BY BRYAN LAVERY
For the most part, Ontarians are complacent about the origins of their food and oblivious to the challenges farmers face just to stay on their land. Paul Spence is the archetype of the intrepid, modern Ontario farmer advocating for change to our food system. His family has been working land in Chatham-Kent since 1852, when his ancestors settled in this biologically diverse Carolinian zone of southern Ontario.
Spence and my paths intersect at events supporting local food and agricultural initiatives, culinary events and tourism conferences. We often discuss the fact that an obvious lack of commitment to locally procured food takes away from the integrity of many of these events.
A fifth-generation farmer, Spence can debate the economic impacts of food policy with agility and is equally knowledgeable about the urban farmers’ market culture and the practicalities of traditional farming methods as he is on the subject of greenwashing. His fierce championing of local food has won him both admirers and detractors.
Spence and his wife Sara, who emigrated from Ecuador, founded Lo Maximo Meats in 2009 as an outgrowth of Spence Farms. Uniting the food of Sara’s culture and his farming practices of growing his own feed and raising the meat without growth hormones or additives, they developed a reputation for Latin-style cuts of quality fresh-frozen beef, pork, lamb and goat. Soon they were retailing pasture-raised ducks, geese and rabbits from other small family farms in Chatham-Kent. I became acquainted with Spence during the four years he spent as a vendor at London, Ontario’s Masonville Farmers’ Market.
In 2012, Spence and fellow-farmer and River Bell Market owner, Joseph Grootenboer, collaborated to establish the first Chatham-Kent Table. Over 100 attendees savoured a repast, prepared and served by the farmers from where the products originated. They achieved this with the assistance and support of the contributing farmers, their families and sponsors.
In 2014, C-K Table was awarded “Event of the Year” by the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance. Now in its fourth year, this annual culinary event has morphed into a year-long discourse about local food in Chatham-Kent. This year C-K Table partnered with Fanshawe College’s Artisanal Culinary Arts Graduate program. C-K Table featured unique items on their tasting menu, all of which will be prepared by the culinary students and their chef instructors. For the last three years, Growing Chefs! Ontario, whose focus is food education among children and youth, has been the event’s fundraising recipient. This year the money raised will be used to help build infrastructure for future C-K Table endeavours.
Spence tells me his children Vivien and Jakob know and experience what good food means. On Father’s Day in 2014, his 4-year-old son asked his wife to write on the card, “Thanks for all the good food we get to eat.”
“That almost made me cry to hear that is the one thing he told my wife to write on the card for me. Very humbling,” explained Spence, a graduate of the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agriculture College and Bachelor of Commerce program.
Spence is not only an innovator but a creative marketer of his farm and Chatham-Kent. A couple of years ago, while I was dining at The Only on King in London, Ontario (now TOOK), the waiter delivered a dossier (prepared by Spence but inspired by TV’s Portlandia) on possible candidates for my chicken entrée entitled “From Our Family Farm to Your Fork — Meet Your Chicken!” There was a selection of contenders. (His chickens, Rhode Island Reds for eggs and White Cockerels for meat, are free to roam in a large fenced-in open area with fresh air, sunshine, bugs, grass and weeds to feed on.) The statistics provided included: date of birth, markings/distinguishing characteristics, temperament and other personal information that included diet. I later asked Spence about his goal for the “Meet Your Chicken!” dossiers and he told me, “It was actually an idea from a fellow farmer. It’s a great way to both educate and engage consumers.”
Spence’s arrangement to supply farm-to-table restaurants with food and also be identified as a culinary farmer is part of the farm-to-table movement in which farmers directly connect with chefs. When asked how he came up with the term “culinary farming,” Spence clarified, “I ponder food and the realities of it a lot. I feel there is a real education piece around the farming of food products and farming with commodity products. No disrespect to commodity farming, but please tell me what it is that you eat, that corn, soybeans and wheat aren’t part of these days. So the creation of the term “culinary farming” was meant to refocus farming on food and culinary experiences, whether it be fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, or even grains for things like bread, pasta, beer, etc.”
Sometimes shopping at farmers’ markets is a way of supporting local farmers, so long as you employ a very liberal definition of the term local. Spence’s definition of local starts with putting food traceability at the tips of consumer’s fingers. He is passionate about buying locally but just as passionate about authenticating local products. He starts by posing a series of hypothetical questions for consumers to ask to determine the origin of products: What is the name of the farm? Where is it located? What do they grow? What is the history of that particular farm? To Spence, the idea of local food production and consumption is very important but the reality of actually supporting small to medium-sized family farms is just as, if not more, important.
Farmers’ markets have boomed across the continent, and most cities have a group of stalwart culinary farmers that cater to committed locavores and culinary enthusiasts. At many urban farmers’ markets, it is now assumed one is willing to pay a premium for certain items because they are local. I asked Spence if he thought this was true. He replied, “To an extent, local food needs to be affordable and accessible so that the masses can participate, and not just the upper social economic groups. That being said, we also need to re-educate consumers that the price of most, if not all foods, is completely misguided. My belief is farmers should be entrusted to set their own fair price so that they can have an income that reflects the level of work and commitment that goes into their products.”
However, in reality, one of the difficulties with traditional farming is that someone else tells you what your product is worth. The truth is that the mounting disparity between what small-scale farmers produce and what they earn continues to drive farmers off their land. Locally, farm-to-table restaurants, farmers’ markets and events like the London Training Centre’s successful annual Feastival and the C-K Table are the closest many consumers come to being in touch with the origins of their food. In the meantime, we need to encourage culinary farmers, support local procurement policies, and validate advocates of sustainable food strategies, like Spence and many others in our communities, who continue to make a difference.