Soul Food

Nova Scotia offers a breadth of quality for those who appreciate authentic local food experiences.

by: Megan Venner

First appeared in Nova Scotia Open to the World, Spring 2012

Allison Maher might be the co-owner of thriving Dempsey Corner Orchards U-Pick and farm market, but she is a self-described city girl.  “I had never met a live cow or seen an apple on a tree until I started to kiss my husband, Dave Bowlby, in 1983,” she says.  That’s when she began a love affair not only with Bowlby but also with his rural lifestyle.  Maher remembers being awed over simple farm moments such as when a horse poked its head in the dining room window or when she first bottle-fed a calf.

“People have lost touch with what agriculture is,” says Maher.  Consumers buy food in plastic wrap and never think about where it came from until they visit an operation such as Dempsey Corner Orchards (www.dempseycorner.com) which is located in the Annapolis Valley’s Aylesford and is part working farm, petting zoo and country kitchen.  “There are two generations, the parents and their kids, who haven’t got the sweetest clue why eggs are brown,” says Maher, who aims to educate them at the grassroots level.

Since 1997, Dempsey Corner Orchards has evolved from a traditional farm to an eclectic mix of working orchard, u-pick farm and tourist destination.  Visiting children amble after free-range chickens or dig in the sand box, while their parents drink coffee in the 150 year old barn’s wing back chairs or share baked treats with the friendly goats.  Maher finds the idea of reconnecting people with where their food comes from in such a tangible way is rewarding not only emotionally but also financially.  Dempsey Corner Orchard has grown steadily since it opened,  and plans are in the works to expand into farm stays for people wanting to experience a rooster crow at dawn.

Dempsey Corner Orchards isn’t unique in its desire to capitalize on a growing interest in locally grown food.  Other small farms are opening corn mazes and farm markets, wineries are offering meals in their vineyards and restaurants are serving more local fare than ever before.  Gordon Stewart, the Executive Director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia (www.rans.ca) says ten years ago there may have been half a dozen restaurants marketing local food or wine; today more than 80% are promoting them. “The interest has grown dramatically, most of it from local business people,” says Stewart.  Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada has one of the highest percentages of independently owned and operated businesses; in fact, 63% of Nova Scotia food and beverage industry is categorized as local, as opposed to chains or nationally owned companies.

Local food has become a mainstay of the Nova Scotia economy with more than 20 farmers’ markets province-wide, including the Halifax Seaport Farmer’s Market or the Wolfville Farmer’s Market, both of which recently relocated to larger spaces because of growing demand and attendance.  Food and beverage operations account for 7% of Nova Scotia employment and 1.2 billion dollars of the economy, and it doesn’t stop there.  Add in tourism and agriculture and the numbers get even bigger.  Government is taking notice.  There has been a significant shift in both agricultural and tourism strategies in Nova Scotia over the past few years.  Once known primarily for its coastal vistas and lighthouses, tourism promotion is now just as likely to promote food and wine events.  “Nova Scotia’s tourism department and marketing are built around core experiences, within which are a variety of niche experiences,” says Heather Spidell, acting executive director of the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism.  “These core experiences represent areas where Nova Scotia has unique strengths that give us a competitive edge and motivate travel.

In November the Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia honoured Adventures in Taste (www.adventuresintaste.ca), a provincial not-for-profit organization that promotes culinary and wine experiences in the region, with this year’s Tourism Innovator Award.  “We have authentic culinary experiences for people to explore and discover,” says Christine White, the director of communications and events for Adventures in Taste and Taste of Nova Scotia (www.tasteofnovascotia.com), a marketing organization consisting of both chefs and producers.  But the promotion of those experiences isn’t limited to tourists; much of the focus of industry and government organizations has been in raising awareness of Nova Scotians about the unique food opportunities in their own backyard.

That was certainly Craig Flinn’s approach with his Halifax restaurant Chives Canadian Bistro (www.chives.ca).   “My business has grown over the past few years mostly because I have never marketed towards tourism,” says Flinn.  “I always felt that I had to grab the attention of locals first.” The tourists came once Flinn became known for using top-quality, locally sourced ingredients in his menus.

Festivals such as the annual Savour Food and Wine Show, held in Halifax in February and in Cape Breton in May, have been another marriage of marketing efforts to local foodies and tourists.  The Savour festival promotes Nova Scotia food and wine while also highlighting restaurant offerings, bringing in new diners and interest.  It has turned February and May, typically the slower months of the year in the restaurant business, into a more profitable time.  Chefs are partnering with sommeliers, fishermen and farmers to offer not only great food but also tantalizing taste of what is being grown and raised in local orchards, pastures and the ocean.

The benefits of these partnerships are being felt across the economy.  In 2010 Taste of Nova Scotia hosted an international conference on culinary tourism, and in 2011 Halifax hosted the highly coveted Canadian Wine Awards for the first time, each bringing widespread attention to the province as a culinary destination.  As a result, publications such as Lonely Planet and CNN Travel have highlighted Nova Scotia as a great place to visit.  In fact, Lonely Planet identified the Maritimes as one of the top 10 regions to visit in 2012, listing Nova Scotia’s culinary highlights as one of the main attractions.  In September, 600 members of the Canadian Chef’s Congress will meet in Grand Pre in the Annapolis Valley to take part in what will be the largest food and wine event ever to be held in Nova Scotia.

All this activity in the culinary sector is good news for small scale agriculture. “Right now we’re actually having a hard time filling the demand,” says Gordon Stewart.  “There clearly is more opportunity out there – whether its farmers, fishermen or vegetable growers –  for existing products or new products.”

With its 10-year agriculture plan called Homegrown Success, the Province of Nova Scotia is trying to build on that opportunity.  By promoting sustainable agriculture, developing a strong Nova Scotia brand and protecting farm land, the government wants to grow capacity and open opportunity for farmers.  That includes a program for improving public awareness for the concept of buying local.

With all these right elements uniting, Nova Scotia’s culinary sector is becoming vibrant and exciting, local products are being highlighted more than ever, and a difference is being felt on the farms. Dempsey Corner Orchards’ Alison Maher says that for too long farmers have been like Mr. Snuffleupagus on the children’s TV show Sesame Street, but not anymore.  “Now the farmers are not only visible,” she says, “but they and their food are also at the heart of the food chain, where they belong.”