Manitoba’s largest carrot growers say the grading practices of the provincially regulated vegetable-marketing board threaten to push the family farm out of business.
Ernie Jeffries, who operates Jeffries Brothers Vegetable Growers with his brother Roland and father Dave, wants permission to sell carrots rejected by Peak of the Market outside of the regulated system.
Jeffries said Peak’s unreasonably high grading specifications mean up to half of their crop winds up as cattle feed.
“Peak’s grades (for carrots) have been tightening up,” Jeffries said during an interview with his father Dave at their packing shed Aug. 13. “And as they tighten up we have to throw out more carrots.”
Last year about 5,000 tonnes of food-quality carrots were picked up from Jeffries Brothers by local cattle farmers, according to Dave, who served as Peak’s chairman for 20 years until he resigned in 2010. That was 50 to 60 per cent of their marketable crop from 300 acres, excluding culls, costing an estimated $500,000 in lost revenue, he added. (story continues below)
“That is unsustainable,” Ernie said. “In the past the reason we survived is we could sell the other stuff that we are being made to throw out now. There’s nothing wrong with it… but it’s not premium (grade).”
Jeffries Bros. wants to be able to sell themselves what Peak won’t.
“What we’re pushing for, but not getting anywhere on, is to be able to sell anything that Peak refuses to or can’t sell,” Ernie said. “We want to sell it because it’s the only way we’ll survive.”
Dave Jeffries and his brother Albert are the original Jeffries Brothers, starting the farm 47 years ago. Albert has retired and Dave, who was inducted this year into the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame, is working towards it. There are two other commercial carrot producers in Manitoba.
All commercial Manitoba carrot production of one acre or more requires a production quota and the crop must be marketed through Peak of the Market. According to the Jeffries, last year Peak required all carrots meet a premium grade — a higher standard than the traditional Canada No. 1 and Canada No. 2 established by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
According to the Jeffries, Peak refused to sell what they believe should have graded No. 1 or 2, leaving farmers no choice but to give it away as cattle feed.
They were also prevented from marketing small carrots that, because of their size, would not make Canada No. 1 or 2 grade, but were still food quality, Ernie said.
Not only is their own farm at risk, but the entire Manitoba carrot industry, he said.
Small carrots could be sold to roadside operators or farmers’ markets, he noted. Jeffries Brothers also wants to process some of their carrots and is applying for an exemption from Peak to do so.
Growers are fined $100 for each rejected load. After Peak rejected 10 pallets of carrots, a CFIA inspector came to the farm and graded them Canada No. 2, but Peak still refused to take them, Dave Jeffries said.
“Nobody (at Peak), as far as I’m aware, has had any training through CFIA, to grade to the CFIA standards,” he added.
Peak president and chief executive officer Larry McIntosh says Jeffries Brothers’ claim that all carrots had to meet a premium grade last year is “absolutely false.” Peak had one customer requiring a premium grade, but delivery to that market was optional, McIntosh said in a telephone interview Aug. 14.
Ernie Jeffries says the premium grade was only made optional after his company complained about it.
McIntosh said if carrots are rejected, it’s because they failed to meet the CFIA requirement that carrots sold in stores or to food services must grade Canada No. 1 or 2.
The Canada No. 1 and 2 grades are set by CFIA and haven’t changed substantially in 20 years, McIntosh said.
“Last year I can tell you when Jeffries Brothers complained we were too hard on one of their loads here and we called a Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspector in… he inspected them independently and they failed Canada No. 1,” he said.
“Peak doesn’t set the standards (CFIA does),” he said.
However, Ernie Jeffries said when Peak runs short of Manitoba carrots it imports them and often they don’t appear to grade No. 1 because of irregular sizes and breakage.
Peak doesn’t sell small carrots to roadside stand operators and farmers’ markets so as not to harm small carrot growers, McIntosh said. Such sales could also undermine Peak’s sales to supermarkets, he said.
“Having said that, Jeffries Brothers, or any grower, could make a request to the (Peak) board (made up of nine farmer-elected vegetable growers) to entertain small carrots being exempted or being sold. But that request has never come forward,” McIntosh said.
Dave Jeffries said he met with the board, but felt he couldn’t fully make his case because some Peak staff were present and he claims they are part of the problem.
Besides the financial hit from feeding human-quality food to cows there’s a moral issue, Dave said.
“It’s a crime against humanity, in my mind, to throw that food away,” he said.
Ugly fruits and vegetables, which are misshapen but still fine to eat, are becoming popular in some supermarkets. But McIntosh said it’s not working out for farmers because ugly produce sells for less and it’s reducing sales of higher-priced, nicer-looking produce.