A few years ago a potato war erupted in Manitoba.
An independent market gardener had been growing table potatoes for years and selling through farmers’ markets and produce stands.
With the local food market really coming into its own, he thought he’d spied a growth opportunity.
Eventually he began cutting deals with larger and larger retailers, until he made a deal with a retailer that was too large.
Too large because in Manitoba, table potatoes and other root crops are under Peak of the Market, a not-for-profit company with a monopoly on the production and sales of these crops.
Peak wrote the grower and three others saying they were in violation of Manitoba law and needed to register with Peak to continue to operate. The grower who was the initial target of the move said it wasn’t worth it and gave some of his potatoes away and destroyed the rest.
On the surface at the time it looked like a victory for the marketing board, but that wasn’t so.
Manitoba consumers were stirred into action. Teaming up with the growers and independent food retailers, the Manitoba Potato Coalition came to life and began dishing out public relations black eyes.
It claimed Peak favoured large growers and promoted policies and regulations that actively discouraged small growers. It pointed out that just 13 families had a virtual monopoly on table potato production and marketing in the province, and many of them sat on the board of Peak.
Essentially the Manitoba Potato Coalition shone a light where none had been seen for a good long while, and some of what it revealed wasn’t very pretty — where an outside observer could see anything at all.
Among other things, it emerged that Peak’s annual meetings were closed door, and its annual report was stamped confidential and only circulated amongst registered growers.
The impression was not a positive one, and it made Peak of the Market look like a cosy club, owned and operated for the benefit of just a handful of people.
Eventually Peak backed down and pretty much removed regulations for growers with fewer than five acres, allowing them to sell year round to farmers’ markets, small independent retail outlets, roadside stands and restaurants. Identical exemptions for other root crops also covered by Peak of the Market were also granted, up to one acre.
It was good as a damage control effort, but the whole issue demonstrated a certain tone-deaf and ham-fisted approach to dealing with the marketplace.
I’ll hazard a guess that most folks, when reading of the uproar in the paper, likely had a couple of questions spring to mind, starting with, “There’s a marketing board for potatoes?” followed very quickly with, “Why?”
If you’re in a marketing board, these are questions you never want to hear. Because once people start asking questions, there’s no telling where they’re going to stop.
Why the history lesson? It would appear the locally produced chicken market in Manitoba may be heading towards a similar showdown.
Last week the Manitoba Chicken Producers announced new rules governing small-scale producers who produce chicken to different specs than the commodity poultry of the large growers.
Its “annual specialty quota program” as it calls it, will introduce rules and formal quota, while imposing a number of requirements, such as filing a business plan and proof of adequate assets like land and buildings.
MCP has painted the move as an attempt to meet growing market demand for more specialized production. But others aren’t so sure.
Direct Farm Manitoba, the group representing the handful of producers who have been filling this market vacuum, has a few concerns.
Not least of which is the fact it’s been blindsided by a pronouncement from the MCP that it says it’s never been consulted on. It also says many of the program’s elements make it untenable for its members, especially the fact the quota allocations will only run a year at a time, something that makes any investment in chicken production too risky.
Direct Farm Manitoba also claims the program will actually scale back production by many of its members, something the MCP disputes.
The important thing here for MCP to realize is it can’t afford to be seen clawing this production back under its own umbrella at the expense of independent producers who have loyal customers.
A common mistake many in the supply-managed universe make is assuming they’re farming by some sort of divine right, instead of realizing that it springs from the political will of the rest of society.
If this blows up I’m willing to bet most Manitobans will have two questions. “There’s a marketing board for chicken?” and, “Why?”
The MCP should tread very lightly on this ground. It could prove to be quicksand.