There are 900 farms in Manitoba selling agricultural product of one kind or another direct to customers, and Direct Farm Manitoba (DFM) wants to connect with more of them.
The farm number comes from the 2016 Census of Agriculture data which revealed both a vibrant direct-marketing sector for Manitoba and one probably a whole lot bigger than most realized, said DFM representatives.
Those farms represent a mix of sales of unprocessed ag products and value added, selling variously at farm gate, U-picks, and roadside stands. One hundred and seventy-six reported making sales at farmers’ markets — a number many say is the low end of actual.
Now it’s a matter of connecting with them, said Phil Veldhuis, chair and spokesperson for DFM during its annual meeting and conference February 9.
“There’s lots of activity out there in the sector and a lot more, I think, than any of us thought,” he said.
“There’s lots of folks out there we need to connect with.”
DFM’s current membership is about 150 right now, with just under 100 individual farm memberships, plus an additional 50 farmers’ markets.
Veldhuis said topping DFM’s to-do list in 2019, in addition to extending its hand to prospective new membership, is to support those 50 farmers’ markets.
They will be doing a lot of promotion of these markets, such as where to find them, when they’re open and what to find in them, on social media, he said.
“We want to do as much as we can to promote local markets and get people out and doing some of their shopping there.”
The DFM continues to administer an insurance program of the former Farmers Markets Association of Manitoba, which merged to form DFM in 2016. Keeping that program going is critically important, because without it markets wouldn’t be able to operate and many selling through them are solely dependent on them for sales.
“Probably our most critical and popular program is the farmers’ market insurance program,” he said.
The DFM also has a members-only Facebook site where direct marketers can discuss needs and issues. There is also a yearly policy talk that gives the organization direction on key issues direct marketers want addressed.
Veldhuis said now past the initial excitement of forming their organization, there is certainly lots of energy and enthusiasm for the organization, but they also are facing limitations as a volunteer-driven board.
They know they will need to be careful about which projects are taken on, he said, adding that priorities will be those that support farm businesses as broadly as possible.
“We’re pretty excited to be one of the places to participate in the agricultural discussion,” he said.
“There’s a lot of energy in the room and to be part of that is a very positive thing.”
But they can’t get to nearly as many consultations as they get invited to, he said.
“We struggle with capacity,” he said. “There’s lots of associations in agriculture that have the scale and the capacity to send a paid representative to a meeting, or do the groundwork to be able to show up and speak at a consultation. We’re not probably going to get there for a long time. We don’t have economic levers like single points of market access to have a checkoff program, and we’re not going to have a mandatory association membership like some programs do.”
The DFM organized after a 2013 study on the small farm sector recommended an organization be set up to support direct marketers and smaller-scale farms. It combined with a previous initiative called Small Farms Manitoba and the former Farmers Markets Association of Manitoba three years ago to serve as a co-operative advancing the interests of member markets and those who sell direct to consumers.