WEATHER ALERT

Backlash against Peak no small potatoes

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If there is one conclusion that can be drawn from the ongoing spat over spud marketing in this province, it is that Manitobans take their vegetables seriously.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/04/2010 (4679 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If there is one conclusion that can be drawn from the ongoing spat over spud marketing in this province, it is that Manitobans take their vegetables seriously.

But the rest of this dispute between Peak of the Market and small potato growers is, quite frankly, an enigma.

How is it that the marketing board established to support a Manitoba-based vegetable industry is on the outs with the very community of shoppers that is most passionate about locally produced food?

Mandated under the Manitoba Farm Products Marketing Act, along with other provincial marketing boards for milk, eggs, chicken and turkey, Peak oversees table potatoes and other root crops (carrots, onions, parsnips and rutabagas).

Commercial-scale farmers require quota from the board to grow these crops and they pool their production for marketing. The premise behind pooled marketing is that producers don’t have to compete against each other for the available market.

It is an obvious benefit for growers on the inside. In this case, the benefits outside of that group are subject to hot debate.

This marketing board has come under fire on two fronts. Smaller growers still within the ranks of commercial-scale producers have complained they are being pressured out of business due to increasingly onerous and expensive regulations and policies.

Consolidation and bigger scale seems to be a fact of life in farming. Marketing boards are a mechanism that can help smaller players remain competitive. But Peak is accused of using its mandate to consolidate control among a few large players — 13 in the case of red potatoes — many of which are represented on its board.

When asked to explain, officials cite confidentiality. Whereas other marketing boards hold open annual meetings and make their audited annual reports publicly available, Peak’s annual meeting is closed, with its annual report stamped “confidential” and circulated only among the shrinking number of registered growers.

This all boiled over after Peak cracked down on a non-registered grower last year caught selling directly to stores in violation of the regulations.

Rules are rules. If one grower is allowed to make commercial-scale sales outside of the system, where does it stop?

There are, however, questions over how Peak is applying the rules. To date, there has been no explanation offered as to why some Peak growers sell potatoes out the back door of their warehouses or why some growers deliver over their production quotas with no penalty. Other marketing boards heavily fine over-quota production.

In the past, Peak turned a blind eye to roadside and farmers market sales. Now it is saying it will continue to allow sales from operations of five acres or less, but only in bulk and only until late fall.

That has the province’s farmers market association on the warpath because it could crimp plans to open a year-round farmers market in Winnipeg. As well, although small growers must eventually get a permit to operate from Peak, they won’t be allowed to attend its annual meeting or be represented on its board.

The backlash has rallied the locavores and rekindled the big-little farm debate. People are calling for Peak of the Market boycotts, and unleashed caustic attacks on board president Larry McIntosh, known to most Manitobans as the guy who speaks into a carrot microphone on television.

It has even sprouted a Manitoba Potato Coalition with a letter-writing campaign and a blog on the latest developments in the potato wars: www.manitobapotatoes.com.

In its defence, although Peak of the Market is seen as the big player picking on the little guys, it’s important to remember that in the North American context — it is small potatoes. A large potato operation in Manitoba is 1,000 acres; in Idaho it is 15,000 acres.

Peak has played a vital role in insuring a steady supply of locally produced vegetables is available in Manitoba grocery stores.

However, inherent to any marketing board’s social licence to operate is a commitment to serving the marketplace’s changing needs. In the court of public opinion, Peak is failing on that front.

Peak dug itself into this mess with its lack of operational transparency combined with an apparent underestimation of how the “local” movement is changing our society’s interaction with the food chain.

Growers of all sizes need to be represented at the Peak board table. Peak’s allocation of market access needs to be independently reviewed. Annual meetings must be open.

Fixing this will take more than folksy marketing. As the saying goes, the first thing to do when trying to get out of a hole is to stop digging.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email:

laura@fbcpublishing.com

Laura Rance

Laura Rance
Columnist

Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.

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