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Small Potato Regulations Draw Fire

“I think the exemptions will absolutely be too narrow.”

– TREVOR SCHREIMER

Aconference on locally grown food last week strongly criticized Peak of the Market’s attempts to bring small unregulated potato growers under the marketing board’s authority.

Larry McIntosh, Peak’s president and CEO, spent much of his time during a panel discussion defending the board against charges that it is needlessly trying to regulate small independent producers.

McIntosh said the opposite is true and Peak is drafting rules to exempt farmers who sell potatoes to farmers’ markets and roadside stands from provincial regulations.

But others attending the Growing Local conference at the University of Winnipeg felt exempting such growers shouldn’t be necessary in the first place.

“I don’t see that they are in any way a threat to orderly marketing in Manitoba,” said Alan Graham, president of the Farmers’ Markets Association of Manitoba. “I just don’t see that we need any regulations for the small grower.”

STIR

Peak created a stir last summer with plans to bring small unregulated growers under its umbrella while still allowing them to sell to farmers’ markets and roadside stands without going through the board.

The announcement occurred after Trevor Schreimer of Schreimer Family Farm was caught selling specialty “creamer” potatoes directly to Sobey’s retail stores as an unregulated producer.

During the panel discussion, Schreimer maintained Peak shouldn’t try to regulate creamer sales because it doesn’t handle the commodity itself.

“How are the people of Manitoba better served in an increasingly restricted regulated market?” he asked.

Schreimer said he met last fall with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives officials who promised a resolution by Christmas. He said he hasn’t heard back from them since.

During a question period, McIntosh was asked repeatedly why Peak can’t just let small growers sell potatoes privately without reference to regulations.

“There’s got to be a line somewhere,” McIntosh said, noting the board has a legislated mandate to control commercial root crops in Manitoba.

FOUR-ACRE RULE

Previously, the Vegetable Registration Order under the Farm Products Marketing Act defined a small grower as one harvesting four acres or less. Peak usually treated such growers as exempt from the regulations.

But the four-acre rule was eliminated last year, as well as a definition for direct consumer sales. This leaves growers selling to farmers’ markets and roadside stands in a legal limbo, pending the new regulations Peak is drafting.

McIntosh said the new rules would be ready in time for spring planting but could not be more specific.

He also said Peak may consider similar exemptions for farmers supplying so-called seasonal retailers, who are open only during the summer.

But the first job is to get regulations in place for growers who supply farmers’ markets and roadside stands, McIntosh said following the panel discussion.

“We have no problem with roadside stands and farmers’ markets. We haven’t done anything to them in the 45 years we’ve been a marketing board. We just want to put an exemption in place,” he said.

“We’re hoping to do that sooner rather than later but I can’t speak for the board.”

NEEDS APPROVAL

The Farm Products Marketing Council, a provincial regulator, has to approve the new regulations before they go into effect.

Schreimer expressed doubt the regulations will be as clear cut as Peak says.

He noted McIntosh said the regulations will apply only to farmer-run markets and observed that several currently operating in Winnipeg are not owned by farmers.

“My concern is those people will be left high and dry as entrepreneurs in this province and, more importantly, the people of Manitoba that they service are going to be left high and dry,” he said after the panel discussion.

“I think the exemptions will absolutely be too narrow and they’ll stifle the opportunity for an independent entrepreneur like myself into actually doing it.”

NO COMMENT

McIntosh refused to comment on a recent story by the Co-operator on the way Peak treats small commercial table potato growers who produce under quotas owned by the board.

“There was lots of information that, due to privacy concerns, I can’t address individually, which is why we’re not going to respond to that.”

A January 21 Co-operator investigation revealed the number of quota-holding red potato growers in Manitoba shrank from 42 in 2002-03 to just 13 in 2009-10. Three large operators, all in the Winkler area, hold more than 50 per cent of all red potato quota.

Smaller growers interviewed by the Co-operator alleged Peak is deliberately trying to drive out small producers by implementing policies that discriminate against them.

A Co-operator editorial compared Peak to “a private consortium that answers to no one but itself.”

McIntosh denied Peak disadvantages small growers. He said growers who sold their quota and left the industry in recent years received $3.6 million in retirement allowances for quota they never paid for in the first place while still keeping their farms, storage bins and equipment. [email protected]

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