New $36M 'food hub' would help eastern Ontario farmers, food security

The $36-million facility east of Ottawa would include a federal slaughterhouse and processing and distribution facility for meats, fruits and vegetables.

Will be built somewhere in Prescott-Russell by 2022

Katie Ward is a pig and sheep farmer in Ottawa’s rural west end and president of the National Farmers Union. She says farmers have had to look further away for slaughterhouses in recent years. (Submitted by Katie Ward)

Rural eastern Ontario leaders hope to localize and decentralize food processing in the region by building a new "food hub" to help local farmers get their products to market.

The United Counties of Prescott and Russell (UCPR) east of Ottawa are developing a $36-million facility that would include a federal slaughterhouse and processing and distribution facility for meats and fruits and vegetables.

"This [means] security to the region, where we know that we are producing our own food. We are feeding our own people. There is no fear that we have to wait for a [border] to open," said Carole Lavigne, director of economic and tourism development for the counties.

She said the facility would be the first of its kind in Canada and would promote local food from small and medium-sized farmers — including hobby farmers — across eastern Ontario and western Quebec.

It would also give those farmers the ability to send their products for processing and decrease food waste.

"Sometimes [products are] wasted because they can't find anywhere to sell it or to process it."

She pointed to strawberry farmers who often rely on a pick your own or U-pick model, but whatever isn't picked by people taking it home is then left to rot in the field.

Cost shared, location TBD

The plan is for the $36 million cost to be shared between three levels of government and the private sector.

The counties have committed $2.5M toward the project, said Lavigne. They hope to obtain $12 million in federal and provincial grants and get the rest from the private sector.

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New processing site aims to bring locally grown food to eastern Ontario and western Quebec

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Carole Lavigne, director of economic development and tourism for the United Counties of Prescott and Russell, says the facility will help small and medium sized producers process, package and sell what they grow.

Where the facility will be located hasn't been determined. Lavigne said two municipalities have expressed interest and meet the necessary criteria: a property close to Highway 417 with water, sewer, natural gas and electricity hookups.

The choice is expected to be made by mid-June at the latest.

The UCPR hopes to have shovels in the ground next spring and have the food hub up and running by fall 2022.

Pandemic considerations

Processing facilities across the country have had to close temporarily because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Lavigne said the current situation will likely play a part in the facility's design, whether it be ensuring workers are spaced apart or having Plexiglas around them to ensure employees are safe and food remains available in a future outbreak.

"Everybody needs to eat and that's a necessity," she said. "We consider this project as a necessity for any future pandemic that may happen."

"Adding any new facility … is going to help to sort of move us away from the fragility that we've seen now exists within our food system," said Katie Ward, a pig and sheep farmer in Ottawa's rural west end and president of the National Farmers Union.

Katie Ward says the local food network is fragile. (Submitted by Katie Ward)

She said there's been a reduction in the number of meat processing plants over the years, forcing many farmers to travel farther to slaughterhouses and almost no ability for smaller farms to get have their vegetables sold to grocery stores or institutions such as hospitals.

"Anything that allows small and medium farms to have better access to facilities that can allow them to get their products to local eaters is really going to help build some flexibility and resilience back into our food system," she said.