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The Peaceful Revolution in Farmers' Markets

by Lynn Perrin

A peaceful revolution is taking place across North America. While it is neither underground nor covert, it may soon be quashed by local and provincial policy-makers. They potentially could assert that the revolution is too risky and that laws must be enacted in the public interest.

The revolutionaries in this case are ordinary consumers and farmers wishing to trade directly in local food products via farmers' markets. Despite the growing popularity of these markets, they have had to overcome and still face ongoing legal and regulatory barriers that inhibit their expansion. These barriers have been justified in the name of food safety and public order.

Local decision-makers maintain barriers by refusing to alter the Vancouver city bylaw that makes it illegal for anyone to sell fresh fruit and vegetables outdoors without an annual "special event" permit. Farmers' markets are denied the same five-year space allocations granted to community gardens located on parklands, based on the argument of discouraging flea markets and illegal sales. This lack of longer-term security for farmers' markets reduces the willingness of farmers to participate and ultimately reduces access to local foods for consumers.

Another example of official barriers to farmers' markets is the 2007 provincial regulations that have closed down smaller meat processors, thus denying cost-effective access to slaughtering facilities for small-scale farmers raising animals. This change also makes it difficult for both producers and their customers at farmers' markets to have ensured traceability of the products that are sent off to distant slaughterhouses. This traceability is an important element for consumers wishing to have assured food quality and concerned about issues such as hormone additives, pesticide use and genetically modified ingredients.

The rules governing provincial farmers' markets require that there be a direct interaction between the grower or processor and the consumer, which ensures traceability. This attribute is lacking in the conventional food industry, which depends on food grown or processed an average of 1,300 miles away and handled by up to six people before it reaches the consumer's mouth. For growers and processors, direct interaction with people who are going to eat the food they produced is one of the main reasons for selling at farmers' markets.

My research involving interviews and surveys with both suppliers and managers at farmers' markets confirms that barriers from laws and regulations are retarding growth of this sector of the food industry despite growing consumer demands. These barriers are compounded by other issues such as the loss of farmland through exemptions from the Agricultural Land Reserve, the rising price of farmland and the lack of adequate support for the sector from public officials.

Yet not everything is bleak, and governments in B.C. are slowly coming to see the virtues of the farm-to-fork revolution. This change has been spurred by initiatives such as the 100 Community Food Action Initiatives established by the regional health authorities in 2005 to encourage eating local produce for improved health and food security, the B.C.-originated 100-Mile Diet book and a growing number of food councils that advocate for increased access to locally grown and processed foods. Just this year the B.C. minister of agriculture and lands cited farmers' markets in the province's new agricultural plan, Growing a Healthy Future.

Nevertheless, my study found that important obstacles stand in the way of the success of the local food revolution, beyond the impermanence of sites for farmers' markets and the new meat slaughtering regulations. Officials still perceive small-scale growers, value-added food processors and farmers' markets as a boutique niche of B.C.'s overall food industry, and this attitude permeates a wide range of public policies and practices that create barriers to accessing local foods.

Several policy recommendations follow from my analysis of institutional, survey and interview materials. Changes must be made so that farmers' markets are viewed as an integral part of the provincial food system. For example, the B.C. Association of Farmers' Markets should be included in the B.C. ministry of agriculture's online InfoBasket as a producer/processor association in every commodity category. Farmers' market representatives need to be included in the initiation and consultation processes for any proposed legislative and regulatory changes that could affect them. In addition, municipal practices need to be revised to provide longer-term security of venues for farmers' markets.

It's time not only to dismantle the barricades, but to welcome the farm-to-fork revolutionaries as an important and growing part of the provincial food industry.

Lynn Perrin is a graduate of the master's degree program in public policy at Simon Fraser University.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

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