Manitoba producers now have a safe space to ask questions they might be hesitant to put to government regulators. The online forum, hosted by Small Farms Manitoba, allows farmers to submit queries, via email, that will be investigated by the team of researchers and then posted anonymously on the “Frequently Asked Questions” page.
Kalynn Spain, founder of Small Farms Manitoba, was inspired to start the page through conversations with people from the “Real Manitoba Food Fight” — a collective of people advocating for developing a better local food system in the province.
“There seems to be mass confusion about what the regulations actually are,” said Spain. The FAQ page is part of a wider attempt to clarify regulations, particularly for small producers.
Questions range from where to find an inspected beef-processing facility, to where and how to sell uninspected poultry, and what does it mean to sell a product from the “farm gate?”
Researchers — comprised of both producers and consumers — are careful to source their answers, which are sometimes open to interpretation.
Lydia Carpenter, one of the researchers, discovered during her digging that the term “farm gate,” while used frequently by farmers and consumers and even sometimes government officials, doesn’t actually appear in the Public Health Act or the Livestock and Livestock Products Act.
Instead official legislation refers to “direct transaction between the producer and consumer.”
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” said Carpenter, who is also a pasture-based farmer at Luna Field Farm. Though the correct information is available, she said, it is often hidden away in thick bureaucratic documents not easily searchable or accessible to the general public.
Carpenter said other provinces seem to do a better job. She referred to the Government of Alberta’s easily searchable website that highlights the most important points from various documents.
“We don’t really have that,” Carpenter said. “If you typed in ‘Manitoba, how to sell inspected chickens,’ or, ‘Manitoba egg production,’ those things don’t come up.”
She ran into these issues when she and her husband began their own operation several years ago. Instead of relying on word of mouth she decided to seek out the answers for herself.
Challenging the answers
Both Spain and Carpenter hope the FAQ forum will eventually go beyond just answering questions to stimulating a conversation and even helping reveal some of the shortfalls of the current regulatory system.
“(The FAQ site) is not just about asking questions and finding answers,” she said, “but also challenging those answers.”
“The first step is clarity,” said Spain. “The second step is to talk about, is this working for small farmers? The answer to some of those questions is, ‘no,’ because there’s been issues as we’ve seen in the news.”
She referenced last year when health inspectors seized around 160 kg of cured pork and beef products from Pam and Clint Cavers. Just months earlier the couple had won “Best New Food Product” for that same prosciutto at the Great Manitoba Food Fight competition — sponsored by MAFRD, the same government organization that deployed the health inspectors.
Charges have since been dropped, and the Cavers have started producing prosciutto again, but the incident raised questions about inconsistent messages and barriers facing small-scale agriculture businesses.
Producers aren’t the only ones noticing the disconnect. This summer Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development formed a working group, led by the province’s former chief veterinarian to review existing regulation and programs affecting small-scale farmers.