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Manitoba’s direct-marketing sector gaining strength and diversity

There’s still lots of potential to grow this sector, says Direct Farm Manitoba spokesman

Early August is the peak of summer and peak time for sales at farmers’ markets, farm stands and other ways Manitobans sell their farm-grown products direct to customers.

More farm families see the potential to make sales and earn extra revenues this way and the growth in this sector is steady, says spokesman for Direct Farm Manitoba and Starbuck-area honey producer Phil Veldhuis.

At this time of year the big draw to farmers’ markets is the large variety of freshly harvested vegetables and fruits.That’s still the traditional attraction, said Veldhuis. But having sold in these venues nearly 30 years himself, he sees a much wider variety of product now being sold there, too.

“We have not only the traditional market gardeners doing very well but we’re seeing new products… like quinoa, various kinds of meat,” he said.

“I’m sensing a new diversity in what’s available.”

It’s been over a decade since wildly successful books like The 100 Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating sparked new interest in closer-to-home food sourcing, but what’s clear is demand for local food is not a passing fad. Local food may still be limited to a specific kind of consumer, but there’s a solid core of them who still want to meet growers and learn about where there food comes from, he said.

“There’s value to that information and that relationship that lots of consumers really focus on,” said Veldhuis

Farm owners and entrepreneurs decide to direct sell for various reasons including being able to set their own prices, with studies on farmers’ market sales showing vendors there can receive between 40 to 80 per cent more revenues than they would selling their products through wholesale channels.

The 2016 Census of Agri­culture for the first time ever posed a question in its surveys asking Canadian farmers whether they did any sales direct to the public and 6.1 per cent — or just under 1,000 farms — in this province report they do some form of it.

The overall percentage of farms in Manitoba, and in Sask­atch­ewan and Alberta doing direct sales lags considerably behind those in B.C., Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario.

That’s largely due to a more thinly dispersed rural population located farther away from urban centres, said Veldhuis.

“Other provinces have pretty dense rural populations and major small cities scattered into the rural areas in a way that Manitoba doesn’t have,” he said.

“We don’t have that same population base for farmers to interact with more easily.”

By most standards, the sales of local food and food products here remain a niche-market activity, he continued. Yet direct marketers remain convinced there’s potentially a lot more customers they could be reaching.

“Tens of thousands of people go out to farmers’ markets every week but we’re over a million people (in Manitoba) so that’s still a pretty small percentage,” he said.

“There’s still lots of room for growth.”

Capturing more sales and growing the consumer market is a key focus of Direct Farm Manitoba right now, which has a farmers’ markets awareness program underway on Instagram and Facebook currently and is encouraging its members to use social media as much as possible to get their word out.

Direct Farm Manitoba’s membership is comprised of about 150 individual farms plus the majority of the province’s roughly 75 farmers’ markets.

The organization came together after the release of a provincial report in 2016 on how to foster a better operating environment for the small-scale, local food sector in Manitoba.

DFM hosts an annual conference and has a website listing its membership. It is looking for ways to provide more learning opportunities.

There are new entrants who try direct marketing for a while and then don’t continue, Veldhuis said. Their organization would like to help them.

“There is some turnover,” he said. “There are lots of younger, keener farm families who take it on and they do need some mentorship.

“There’s a whole new skill set that you don’t necessarily learn by just living on a farm,” he said.

“We’re working on a mentorship program to help individual producers, especially those who are maybe looking to get into it or are new to it.”

Direct Farm Manitoba will meet again in November to review the year and talk about ongoing needs for the sector, he added.

Veldhuis said their organization is using the 2016 provincial report as a “to-do list,” to address the needs of direct food sellers. Overall, the feeling is they’ve made good progress in the past couple of years.

“One of the recommendations was that the sector be included in broader farm policy discussions and that has certainly been happening,” Veldhuis said.

“I believe we’re now at the table in a way we were not before.”

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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