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New Potato Rules Rile Small Producers

“We are not a threat to orderly marketing of potatoes in Manitoba.”

– ALAN GRAHAM, FMAM

Anewly formed coalition of farmers’ markets, small producers and independent grocers will oppose recent provincial regulations for in-season table potatoes.

Called COFARM (Coalition of Farmers and Retailers Manitoba), the group plans a lobbying effort to get the new regulations governing small potato growers overturned.

The regulations under the Farm Products Marketing Act bring farmers’ markets, roadside stands and the potato growers who supply them under the authority of Peak of the Market, the provincial vegetable-marketing board.

Growers say the regulations unfairly restrict them from marketing their products.

“We would like to have free and unrestricted access to the marketplace,” said Trevor Schreimer, a COFARM organizer.

The coalition will establish a fund to hire a Winnipegbased branding company to publicize their concerns and direct lobbying efforts. It may also consider seeking legal action against the new rules, Schreimer said.

COFARM was formed after a March 26 meeting in Winnipeg of about 25 people representing small growers, independent retailers and the Farmers’ Markets Association of Manitoba Co-op Inc.

It is the latest development in a year-long controversy between small growers and Peak of the Market over the regulation of “freshly dug” table potatoes in Manitoba.

Previously, growers with fewer than four acres of potatoes were treated as exempt from regulation, as long as they did not sell to major grocery stores.

But the four-acre rule was eliminated in 2009, along with a legal definition for direct consumer sales.

That left growers in a legal limbo in relation to the law and to Peak.

The new regulations announced last week bring small growers, farmers’ markets, roadside stands and seasonal retailers handling seasonal potatoes under Peak’s authority, albeit with certain exemptions.

They include the following measures:

Small growers of “freshly dug” potatoes are those with five acres or fewer. They are officially exempted from marketing through Peak.

However, growers who sell potatoes at roadside stands and to farmers’ markets must hold permits issued by Peak, which also approves their location. There is no fee for permits.

Permits for farmers’ markets, roadside stands and their suppliers are voluntary for the crop years 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Seasonal retailers and their growers must have permits starting this year.

Potatoes must be sold in bulk form. They cannot be pre-weighed or pre-packaged.

Potatoes sold by permit holders must be grown from certified seed.

Potatoes must be grown during the current season and sold by Oct. 31. Unsold potatoes after that date must be donated to a food bank.

The regulations came into effect March 31, according to the Farm Products Marketing Council, a provincial regulator.

Growers affected by the new rules call them unwarranted and unnecessary, saying they shouldn’t have to be regulated in the first place.

“I am definitely not very impressed,” said Alan Graham, treasurer of the Farmers’ Market Association of Manitoba Co-op Inc.

“I don’t think small growers want regulations. Period. I don’t think it’s required. I don’t see the point of it.”

“MORE CLARITY”

Larry McIntosh, Peak’s president and CEO, said small growers have technically always been subject to regulations because potatoes are by law a regulated crop in Manitoba. These latest regulations only codify that fact so everyone knows where they stand, he said.

McIntosh said small growers are further ahead than before because now they have a five-acre exemption, not a four-acre one.

“This exemption is actually giving them rules about the fact that they can do it in an orderly way,” he said.

“I think there’s a lot more clarity here. Everybody understands what’s expected.”

But Graham called it a power grab by Peak against producers who are not a threat to the system.

“We are not a threat to orderly marketing of potatoes in Manitoba,” he said. “There’s just no way we’re a threat.”

Graham worried Peak may be setting the stage to regulate other vegetables not under its authority. He said Peak officials told FMAM at a meeting earlier this winter the potato regulations would be used as a “template” for other crops.

McIntosh said the reference was to other regulated root crops, including carrots, parsnips, rutabagas and pickling onions.

Previously, those crops were exempted under a one-acre rule, similar to the former four-acre rule for potatoes. Peak will develop a new regulation for them similar to the one for potatoes. It will not apply to unregulated crops, such as sweet corn or cabbage, he said.

Schreimer and Erin Crampton, a Winnipeg greengrocer, said Peak shouldn’t regulate immature specialty potatoes, a product Schreimer sells, because the board doesn’t even handle them.

McIntosh said Peak sells immature potatoes every year. Schreimer said he has never seen them on any of Peak’s retail price lists. [email protected]

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