Debate and controversy are nothing new to orderly marketing.
Whether it is supply management, as in the case of dairy or poultry, or single-desk selling, as in the case of the Canadian Wheat Board, there is a legitimate discussion over whether the public good these systems generate outweigh their costs to personal freedom.
There are well-reasoned arguments on both sides. But let’s presume for a moment that these systems are worthwhile, so we can ask the next question: are they functioning as they were intended?
That seems open to challenge in the case of Manitoba’s vegetable-marketing board, Peak of the Market.
The 68-year-old organization is drawing criticism from within the farming community and, interestingly, from the general public for how it treats small-scale vegetable growers. The controversy burst on to the public scene last year when Peak cracked down on a small-scale grower marketing potatoes directly to a major grocer.
There is little argument that the grower in question was in violation of the regulations as they exist. But it raises a bigger issue: are the rules as dictated by the board true to its mandate?
Other marketing boards – except for dairy – allow small-scale operators to grow and sell produce outside of production quotas. In poultry, backyard producers can raise up to 999 broilers, 99 turkeys and 99 laying hens for direct sales to customers. It is a reasonable compromise that allows small commercial enterprises to coexist with the marketing board system. Individuals are allowed to keep a cow, but not to sell any milk. Although that restriction is controversial, there is a known public health risk associated with non-pasteurized milk.
In the past, Peak also allowed for small-scale production with what was known as the four-acre rule. But that provision was removed in recent years, and as yet, not replaced. Now, if your kids grow an acre of potatoes and set up a roadside stand, are they breaking the law? There have been a number of rules introduced that increasingly make it more difficult for smaller players.
The perception, which appears to be backed up by the statistics, is that small-scale potato producers are being squeezed out of existence by policies and practices designed to consolidate market access among a few large players.
It makes for bad optics, particularly at a time when interest is surging among consumers for purchasing vegetables locally and even directly from the farmer.
It is generally acknowledged that small-scale agriculture is under siege on a number of fronts, with market access nearing the top of the list. However, that was one of the issues orderly marketing systems were designed to address. By pooling production, producers could achieve the volumes needed to supply the market with a consistent product.
However, instead of an orderly marketing system that works to secure market access for producers of all sizes, Peak appears to be using its mandate to exclude all but a few – most of whom are represented on its board. When quota is allocated to new producers, it appears that it is allocated in such a way that it becomes nearly impossible for them to succeed.
Whereas other marketing board and orderly marketing structures hold open annual meetings and make their audited annual reports available to the public, Peak’s annual meeting is closed. Its annual report is stamped confidential and only circulated among the shrinking number of registered growers.
Peak’s administration doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to clear the air, either. When Co-operator reporter Ron Friesen requested interviews to address the concerns outlined in this week’s story (see page 1) he was informed there was only one individual who could speak on the organization’s behalf. When approached, that individual responded he would not be available for four weeks.
There is something wrong with this picture and it should be of concern to all producers who are invested in orderly marketing. Making room for new entrants is an ongoing challenge for these systems that have, on balance, operated to the benefit of farmers and the public.
But these institutions must never forget, and perhaps Peak needs reminding, that their privilege to regulate production and control marketing is mandated by the public will.
Inherent in that social contract is the presumption of transparency, accountability and above all else – fairness to industry participants and to the public – none of which are evident in this scenario. On the contrary, Peak is operating like a private consortium that answers to no one but itself.
Recent events would suggest that public confidence in Peak’s handling of the vegetable industry is shaken, and those unresolved issues fuel the broader debate that potentially affects the entire sector.
The Manitoba government should intervene, calling a public inquiry if it must. [email protected]