A new report aimed at supporting local producers and small-scale pro-cessors is being praised as an important step towards fostering a better working environment for new entrants to farming and food processing.
Advancing the small scale, local food sector in Manitoba, a path forward, a 65-page report that includes 21 recommendations, was released last week by Agriculture, Food and Rural Development Minister Ron Kostyshyn, as part of a new five-point strategy to help grow the province’s food-processing sector.
The report follows several months of public consultations, interviews and surveys with a variety of direct marketers and small farmers.
“Manitoba has accepted all of the recommendations and will be working with our partners to move this important part of our agricultural economy forward,” he said in a release.
Kostyshyn initiated the project last spring amid growing tensions between startup processors and government inspectors over food safety regulatory compliance and enforcement issues.
Dr. Wayne Lees, retired chief veterinary officer for Manitoba, was appointed to convene a 17-member working group that adopted the name Small Scale Food Manitoba and which included representatives from Manitoba Food Processors Association, Keystone Agricultural Producers, Food Matters Manitoba, Farmers’ Markets Association of Manitoba (FMAM) Co-op Inc., Harvest Moon Local Food Initiative, Canadian Culinary Federation (CCF) Manitoba, Community Supported Agriculture Manitoba (CSA), the provincially inspected meat sector and independent small-scale food entrepreneurs.
Their report is an in-depth look at what’s motivating people to become direct food marketers, participate in farmers’ markets and urban agriculture, and start up small-scale farming and food-manufacturing businesses.
“We heard from hundreds of Manitobans during our consultations and it is clear that the small-scale food sector wants to play an important role in promoting healthy eating while also building a vibrant food economy,” said Lees.
A pivotal moment
The report highlights the multiple concerns brought forward around regulatory issues, identifying both an overwhelming amount of information to wade through and inconsistencies in direction from government departments. The roles of Manitoba Health and MAFRD in the food inspection system are unclear to many, as is the “risk-based” and “outcome-based” approach taken by inspectors.
Many complain the rules are designed to fit larger-scale operations and difficult for small-scale operators to implement.
The report makes seven specific recommendations towards resolving some of those issues, including calls for developing a more plain language approach to explaining regulation, and providing opportunities to problem solve early in the policy- and regulation-making process.
More than regulations
Lees said these are important issues to be dealt with but the report has tried to tackle more than regulatory matters.
“I think it’s more comprehensive than that, in trying to map out a plan so that the small-scale food sector can actually flourish and grow,” he said, adding that it also makes recommendations around the technical advice, business and financial tools needed by this community.
“I think it’s a pivotal moment in recognizing the small-scale food sector and the role that it plays in agriculure and food in Manitoba.”
Lees said he’s impressed with the youthfulness of participants, noting they hold the promise of bringing new people into a sector that’s otherwise losing people.
“They together represent the opportunity for the renewal of human capital of agriculture,” he said. “It’s a whole new set of people who might never have had the opportunity to participate in agriculture and food before.”
What is ‘small scale?’
The working group certainly had its challenges, not the least of which was agreeing on what defines “small scale.” It was felt no arbitrarily chosen number of acres or employees properly defines it, so instead it is characterized in the report by a variety of widely shared attributes.
Those in the small-scale sector typically are focused on healthy eating, and are creating and highly value close marketing relationships with their customers.
They tend to be “nimble” innovators because of that close association with their market. They are also highly entrepreneurial, creating their own jobs in rural areas where none exist.
Small farmers and processors also exhibit a high degree of commitment to rural community, environmental stewardship and show intense interest in the preservation of diversity and skills in farming and food production, the report said.
However, the small-scale sector also faces numerous barriers and complicated hurdles that go beyond regulations.
“Because of their diverse, yet integrated production methods, small-scale farmers do not fit well within the present commodity-focused model of farm production advisers within MAFRD,” the report says. And while there are excellent technical resources available at the Food Development Centre (FDC) in Portage la Prairie “these can be expensive for a startup entrepreneur.”
The report specifically identifies a specific lack of inspected poultry-processing facilities in Manitoba as holding back the growth of small poultry producers and also wants the province to explore options for small-scale producers and processors within supply-managed industries.
Brad Anderson, a small-scale poultry producer near Cypress River who represented Harvest Moon Local Food Initiative on the working group, said he’s really happy with the report and liked the process that put it together.
The report has put all the issues on the table, he said, adding that a meeting with Minister Kostyshyn last week has him feeling confident the government will act quickly on them.
“We’ve identified the problems and the types of things we think need to happen to solve them. Now they’ll have to decide what their priorities are within what we recommend.”
As part of its five-point strategy announced last week, the government says it plans to reassign existing staff to create a small-scale processing specialist and a small-farm production specialist, while implementing the Small Scale Food Manitoba working group’s recommendations.
Other aspects of the strategy include working with existing businesses to accelerate their growth and creating online resources and tools to support food businesses, investment in sector development, developing regulation without creating unnecessary barriers for all sizes of food processors; and increasing awareness of food production in Manitoba.
“Our goal is for Manitoba to have a food-processing industry worth $5.5 billion by 2022,” said Kostyshyn in the news release.
“To achieve this, we must identify and take advantage of opportunities for large- and small-scale farmers and processors throughout the province.”
A copy of the Small Scale Food Manitoba report is available online at www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture.