Direct-farm marketers in Alberta have their share of regulatory hurdles to gripe about, but they have distinct advantages and supports which marketers in other provinces would envy.
When apiary owners Cherie and Art Andrews were first eyeing prospects to start making mead (honey wine), the province gave them several kick-starts, not the least of which was assisting with expenses for trips to Quebec and B.C. to learn how others did it.
That trip for prospective fruit wine makers gave them the information and the inspiration they needed to start Chinook Arch Meadery, which now annually sells thousands of bottles of honey mead and other honey products.
“That trip was huge for us,” Cherie Andrews says. “We saw some really good examples of on-farm value added aimed at honey and bees.”
It wasn’t the only thing that bolstered their business. In the early 2000s, the province was pushing for more value-added production in agriculture, giving entrepreneurs like the Andrews access to multiple resources including workshops on sales and marketing and regulatory matters. They joined the Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association and benefited from positive relations with Travel Alberta as well, she said.
“We’ve had a lot of support,” says Andrews.
Other things worked in their favour. Once up and producing mead, they were able to begin selling not only direct off the farm but in farmers’ markets, thanks to the licensing protocols worked out between Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
Those farmers’ market sales were key to their startup, says Andrews, adding it allowed them to slowly grow a market while introducing a product that relatively few had heard of.
“Mead is definitely a very unique item,” she said. “It’s something you have to educate people about.”
‘Certified’ markets in Alberta
Sales of alcoholic beverages are just one of the unique features of Alberta’s system of farmers’ markets which since the early 1970s can opt for certification which allows vendors to sell a broader range of products than would ordinarily be permitted. Sales of fruit wines or any other alcoholic beverage are only permitted in these certified farmers’ markets. That causes some complaints in Alberta, but it’s a far cry from other jurisdictions where you can’t sell it at all.
Department of Agriculture and Department of Health worked together on food regulation to ensure that a broader range of “lower-risk” foods and beverages could be sold in certified markets, explains Eileen Kotowich, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s farmers’ market specialist.
“To the best of my knowledge we are the only jurisdiction in Canada that has this privilege,” she said. “Other places allow low-risk foods to be made at home but typically high-risk foods need to be done in permitted facilities.”
It came about as a result of “an amazing” relationship that developed between the two government departments, Kotowich added.
This, and other resources, including free online ‘know your regulations’ newsletters available to direct marketers here, all contribute to an enviable climate for small-scale processing of food and beverage businesses.
In Manitoba you cannot sell any alcoholic beverage at any farmers’ market, and without the same “approved markets” system here, most market vendors are required or at least strongly urged to process in kitchens with inspectors’ stamps of approval.
More support needed
The chair of Manitoba’s grassroots farmers’ markets association says while he’s not fully aware of how things work elsewhere, direct marketers in Manitoba definitely need a more supportive policy environment and more resources.
Still, things are improving, says Phil Veldhuis, noting that while no farmers’ market specialist has been assigned here, two staff within the Department of Agriculture are now tasked with working with smaller-scale processors and farmers, helping them to navigate the regulatory environment and steer them to business development resources.
Veldhuis says he recalls when even farmers’ markets were frowned on, and Manitoba’s Department of Health had a hard time getting its head around sales of any type of food at outdoor markets.
“It was considered somewhat ambitious to have temporary food markets at all when we started this back in the late 1980s,” says Veldhuis.