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Fruits of their labour: Ontario deals with growing tensions between farmers’ market vendors

farmers' Markets

Fruits of their labour: Ontario deals with growing tensions between farmers' market vendors

Reselling at farmers' markets has been controversial for decades, with price undercutting and deception at the heart of the issue. Richa Syal writes about the bad blood between farmers and resellers, and what markets are doing about it.

It's 4:30 a.m. in Beamsville, Ont., and the Short family is hard at work. Farmers Tammy and Larry Short and their five children load the car with crates of their labour – fruits, vegetables, as well as some homemade pies.

Then they pile in and pull out, turning onto the empty single-lane road that leads out of the green fields of their 225-acre farm, a sliver of orange sun hovering on the horizon.

The Shorts will drive for more than an hour to get to the Orangeville farmers market, the first of seven markets they'll sell at this particular Saturday. Their neat stall has produce resting on top of solid-coloured sheets under a large banner with the farm name, Sun-Ray Orchards Inc.

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"[Larry] and I and the kids started with one market; our youngest was 3 at the time," said Tammy, who also works as a full-time high-school teacher. "We now, seven years later, are doing 19 a week to try to keep our house and our farm."

The Shorts are the vendors one pictures when someone says "farmers market": a local family selling homegrown produce. But many Ontario farmers markets have vendors who are quite the opposite – resellers who purchase, rather than grow, the produce they sell.

The issue isn't new, but it continues to be contentious. Farmers describe the battle against resellers as "vicious," "intense" and an unwelcome challenge to their already fragile livelihoods. They also say it's dishonest to shoppers, who might assume every vendor at a farmers market is, well, a farmer.

Now, at the peak of this year's farmers-market season, the conflict is boiling over around the province, leading to everything from lawyers' letters to banned vendors to accusations of assault.

The presence of resellers has been controversial in Ontario for "25 years or more," said Catherine Clark, executive director of Farmers' Markets Ontario (FMO). She identifies three different types of resellers. The first and second are both farmers who purchase some produce, either from their neighbours or at a food terminal.

What troubles her is the third category of resellers: vendors who don't actually farm themselves at all. "And some of these types of resellers come to the market, they pose as farmers and they are blatant to say it's theirs," Clark said. "Those are the ones that we really worry about."

One of the 19 markets frequented by the Short family is the Thursday afternoon Underpass Farmers' Market in Toronto. There, shopper Jane Helie was shocked to learn about the existence of fake farmers.

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"I definitely have a problem with that," Helie said. "Farmers are few and far between. We have less areas that are being farmed and they're losing out, so I think that the farmer should be the direct beneficiaries."

For farmers, the main issue is that resellers don't have to carry the high costs of running a farm, such as paying for labour and maintaining crops. This means they can often afford to undercut farmers and still go home with higher profits.

Local shoppers at the Milton Farmers’ Market on July 15, 2017.

"It bothers me a little when they come and do the walk by our tent after we have our price stickers out and then go 50 cents less or a dollar less on the same stuff that we're selling," Tammy Short said.

Markets are an important source of independent farmers' often tiny incomes. According to a report from the Greenbelt Foundation, a non-profit that supports Ontario farmers, farmers made an average of 48 per cent of their incomes at markets in 2009. In 2014, that number had increased to 60 per cent.

That doesn't necessarily mean markets make farmers a lot of money. Adrian Stocking operates Willo' Wind Farm in Zephyr, Ont., which makes up to 60 per cent of its revenue from markets, an average of $1,000 to $1,500 each market day. Willo' Wind completes around 25 markets a year.

"It can be hard to make a living with around $30,000 a year," Stocking said, who agreed that tension between farmers and resellers is high. "People's livelihood and jobs are on the line and that can cause a lot of conflict."

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At least one reseller resents the idea that he's deceptive or out to make a quick buck. At the Milton Farmers' Market, Phil Waggett's stand attracts devoted customers who have purchased produce from him for more than 30 years.

"My own feeling is people go to a farmers market for a couple of reasons, but the primary one is that they want fresh, excellent-quality produce," Waggett said, adding he makes it clear to customers that he is not a farmer and that he labels his produce, including what he buys at the Ontario Food Terminal.

"One of the things that farmers don't like about resellers is that we compete."

Waggett describes himself as an open and honest man, one who has been around farming all his life. He said he learned the trade of reselling growing up in eastern Hamilton in the 1960s, when he worked on farms as a summer job. "Resellers, just like farmers or anybody else, are not a homogeneous group," he said.

Bad blood between farmers and resellers has come to a head this summer at the Peterborough and District Farmers' Market, one of Ontario's largest, with more than 100 vendors. In April, security guards were hired for the market's annual general meeting after a series of heated arguments on the topic between members and the board.

The reselling controversy here dates back 20 years and, in an effort to quell tensions, the market introduced a requirement in 2004 that new vendors must grow 100 per cent of what they sell. Resellers from before that date were grandfathered in.

