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Backhanded thanks

Manitoba's family farms fight for a piece of the market

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Pam Cavers at her farm near Pilot Mound with their Mulefoot and Berkshire hogs.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Pam Cavers at her farm near Pilot Mound with their Mulefoot and Berkshire hogs. Photo Store

Small farm owners Pam and Clint Cavers were blindsided last week when Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives staff showed up to seize and destroy their locally produced and cured prosciutto (pork).

Ironically, just months ago, MAFRI presented the Caverses with $10,000, naming their prosciutto the Best New Food Product in the Great Manitoba Food Fight competition.

Pam Cavers neatly summed up the province's approach to supporting local food: "With one hand they giveth and the other they taketh away."

Imagine this Kodak moment: the MAFRI minister savouring Clint and Pam's delicious prosciutto in front of an audience, celebrating local food and farmers at the Great Manitoba Food Fight. Fast-forward four months: The scene changes to a nightmare for the Caverses.

Two MAFRI inspectors deliver a $1,400 fine and seize $8,000 of a product they had poured their hearts into developing.

It's not hard to see why family farmers feel that policy toward local food is two-faced. Unfortunately, as dramatic as the Caverses' story is, it is not an isolated incident. It reflects a much deeper problem -- the marriage of government to industrial agriculture to the detriment of family farmers.

In my doctoral research, I interviewed farm families who sell meat directly to consumers in Western Canada and the U.S. Most farmers wanted to expand and innovate but were frustrated and stymied by the many barriers they face.

Most often, farmers cited the cost and accessibility of processing facilities. Some farmers had considered establishing their own facilities. But the regulations are geared toward large industrial plants, creating huge costs for smaller processors. The Caverses were told they needed separate facilities to handle all aspects of their cured meats, which would mean extensive renovations and the addition of buildings and expensive equipment. They argued that these costs were unreasonable considering their scale.

Everyone agrees food-safety regulations are important. However, smaller farmers and processors want regulations to consider the relative risk of different-sized operations -- "scale-appropriate regulations."

Risk management is based on the formula: Risk is the probability of occurrence multiplied by the impact of occurrence. The most obvious argument for different regulations for smaller operations is the potential impact of an outbreak from mega-processors is much greater.

Look no further than the Maple Leaf listeria outbreak in 2008 and XL Foods' E. coli outbreak in 2012 for evidence.

In the XL beef incident, at least 18 fell ill, thousands of pounds of meat were wasted and it took months to determine where the tainted food had been sold. This cost $16 million to $27 million and damaged public confidence in Canadian meat.

Is the Manitoba government serious about local food? Many farmers say while front-line MAFRI staff are helpful, they are woefully underfunded.

When it comes to photo ops, the government program money is there. Just look at the MAFRI Buy Manitoba program. Framed as an opportunity to help farmers develop local markets, it has primarily helped large grocery chains to label products that were manufactured in Manitoba.

Sure, some legitimately Manitoban companies were supported. But, we also see Coca-Cola labelled with a Buy Manitoba logo. Once again, a program was co-opted by big industry. Yet most family farmers, like the Caverses, receive almost no benefit.

Then there is MAFRI's Open Farm Day. Farmers host consumers to promote their products and educate the public about farming. Again, a great photo op for the minister. However, former Open Farm Day participant Dwayne Logan aptly criticized the program for giving the public an unrealistic view of agriculture as idyllic.

Thus, MAFRI holds up small family farms as the face of agriculture, yet it provides minimal financial support and even undermines small farmers with one-size-fits-all regulation.

Incidents like the one at Caverses' Harborside Farms are driving farmers underground, making it difficult for consumers to find authentic local food.

If we are serious about local food, we must demand government create more appropriate programs and regulations.

We can look elsewhere to see there are ample but unrealized opportunities for our government to nurture the local food economy. Three years ago, farmers and consumers united to successfully lobby for scale-appropriate regulation that is now enabling local food in the state of Oregon.

We need to move beyond the photo ops here in Manitoba, and government must listen to what farmers need and what the public wants in order to provide good, clean healthy food to Manitobans.

 

Colin Anderson is a PhD student at the University of Manitoba investigating direct-farm marketing in Western Canada and the U.S. He was at Harborside Farms during the MAFRI raid and is part of a petition to the government to address the regulatory barriers that constrain the local food economy.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 6, 2013 A13

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