Apologies to anyone in the group who may think otherwise, but it’s probably fair to say that most of the people attending the recent Growing Local conference in Winnipeg would be favourable to the idea of collective marketing. They would tend to support measures to counterbalance the influence of large food-processing and retailing conglomerates.
Such as a marketing board, for instance.
But anyone attending the panel on “Potato Politics in Manitoba” (on which I served as moderator) would have concluded that most of the room was pretty hostile to Peak of the Market, Manitoba’s marketing board for potatoes and other root vegetables. Peak’s CEO Larry McIntosh, familiar to many Manitobans for his “eat your veggies” message delivered through a carrot microphone, got a pretty rough ride from an audience made up largely of small growers, and people who like to buy from them. After all, that’s who marketing boards are supposed to serve.
The testy relationship that has developed between the province’s large and small growers shows that something has gone seriously off the rails, and it’s in everyone’s interest to get things back on track.
A few weeks ago, the Co-operator ran an extensive story on how the province’s potato industry is being increasingly concentrated into the hands of a few large growers.
As we pointed out to the Growing Local audience, “large” has to be put in context. Manitoba growers of any size have to compete with U. S. growers, some of whom have tens of thousands of acres, a better climate, access to cheap if not illegal foreign labour and goodies from Uncle Sam, including below-cost irrigation water. That Manitoba growers do as well as they do in a tough market is a testament to the work of Peak of the Market and why it’s probably a good idea to keep it.
But while the term “marketing board” is being avoided these days, that’s exactly what Peak is, and the very foundation of a marketing board is that it treats all participants equitably. If it violates that principle, it has no future.
We’ve had no official response to our story on Peak, and the only unofficial response is along the lines of “The potato business is no different than any other in agriculture. Farms are getting larger and smaller producers probably can’t make a go of it anyway.”
Maybe so, but that’s nobody’s business except that of those who choose to grow the potatoes. Heck, if the criterion for running farms was that they make a profit every year, we wouldn’t have many left, would we? If you have the land and the quota and you choose to grow 10 acres of potatoes, then the rules that apply to you should be the same as for those who grow 100 acres. There should also be equitable and proportional access to the market. That’s how the wheat board treats you if you are a grain farmer with a few acres, or dairy boards treat you if you’re only milking a few cows.
This does not appear to be the case for Peak. Particularly disturbing is the allegation that there does not seem to be a formal and equitable system for allocating overquota deliveries outside Peak’s designated area. If the allegations are true, then this has been a factor in driving medium-size growers out of the business.
As for the small growers serving roadside stands and farmers’ markets, it’s not surprising that they are up in arms at Peak, which has arbitrarily made them illegal by withdrawing four-acre minimum exemption. If your kids grow an acre of potatoes and sell them at the end of the driveway, they’re breaking the law.
Meanwhile, we hear reports that at least one of Peak’s largest growers is providing potatoes for direct sale to consumers, including to some who are reselling them at farmers’ markets. Are these sales being reported to Peak? Or is this what we hear referred to as “leakage?”
If so, then the message is that it’s not OK for a small grower to break the rules and sell potatoes to Safeway, but it’s OK for big ones to sell outside the system and undercut the little guys at the farmers’ markets.
There is a strong argument for having orderly marketing for Manitoba potatoes. But orderly marketing requires “order,” as in everyone treated equitably and not jumping the line. It also requires public consent via the government legislation that grants the grower monopoly. But when such power is granted by the public, it’s in return for something. In this case it’s presumably it’s to help keep Manitoba vegetables in Manitoba kitchens. So when a group of local food advocates dedicated to the same principle is up in arms at Peak, its directors had better pay attention, as should the the Manitoba Farm Products Marketing Council, which oversees Peaks’ regulations.
A folksy message delivered through a carrot microphone won’t counteract the growing criticisms of Peak, which will soon be delivered across the counter every time vegetables are sold at a farmers’ market this summer. There must be the appearance and reality of fair, open and consistently enforced rules for everyone – and soon. [email protected]