Manitoba’s Small Scale Food Report is food for thought

A growing number of citizens is interested in buying food direct from the farm

Many farmers are willing to sell a side of beef, a few dozen eggs or a bag of potatoes to their acquaintances. Farmers have been direct marketing since agriculture began and it is only in the last 50 years that direct farm to consumer sales have started to be questioned. Up until then, governments encouraged farmers in the art of safe food production and processing. (Some can still remember that 4-H lesson on how to properly butcher a chicken.) At one time, many citizens knew their farmer.

Then came the agribusiness revolution and farmers were encouraged to abandon their small enterprises and specialize in the commodity market. Citizens became consumers and within two generations the social link between table and farm was broken.

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Now, the grocery store rules the food system with a massive, complicated and expensive network of middlemen who ensure a constant supply of every food imaginable. The food is cheap but citizens have gradually noticed that the quality and taste have changed. Occasional food recalls and stories of factory conditions have contributed to a general worry about industrial food quality. Consumers grumble and keep going to the grocery store anyway, but a growing number of citizens have started buying directly from a farm.

Some farmers are answering the demand with direct food sales at the farm gate and farmers’ markets. When it suits them, governments jump on the bandwagon and proclaim their support for local foods. It’s telling that when bottled in Manitoba, Pepsi is defined as a “local” food.

Smaller is bad

Many farmers have bought into the idea that bigger is better and taken it one step further to believe that smaller is bad. Farm commodity associations have pushed through rules which ignore the needs of small-scale food producers and actively discourage farm gate sales and farmers’ markets.

When challenged, they talk about food safety, however, most rules have nothing to do with food safety. Export protocols, international traceability, food sizing, fancy packaging, double signatures and paved parking lots are not necessary when the farm is small and the consumer can question the farmer directly.

Governments have mandated commodity associations to focus on expanding export markets at the expense of small-scale food. So, it was quite a surprise when the Manitoba government commissioned a Small Scale Food Report.

Well, maybe it wasn’t a surprise. A popular farm had first been commended, then raided over a regulation technicality. The resulting public furor was loud and long. When faced with public outrage, a government’s strongest defence is to commission a report.

The 18 people selected for the Manitoba Small Scale Food Report working group included three small-scale direct-marketing farmers. Of the rest, five were staff from associations which represent multinationals like Maple Leaf Foods and Canada’s biggest egg conglomerate, Burnbrae Farms.

Estimates are that about three per cent of Manitoba’s food is sold at the farm gate or farmers’ market. The report suggests that this market share could grow to 10 per cent. That would set direct marketing in direct competition with commodity agriculture. Industrial operators see 10 per cent as the difference between profit and loss and they are unlikely to willingly give up a share of their market.

The Small Scale Food Report recommends that small-scale food producers create an association, use it to negotiate with the big associations and convince them to change the rules so that small farmers can have part of their market. How likely is that?

The report recommends that associations “foster a diversity of production methods,” recognize small scale “as legitimate members of the commodity group,” and calls for “a collaborative, inclusive context among the existing boards, small-scale specialty producers, government policy analysts and consumers.” That would be a reversal of the long-standing promotion of industrial farming.

Is collaboration possible? Industrial agriculture has a virtual monopoly. Now it is asked to embrace diversity and give up a piece of the market. It is asking a lot.

Public support for small farms is strong and getting stronger. As the report points out, commodity associations “have been granted a social licence to provide a predictable supply of food to the public.” But the growing popularity of small-scale food and farmers’ markets is a sign that the public wants more than what industrial farmers can provide. The question is, what will the government do to make a real place for small-scale producers at the table?

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