Local-grown versus off-Island goods sparks debate in farmers’ markets

Winter poses a variety of challenges for small-scale farmers who have booths at farmers’ markets. The most notable one is the ability to keep their booth filled with fresh, locally grown produce. Some farmers use greenhouses to grow produce throughout the winter months, however, quantities and variety generally become limited. There are 64 winter member/vendors at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market, about 18 of which sell fresh produce.

Due to these challenges, vendors/farmers must become creative and diversify their operation in order to operate. Vendors often resell products grown by other local farmers, which can be a win-win, as it fills the booth, offers more diversity for consumers, and provides exposure for other small-scale (often organic) farmers who don’t have a membership at the Charlottetown market.

The Charlottetown Farmers’ Market adheres to a 70/30 policy, which is written in their bylaws: vendors can sell produce that was not grown on their own farm, so long as it doesn’t surpass 30 percent of what they’re selling. This policy is meant to support vendors during the wintertime when they face challenges, however, it can be used anytime. “International [product] is allowed only when that produce is out of season locally, and it has to be identified as such. So, the person coming in to buy something can actually be informed as to what they’re buying,” market manager, Bernie Plourde said.

Produce labelled with farm of origin//Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

The main exception is that vendors cannot import produce from off-Island if it is in season on PEI and currently being sold by local vendors at the market. “The bylaw that the market has presently states that people can sell produce if it’s out of season. So if another vendor is growing it, then we ask other vendors not to bring it in from elsewhere, because we already have members who are growing it and selling it,” Plourde said. Whether the produce is local or not, vendors still tend to sell out of product, he added.

The market’s bylaws state all items that are from off-Island or that weren’t grown by the vendor selling them must be labelled. Plourde, the market’s only employee, sometimes has a difficult time enforcing this rule. Generally, vendors are responsible labellers, but some don’t always follow the rules, he said. As a not-for-profit cooperative, the market’s members also do a bit of self-policing, kind of operating on an honour system, he said, but compliance does remain a big issue. “There’s a give and take here, where we’re asking our members, ‘you know the bylaw, please don’t break it. Don’t sneak stuff in.’”

Tyler Gallant, president of the market’s board of directors, admits that proper labelling was an issue a few years ago. Today, everything should be visible and labelled clearly for customers, he said. However, no real penalties are in place for non-compliance, but the board does have the ability to enforce operational rules.
“We’re not trying hide the fact that [some items] are not from here, because you and I would know that avocados and bananas don’t grow on PEI,” Plourde said. Amy Smith and Verena Varga own Heart Beet Organics and have a booth at the Charlottetown market. Smith also agrees that labelling is of utmost importance. “When things are brought in from another farm, it’s really important they’re labelled. We work damn hard as farmers and whenever we do resell items from another farm we think it’s important that that farm gets credit,” she said.

Verna Varga and Amy Smith at their Charlottetown farmers’ market booth//Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

The 70/30 rule has caused a fair amount of debate among vendors. Some members want the market to sell 100 percent Island-grown products, while others don’t see a problem with vendors selling products that have been grown outside of PEI, from the Maritimes and as far as California, in order to offer a wider range of products.
Brian MacKay is the chair of the board of directors of the Summerside Farmers’ Market. “Summerside is similar [to Charlottetown] but I’d say we enforce the rules more in Summerside,” he said. Like the Charlottetown market, everything that’s not produced by the vendor should be clearly labelled. There’s not really any international produce allowed to be sold, especially if the products are not able to be grown in this region.

“The first priority is Prince Edward Island products,” MacKay said. The Summerside market also tries to follow the 70/30 policy, but does things somewhat differently. Vendors aren’t allowed to bring in strawberries, for example, when PEI berries are in season, to ensure Island berries are being sold. Where it differs is that fresh strawberries and similar products that have been imported aren’t allowed to be sold during winter either.

MacKay and his wife Kathy MacKay own Crystal Green Farms and operate booths at both the Charlottetown and Summerside Farmers’ Markets. “We certainly don’t have as much produce to sell [in the winter], so we’re always looking for other things to add,” Kathy said. They started a CSA box about eight years ago and realized they didn’t have enough product during the winter, so over the years they branched out into eggs and flour, which have since been beneficial for their business. “We had to diversify a little bit.” They sell oatmeal, mushrooms, and eggs year-round from other small-scale farmers.

Produce labelled with province of origin//Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

Kathy said she thinks the 70/30 policy is beneficial to vendor and consumers but only to a certain extent. “I think it’s great for vendors to keep tables full, but don’t agree to bringing in product from off-Island. It’s defeating the purpose of what a farmers’ market is supposed to represent.” The reality is that people are going to go to the supermarket, she said. “There’s always going to be something that you won’t find at the farmers’ market.” And for that reason, a market that doesn’t sell international products won’t be losing business, because that’s not why most people are going, she said.

