Welcome to Battle Potato! In this corner, we have Peak of the Market, a non-profit marketing board that has been given the power to regulate the sale and marketing of root vegetables in Manitoba. In the other corner, we have The Potato Coalition of Manitoba, a group of small potato farmers, farmers’ markets and citizens who want to ensure that consumers have choice when it comes to their potatoes.
So what’s the big deal about potatoes and Peak? As a consumer of potatoes (yum yum), I am concerned about what the changes mean to me. According to The Potato Coalition of Manitoba, new regulations enacted on March 31, 2010 limit the choice that consumers have when purchasing potatoes from smaller producers. The details are posted on their website, and the claims are backed up with links to the new regulations: the Potato (Freshly Dug) Seasonal Farmers’ Market/Roadside Stand Exemption Order and the Potato (Freshly Dug) Seasonal Retail Production and Marketing Exemption Order.
So which specific items concern me the most? First, the fact that after November 1 of every year, I won’t have access to my choice of locally-grown potatoes. No local blue potatoes, no local heritage varieties, no local fingerling potatoes. If I want local, I must buy russet, red or Yukon Gold, which are the only three varieties that Peak of the Market carries.
Second, local restaurants that I support and love must buy from Peak of the Market if they want locally-grown potatoes. Again, this will severely limit the choice that these restaurants have in selecting produce for their customers. If Fusion Grill (just one restaurant known for its hyper-local menu) gets it in its head to serve lavender-coloured mashed potatoes this summer, made from local Russian Blue potatoes, good luck getting them from Peak of the Market.
Third, if a small producer hasn’t sold their entire crop by November 1, they must forfeit the profit from those potatoes. Even though potatoes are eminently storable, the producer must donate their remaining crop to a food bank. Laudable? Yes. Has the potential to drive small producers out of the potato market for fear of not breaking even? Yes. I suspect this may have been at the core of last September’s potato news story in which a local potato grower basically said it wasn’t worth growing potatoes if Peak of the Market would just force him to give them away.
Finally, I found this may have tossed a damper on a new project that I only just now found out about: my new favourite place to go shopping even though it’s not open yet. A year-round farmers’ market is being developed in the James Avenue pumping station in Point Douglas. This wonderful, fantastic thing is now threatened by these regulations. If producers can’t sell their potatoes in the winter, then there will be no potato producers at the year-round farmers’ market. Yes, there will be other things to sell, but the fact that such a storable food item can’t be sold is ridiculous, and could threaten the future of the year-round market.
Fortunately, there is hope. The Potato Coalition met with Minister Stan Struthers (Minister of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Initiatives) to discuss their concerns, and they report that the meeting went well. They will also be meeting with Peak of the Market on April 16 to try to get further exemptions for small producers.
This summer should be interesting. I’m hoping that the exemption is granted. If it’s not, we could face the possibility of a summer with no potatoes at the farmers’ markets. (Why plant potatoes if you’re not sure you can sell them all?) If you’re interested in helping, check out the Coalition’s “Get Involved” page.