Year in Review: Local food producers struggle ahead

Lack of supply chains, business risk management programs, and clear regulations are keeping local food from reaching its full potential in Manitoba, say producers, experts

Manitoba has a way to go before it’s a friendly place for small food and drink producers, several articles demonstrated throughout the year.

Be it crippling regulations, lack of risk management programs for small farmers, or simply lack of local supply chains, several factors say Manitoba’s local food system has yet to fully mature.

“It seems that Manitoba lacks a clear idea of how local food fits into regional development strategies,” said University of Manitoba researcher Iain Davidson-Hunt, who led a study of local microbrewers.

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“I would think that a policy environment that includes a focus on local food broadly and then craft beer within that framework can then open space for funding programs to invest in building a local/regional food system in order to help it grow,” he added.

‘Barley’ any local ingredients

Local brewers want to make beer from local barley and hops, but the supply chains don’t exist, Davidson-Hunt and colleagues found.

Manitoba farmers produce hundreds of thousands of tonnes of barley each year but very little makes it into Manitoba-made beer. Small brewers said they buy malt from Brewers Supply Group (with malting facilities in Alberta and Minnesota) and Country Malt Group (locations in Alberta and Ontario).

One brewer said he used to buy from Manitoba malter MaltEurop, but switched suppliers because he couldn’t get a product that met his needs.

Only Neepawa brewer Farmery consistently uses local barley — because it grows it itself and has it custom malted.

Manitoba doesn’t have a ‘craft’ or small-scale malting facility, which is one issue keeping local brewers from buying local malt.

Meanwhile, Manitoba has three commercial hop producers (including Farmery, which produces for itself). These don’t supply enough hops for all of Manitoba’s beer needs, but brewers like Brazen Hall’s Jeremy Wells said they buy local hops when they can.

Growers said hops are labour-intensive and take a lot of cash to get started.

Farmery co-founder Chris Warwaruk walks among the hops in the brewery’s fields.
photo: Geralyn Wichers

No safety net

After their market garden got off to a record start, sudden flooding and wind damage sunk crops at Justin Girard and Britt Embry’s certified organic vegetable farm near Elie, this July.

The loss, which at the time they estimated to be at least $40,000 in sales, highlighted that small producers like Girard and Embry aren’t eligible for crop insurance despite deriving their entire income from their produce.

While Manitoba Agriculture Services Corp. insures vegetable acres, commercial vegetable growers must grow a minimum of three acres of each crop for it to be eligible for insurances.

Girard and Embry farm just over three acres, total. On that, they grow about 40 varieties and can gross $35,000 per acre in crops.

However, producers said an entirely different insurance model would be needed to even be relevant to their style of farming, which can involve growing dozens of crops at various planting and harvesting times throughout the season. Variety has been the small-producer’s insurance in the past.

Market gardener Bruce Berry compared the current MASC crop insurance model to offering a Caterpillar earth-hauler wheel to someone riding a bicycle.

In November, Direct Farm Manitoba, which represents small producers and food manufacturers, pitched a catastrophic-loss insurance to its members based off a model used in Quebec.

Quebec offers crop insurance for local market gardening, covering berries and small fruit, herbs, potatoes and market garden crops, according to a program fact sheet. The program covers excessive wind and rain, hail, late or early frost, tornadoes and hurricanes.

To be eligible, the farmer must cultivate a minimum of two acres, all crops combined, and grow a minimum of 10 different crops.

Cheese on the chopping block

Cheese makers Dustin Peltier and Rachel Isaak said the province’s overcomplicated and unfair regulations have forced them nearly to bankruptcy.

The couple, along with Peltier’s parents Gary and Silver Peltier, had taken up the mantle of Trappist-style cheese making after the monk who’d make it for decades retired. The unpasteurized cheese has been made in Manitoba at least since the early 20th century.

Peltier and Isaak said they’ve spent about $70,000 in repeated tests and discarded cheese and still haven’t met the province’s mark for validation.

Documents provided to the Co-operator showed that the province initially said it would test the first three lots of cheese Peltier and Isaak made.

Initial batches showed high bacteria counts, but a few months later the cheese had passed three rounds of testing. This wasn’t enough, the couple said. They were told they’d need to continue testing each batch of cheese.

In January 2019, Peltier and Isaak asked provincial inspectors how many more tests they had to pass before their process was validated. They were told they must pass 10 more tests.

After mediation with the province failed to resolve their issues, Peltier and Isaak reached the end of their rope. They stopped making the traditional, unpasteurized cheese.

Local food advocates said Peltier and Isaak’s case, while extreme, isn’t a one-off. Researcher Jeanette Sivilay wrote that among the local food community, “complex, inconsistently interpreted and applied regulations” are a large concern.

Regulations aren’t always clearcut, said Dave Shambrock, executive director of Food + Beverage Manitoba. Interpreting and applying them can put inspectors in awkward positions.

Sivilay, Peltier and Isaak spoke about fear of retaliation among the community.

“That’s a huge red flag,” said food advocate Erin Crampton, adding it speaks volumes to the tone and attitude of the Manitoba Agriculture organization.

Ag Minister Blaine Pedersen responded to Peltier and Isaak’s accusations, saying it is the province’s responsibility to keep the food supply safe.

Dustin Peltier and Rachel Isaak say the province has blocked them at every turn in the process of bringing their traditional, Trappist-style cheese to market.
photo: Tamara Lentz

Looking ahead

The cheese makers’ plight received an outpouring of support on Peltier and Isaak’s Facebook and Instagram pages.

Peltier and Isaak have since told the Co-operator that they’re not done. Photos of shirts emblazoned with “save the cheese” popped up on their social media, and the couple said they’re gathering information on how to best tackle regulatory hurdles.

Meanwhile, they’ve begun making cheese with pasteurized milk to generate cash flow.

Direct Farm Manitoba indicated it would take the Quebec model of crop insurance for small producers to MASC in spring.

The Pallister government’s winning election platform included a promise to exempt craft breweries and distillers from markup for on-premise sales of their products, and to work with the local craft brewers to reduce red tape and barriers to growth.

It remains to be seen what this will mean for local supply chains.

 

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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