jenn Watt
Published March 28, 2017
The Haliburton Highlands has plenty of potential, but is still missing out on opportunities to capitalize on the local food movement, stakeholders and councillors heard last Wednesday at county council chambers in Minden.
Representatives from Prince Edward County, who had been in the Highlands last October as part of a culinary exchange, presented their findings about the area’s offerings, knowledge, marketing and attitudes to local food.
They found there is still much to be done.
“It almost feels like Haliburton County has this pull. You’re surrounded by these somewhat strong brands that are pulling. You’ve got Algonquin Park and you’ve got Muskoka. It felt like some of the businesses in the west side of the county were identifying themselves with Muskoka,” Anne Munroe, part of the Prince Edward County team, told the room.
Using online travel advisory sites such as TripAdvisor, Yelp and Google Places, the team first researched the Highlands, but found it difficult to get a comprehensive listing of food offerings. They checked the local farmers’ market website, but were unable to find many of the addresses for farms – several list only their post office boxes, rather than the farm gate locations.
Munroe was tasked with visiting the east side of the county. She said while in Wilberforce she searched on her cellphone for restaurants close to her and was given Bancroft businesses.
Arriving on a Tuesday in October, she said she tried several locations only to find them closed.
The group noted that visiting in the fall wasn’t ideal as it was past peak season and likely several of the restaurants would only be open on the weekends.
However, they also found that there was a lack of local knowledge about where to go to find local food. Eating at several restaurants, the visitors say they were met with blank looks from servers who were asked whether ingredients on the menu were local.
“As soon as you start talking about local food … you can tell they didn’t get that question a lot,” Munroe said. “When you talked about local food, they’d say this food is homemade.”
There was a focus on homemade food and fresh food, which she said was good, but didn’t address the purpose of the exchange, which was to focus on local products.
The exchange is part of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ First Impressions Community Exchange Program. While in the past they have tailored this program to specific issues such as downtown development or tourism, this is the first time they’d done a culinary exchange, said Heather Candler, agriculture and rural economic development advisor.
Candler said the idea came up when she sat down with local director of tourism Amanda Virtanen a few years ago.
“Prince Edward County seemed like the ideal match,” said Candler. The two counties selected teams and developed questionnaires and the format before heading out. This exchange is a pilot of what Candler hopes is a more regular program.
“We’re all excited, waiting with bated breath to see what has come of this,” she said.
While the Haliburton team has already visited Prince Edward County, it has not yet reported to their council.
Although Abbey Gardens was closed when Munroe visited, she said she knocked on the door and was given a tour anyway. The facility just outside of West Guilford was the highlight of the tour for the group, who noted the unique setup including the on-site brewery, flour mill and food hub.
“That Abbey Gardens facility: there’s nothing like that in Prince Edward County,” Munroe said. “It just feels like a very progressive place.”
Comment was made that Haliburton County isn’t a place with much agriculture, which makes providing local food a challenge, but Munroe said it’s not about being like other agriculture-rich areas.
“I want to have a taste experience that I can’t have at home,” she said.
Haliburton should capitalize on being a part of the Canadian Shield that is closest to southern Ontario. That could mean offering forest products such as wild blueberries and cranberries, selling mushrooms foraged from the woods, or developing unique products such as cedar jelly, she suggested.
The group also had issues with navigation. They found very few roadside signs, which made it difficult to drop in on farms or restaurants. Stakeholders at the meeting noted that along provincial highways, there had been difficulty having signage approved by the Ministry of Transportation.
The Prince Edward County group also noted there wasn’t much branding around local food or a way to distinguish local food from other food offered. They said they wanted to be able to find out about a year’s worth of events in the Highlands in one location rather than just the events coming up in the short-term. For example, on their way to Minden last week, they noticed the upcoming Chew and Chat in June.
“We didn’t get any sense of that looking online and coming for a visit in October,” she said.
Despite the many challenges presented, the mood of the meeting was optimistic.
A fellow Prince Edward County team member Peta Shelton highlighted the Get On Gelert map, which she had used and enjoyed, calling it her “favourite thing” from her visit.
“I think this is brilliant. It’s folksy and informative,” she said.
The map was paid for by a group of businesspeople who operate on Gelert Road, which stretches from Haliburton south through Lochlin, Donald and Gelert.
Shelton suggested that more maps be developed for different parts of the county, guiding visitors along the various roadways.
The team was also impressed at the friendliness of local residents and said that while knowledge of local food was limited, they knew quite a bit about the area generally.
Haliburton County Warden Brent Devolin thanked the group for their presentation and for being candid about their findings.
“We have lots to digest,” he said. “The encouraging thing is, I don’t think there’s anything there we can’t make hay on. … We could spend six figures with consultants to do what in very short order you’ve given us.”
He said he didn’t fault grocery stores for not having local produce as the volumes are not reliable in the county.
Shelton said she had also heard from a Haliburton area restaurant that they couldn’t use local food because of supply issues.
Terri Mathews-Carl, co-owner of Rhubarb Restaurant and Boshkung Brewing, said there were challenges with using local food, but that restaurants can source locally if they try.
“We have three farms that we take all of their produce,” she said. “You have to be creative … You have to be out there and ask.”
Mathews-Carl noted that her restaurant keeps a supply of local beer – not just from her own brewery, but also from her competition, Haliburton Highlands Brewing. Supporting fellow businesses pays off in the end, she said.
However, that’s not always the attitude, said Algonquin Highlands Reeve Carol Moffatt.
“If you don’t have something, you’re offering stuff from Gravenhurst and nearby,” she said of Mathews-Carl, “and yet I have been in other restaurants … that won’t carry Boshkung Brewing beer because they see the restaurant side of their business as competition.”
Moffatt said greater co-operation amongst businesses would help everyone in the long run.
Local tourism business owner Barrie Martin of Yours Outdoors noted that adventure accommodators had come together to create brochures and that monthly meetings of tourism stakeholders were highly successful.
“Now the food community has to come together in a similar way so we can build the brand,” he said.
A full report will be forthcoming from the exchange, which will be circulated to interested parties.