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 been questioned. Up until then, governments encouraged farmers in the art of safe food production and processing (some can still remember that 4H 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 by governments 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.
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 farmgate and farmers’ markets. When it suits them, governments jump on the bandwagon and proclaim their support for local foods. It is telling that when it is bottled in Manitoba, Pepsi is defined as a “local” food.
Many farmers have bought into the idea that bigger is better and some have taken it one step further to believe that smaller is bad.
Farm commodity associations have adopted rules which ignore the needs of small scale food producers and actively discourage sales at the farmgate and farmers’ markets.
When challenged, they talk about food safety, although 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 frequently 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 eighteen people selected for the Small Scale Food Manitoba working group included three small scale direct market farmers. Of the rest, five were staff from associations which represent large agribusiness corporations like Maple Leaf Foods and Burnbrae Farms, Canada’s biggest egg conglomerate.
Estimates are that about three percent of Manitoba’s food is sold at the farmgate or farmers’ markets. The Small Scale Food report suggests that this market share could grow to ten percent – which would set direct marketing in direct competition with commodity agriculture. Industrial operators see ten percent as the difference between profit and loss and they are unlikely to willingly give up a share of their market.
The Small Scale Food Manitoba 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” and recognize small scale producers “as legitimate members of the commodity group”. It also 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. That is asking a lot.
Public support for small farms is strong and getting stronger. The growing popularity of small scale food and farmers’ markets is a sign that the public wants more than what the industrial food system can provide. The question is, what will the Manitoba government do to make a real place for small scale producers at the table?
Small Scale Food Manitoba presented their report to Hon. Ron Kostyshyn, Manitoba Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development on January 14, 2015. The report is available here.
The Manitoba government’s response is available here.
To learn more about the National Farmers Union policies related to small scale farming and local food, see the NFU‘s Sustainable Agriculture Policy.