By Will Verboven Ahead of the Heard
A recent CBC TV news show featured a report on possible fraud at Ontario Farmers Markets. For naïve city consumers the investigation provided some disconcerting news – it seems that much of the local fresh fruits and vegetables they thought they were buying from local Ontario farmers were not quite what they had assumed. The show revealed that in many cases those so-called local fruits and vegetables came from large-scale commercial produce wholesalers and could come from anywhere in North America. To add insult many of those same vegetables and fruit were available at large chain grocery stores at up to 50 per cent cheaper. But judging by the crowds of city folks at these markets, they are either blissfully unaware of this marketing deception or just like taking part in a trendy “buy local” scheme. It reminds one of the fervent belief many gullible consumers have in organic food – it must be good because someone or some group says it is – no questions asked. It’s part of the mantra some folks chase so to be seen as being politically correct, progressive, anti-capitalist and other such babble.
The TV show stated the visible proximity of packing boxes from commercial North American producers, the absolute uniformity of produce and out-of-season vegetables for sale as pretty clear indications that the veggies were probably not grown by a local market gardener in Ontario. But then I suspect most city consumers expect to see at least the same quality, uniformity and year-around availability at Farmers Markets that they see at their local grocery store. That’s because most consumers have no idea as to food production variations in relation to seasonality, location, quality control and agronomics – all they ever see is perfect fruits and vegetables that are always available at their local store. That is what they expect to see at Farmers Markets, so you can’t blame marketing entrepreneurs from providing consumers with what they expect to see – which makes it easy to fool them much of the time.
It’s different at Alberta Farmers Markets. Although some have existed since the late 1800s, most came into effect under the auspices of the government supervised Farmers Market program. That system was created by Agriculture Minister Hugh Horner in the 1980s. It established health regulations and market standards as to what constitutes a genuine “Alberta Farmers Market.” Overall that program has been relatively successful. The program also provides technical support to market managers and some promotional and advertising support. But as with the Ontario consumers, folks here are also confronted with the same dilemma – is the produce local from actual farmers or not? It would seem that like in Ontario, city consumers in Alberta want to believe, or be fooled, that the produce they are buying is local. The reality is somewhat more hazy. The government program actually allows that up to 20 per cent of the produce that is for sale at Alberta markets can come from elsewhere and sold by re-sellers – those folks are not necessarily farmers. At the larger markets it would seem to be difficult to monitor the non-local ratio. One of the reasons for the 20 per cent inclusion is because without out of province and reseller vendor participation many local Farmers Market could not exist or offer any diversity of food products. BC and California sourced fruit and vegetables offered for sale being the most obvious.
Due to our agronomic and production structure there are not many small local fruit and vegetable market gardeners and farmers in Alberta – although there is a large commercial horticulture industry. The problem is not just seasonality, its economics and the intensive hard labour that discourages small producers. One group that has resolved that situation are Hutterite Colonies, who are keen participants in most Farmers Markets. They are genuine sources of local fresh vegetables – that’s because they have turned their vegetable production into a commercial business through economies of scale and very cheap labour. Hutterite competitive marketing, although welcomed by consumers, challenges other growers through ferocious competition. I suspect there is discussion within the management of the larger markets as to the extent of Hutterite colony participation.
One thing I expect that Alberta has in common with Ontario is that there is probably very little verification as to where produce comes from – which invariably leads to some deceptive marketing practices. But I guess that’s just human nature. Notwithstanding all that – Farmers Markets remain an alternative marketing outlet for small growers – for consumers its more a case of buyer beware.