This year's vendor regulations state that "we are a farmers' market" and reiterate that new resellers are not allowed. Existing resellers "are asked to respect local growers and not flood the market with in-season produce."

But lawyer John Dunn insists the market continues to hosts new resellers while legitimate local farmers are excluded. "Tight rules on real farmers, no rules on phony farmers," said Dunn, who has been representing farmers who believe they have been mistreated by the market.

That includes Small Spade Gardening, which did a brisk business in organic produce at last winter's Peterborough market but was rejected from this summer's market because its products were "overrepresented" or already sold by other vendors. Farm owner Lauren Nurse and Dunn both believe Small Spade is being "squeezed out," in Nurse's words, for resellers.

There are currently no formal regulations in Ontario for addressing resellers who may be posing as farmers, meaning market managers are at their own discretion as to whether or not to include resellers among their vendors. Dunn is frustrated at what he sees as a lack of leadership from Peterborough City Council, as the market takes place on municipally owned property at Morrow Park.

This past spring, he began taking photographs of "alleged new reseller stalls, as ammunition for a presentation to city council or somebody else in the public." In May, a woman from one stall confronted him and, Dunn said, he moved to hold her wrist in defence.

Each party accused the other of assault, but no charges were laid. Local police asked Dunn to leave. Three days later, the lawyer received a letter from market president Cindy Hope indicating he was banned from the Saturday market for life.

Mark Jones, director of sales and marketing at the Peterborough market, agreed the subject is touchy, but asserted that resellers do not pose a problem. "It's important for people to understand that not one single sole farmers market can only operate on 100-per-cent-grown farmers. And the reason is very simple – volume," Jones said.

"We have to focus on everyone," he said. "We have to focus on people that may resell it or people that may grow it locally. We have to balance it."

In an effort to regulate the problem, Farmers' Markets Ontario launched its MyPick verified-local-farmer program in 2008. All MyPick vendors are local farmers who apply for the program and pay a membership fee of $100. They renew annually for $50 and are subject to inspections.

Once verified, the farmer receives a MyPick logo that assures shoppers they are buying directly from the farmer and purchasing produce that is grown on their farm. In theory, the program is designed to block potential fake farmers from the markets, as all vendors are verified and inspected by the FMO. Produce listings and availability are also monitored.

So far, the program has attracted more than 200 farmers that sell at 180 farmers markets in Ontario. "It has to be strict or else the whole system is kind of pointless," said Yuri Fraser, district manager of three Toronto MyPick markets, all of which specifically exclude resellers.

Fraser, who helps recruit new farmers to the program, says many are reluctant to join. "The main thing they say is it's a lot of extra processing to go through. It ends up being a deterrent to farmers because it's more time, it's a little more money," he said.

But to farmers such as the Short family and Stocking of Willo' Wind, both of whom have been with MyPick for more than four years, there's value in being verified. "[Customers] know what's on our table is produced at the farm," Stocking said. "That's important because as much as I'd like for people to trust me, there's a lot of people who would maybe say it's coming from their farm when it really isn't."

Markets that don't belong to the MyPick program have also tried various strategies. The Creemore and Mulmur markets, for example, allow limited reselling of produce not available either locally or from any farmer-vendors. Vendors must justify why they should be allowed to resell specific items and are rarely allowed to sell produce from the Toronto Food Terminal.

Shoppers walking among vendor stalls at the Milton Farmers’ Market on July 15, 2017

At Ottawa's ByWard Market, colour-coded categories identify who is behind its stalls. Green banners are for farmers who sell 100 per cent of what they grow. A second cream-coloured banner, designating farmer-vendor, indicates that at least 60 per cent of produce was grown by the farmer.

Lastly, a purple sign is for vendors, the term used to identify those only reselling products. When the system was implemented in 2009, all vendors who had been at the market prior to the new system were invited to return, but no new resellers have been accepted since.

Deliberate undercutting used to be a big problem at ByWard Market, former market manager Philip Powell said. "The resellers would buy at huge quantities of whatever product was coming in and really reduce the price, very close to what they bought for," he said.

Competition between vendors became so dramatic that some found roofing nails on their driveways, an attempt to hinder them from going to market. "That shows how out of hand it can get," said Powell, also a former chair of FMO.

The changes at ByWard have been effective, he said: The playing field seemingly levelled, farmers' anxiety settled and resellers began to offer specialty products to differentiate themselves from the farmers.

It's the type of solution Dunn hopes to bring to Peterborough. Total exclusion of resellers in the market might not be a practical goal, but he thinks clear identification is a reasonable request and one that prioritizes the customer.

"Then at least the public could choose," he said. "And if they want to buy stuff they could buy at Sobeys from some guy who's dressed up as a farmer then, well, that's free enterprise, that's okay. But at least they wouldn't be deceived."

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