Promoting local producers and expanding the region served by the Eastern Ontario Agri-Food Network will be key objectives for 2021 says the organization’s new executive director.

The non-profit organization dedicated to coordinating the development of the agri-food sector in Eastern Ontario recently named Tom Manley, the former owner of Homestead Organics in Berwick, as Executive Director. Manley’s priorities include sourcing core municipal funding for the network, organize activities for 2021 and reactivating communications, including the network’s website and Food Asset Map.

The new executive director said one of his priorities will be to secure funding for the organization and try to expand its focus. He noted that monetary support for the Eastern Ontario Agri-Food Network has been historically been provided by the United Counties of Prescott-Russell. Manley intends to expand both funding for the network and its focus to surrounding regions, including Stormont-Dundas-Glengarry, Cornwall, Akwesasne, Ottawa-Carleton and the Outaouais.

“We know that the (Eastern Ontario) region is relatively integrated from an economic perspective – supply chains, markets and various organizations,” Manley observes. “Many things are done on a regional basis and therefore it’s appropriate that economic and social development in the agri-food sector be handled on a regional basis as well.”

The new executive director is hopeful the Agri-Food Network can obtain additional funding in 2021 from SDG and Cornwall, which would allow the organization to better serve those regions. The long-term objective is to expand the Eastern Ontario Agri-Food Network services even further afield.

“In the name of the organization, in its articles of incorporation and bylaws (the network) has a full ambition to serve a greater territory in Eastern Ontario, including SDG, Cornwall, Akwesasne and reaching northwest to the Ottawa-Carleton areas,” Manley points out. “But that has been difficult to achieve, due to a lack of funding from those areas.”

Having spent the past 23 years in the agri-food business, Manley is well aware of the importance of visibility for local farms and producers. He is working on a plan for 2021 to relaunch a number of marketing activities for farmers and food artisans in the region, which were scuttled in 2020 by the pandemic.

“Sadly the COVID situation in 2020 shelved a lot of things, such as farm tours and feasts,” says Manley, who hopes lessons learned and added safety precautions can help restart activities, even before a vaccine is widely available.

If there has been one benefit to local producers from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that consumers have become more aware of the importance of home-grown produce.

“When borders are closed and foreign suppliers can’t ship, grocery stores can start running empty – we saw that over the past year as shelves ran out,” Manley says. “Both consumers and farmers are recognizing the importance of local food and our objective as an organization is to connect the farmers, the local processors and local consumers to bring local food to their plates.”