Smith also believes the sale of off-Island produce, particularly things that aren’t able to be grown on PEI, should not be allowed as it can mislead people and discredit the idea of what a farmers’ market actually is. In regards to surviving the Canadian winter, they face their own challenges.

“We specialize in having fresh greens available in the winter, and as you can imagine, it is extremely challenging, especially with fluctuations in the weather,” Smith said. They grow greens such as spinach, lettuce, swiss chard, and kale in an unheated greenhouse during the winter. Due to temperature fluxuations they can lose product, but at the same time they’re finding out what varieties can handle the temperature extremes.

“We recognize there’s a huge demand for those sort of locally grown products in the winter, so we try to supply that demand, but it definitely has some challenges,” Smith said. This winter, Heart Beet Organics has resold carrots, beets, and sprouts from other organic growers in order to fill their booth. During the summer, they generally only sell what they’ve grown themselves unless there’s a shortage of a particular item at the market.

Smith agrees with the Charlottetown market’s decision to allow vendors to sell food they haven’t grown, but would like to see some changes. “We may be limited in products, this time of year especially, so it allows us fill out our booth, and it also provides more variety for customers coming into the market. It also takes some of the burden off of individual farms to have to grow a huge variety of vegetables to be able to fit their own booth.” She continues, “The most important thing is that the things that are resold in the market are crops that are grown here on PEI. We feel really strongly about that.” So strongly, in fact, that Smith and Varga proposed an amendment to a market bylaw, suggesting that all produce sold at the market be Island grown. The amendment was voted against, almost unanimously.

Smith, as well as some other market vendors and many consumers, sees no argument for bringing in food that can’t be grown on PEI. “It’s a farmers’ market, not a grocery store. I don’t see any need to bring in those sort of items that are grown in places far far away.” She and Varga believe in educating consumers about what it takes to farm in Canada and she said, “I think there’s something special and really unique about farmers’ markets in that when people come into the market, they’re seeing things-this is what is grown locally; this is what we are capable of growing locally.”

Brussels sprouts being unpacked//Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

However, some see the availability of items not grown on PEI as a benefit to market shoppers. Gallant suggests that about 90-plus percent of the produce at the market is Island-grown. However, he said, “You have a shopping list, and on your shopping list you want to get some Italian cheese, some locally roasted coffee, some tea, and there’s someone there to give you your local vegetables and fish and whatever else. But on your list you’ve got a lemon.” Therefore, he said, it’s important for the market to sell things like bananas, lemons, and avocados, despite not being grown on PEI and having to be imported. “It’s important that we do have items that would fit into regular people’s shopping baskets.”

The Charlottetown Farmers’ Market has eight board members, and like Gallant they are all vendors who are nominated and elected by the entire market membership. “Unlike a lot of other organizations, we’re a democratic one. We are controlled by a board of directors, but our membership decides the bylaws that we operate under,” he said. “For the past two or three years, we’ve been talking about going through our bylaws, reviewing them. Basically we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing, that we’ve got the right products and that our democratic process is updated.” Any organization needs a certain amount of change over time to make sure it stays current, he said. “We’d like to consider ourselves community leaders in terms of how much local we bring to the table every Saturday, even in the winter time. There’s an incredible amount of local produce in that building. The only way we can keep that going is to make sure our laws are updated adequately.”

Regardless of the continued debate, the market provides hundreds of people each week with fresh, organic, Island-grown food that has been produced by small-scale farmers in PEI’s fields. It serves as a proud centerpiece to this ever-growing food Island.

There have been many changes in accessibility to fresh produce over the years on PEI, Gallant said. “For example, 20 years ago it was probably pretty impossible to grow fresh greens. Today, it’s all being grown in greenhouses, organically, on PEI in the middle of winter. That’s a significant change that we’ve seen recently.” Still, Gallant recognizes that the main struggles for vendors during the winter is to keep their booths filled with local produce. “The challenge is trying to have more local produce in our market than the other larger grocery stores. I think we’ve taken that challenge on and won.”

About Evan Ceretti

Evan is a vegetarian foodie and freelancer based in Charlottetown. His two greatest loves are food and travel, which just so happen to be the perfect pairing. A graduate of Holland College’s journalism program, and of UPEI’s print journalism program, Evan enjoys writing about the local food scene as well as writing about gastronomic journeys from the other side of the world. He’s had to luxury of visiting 30 countries and traveling for more than 1,000 days. In Charlottetown, you’ll either see him riding his bicycle, eating curry, taking photos, or playing ultimate frisbee. Follow him on IG @Evanontheroad, and on Facebook at Evan on the Road.

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