Fact-checking farmers markets: Calgary vendors, managers want stricter regulations

Calgary farmers markets want the province to crack down on local producer claims so consumers can be certain the items they check off their grocery lists are made in Alberta.
There are dozens of farmers markets across Alberta who have vendors who strictly sell locally-grown produce and others who sell fruits and veggies grown abroad. (Ian Black/CBC)

Calgary farmers markets want the province to crack down on local producer claims so consumers can be certain the items they check off their grocery lists are made in Alberta.

Alberta approves markets — but there's no system in place that ensures farmers market vendors provide proof to back up home-grown stories. 

In 2017, a CBC investigation into Ontario markets found vendors aren't always upfront about what they stock in their stands. 

The dishonest vendors prompted Old Strathcona Farmers' Market in Edmonton to become the first Alberta farmers market to undertake a two-year-long process to verify vendors. 

"If you're a farmer who is raising livestock and you're [selling] some type of meat product, we wanted to make sure you actually had livestock," said Donna Lohstraeter, the market's executive director.

The market was able to hire a third-party reviewer to visit each of its vendor farms and evaluate labels thanks to an $80,000 grant from the province. 

Calls for a province-wide verification process

Market managers and farmers told CBC Calgary they approve of the project and would support a province-wide certification program to keep vendors transparent and boost consumer confidence. 

Beck Farms, part of Innisfail Growers co-operative, sells in-season produce and baked goods at markets all year round. (Supplied by Shelley Bradshaw)

"[A certification program] is a fantastic idea, it not only protects honest vendors that go to the markets but it also helps the customer as well," said Shannon Jekel, the manager of Triwood Farmers' Market. "Anything that helps regulate things better ... is the way to go." 

While Jekel said she tries her best to ensure vendors at the northwest Calgary market are legitimate, she said she's heard of Alberta vendors buying produce in bulk at Costco and posing as local producers. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry said the Alberta Approved Farmers' Market Program provides resources to help market managers bring in quality vendors and run a successful market. 

The province said vendors are responsible to ensure their practices meet legislative requirements while managers can request proof of compliance and refuse vendors the right to sell products that don't comply. 

People want to know where their food is coming from.- Shelley Bradshaw, local farmer

Beck Farms co-owner Shelley Bradshaw said a provincial system could eliminate the common practice of vendors misrepresenting the products they sell.

Bradshaw said she doesn't take issue with vendors who sell wholesale produce or products from farms other than their own — as long as they are being honest with their customers. 

"In the middle of winter, if you want to have cauliflower at your market, it's not going to be grown in Alberta," said Bradshaw, whose farm is part of the Innisfail Growers co-operative. "But if you bring it in from California, put a sign on it … people want to know where their food is coming from." 

There’s no shortage of signage advertising B.C. cherries at the Calgary Farmers' Market when the fruit is in season. (CBC)

Amanda Langbroek, a marketing and events specialist at the Calgary Farmers' Market, said the year-round market requires vendors to state where their products are from.

All year round, Calgarians can buy their groceries, items grown on local farms and abroad, at the market.

Langbroek said customers have raised questions about the market's practices since the CBC investigation, but overall, the feedback is that customers have confidence in the system. 

The 15-year-old market has the approval of both the province and the volunteer-run Alberta Farmers' Market Association. 

"We think it's a good idea to maybe look to [AFMA] to take the next step to say, OK you approve the farmers markets, but now let's take the next step and verify our vendors are OK," she said.

A certified vendor list in the making 

Steve Souto, the association's vice-president, said AFMA wants to figure out how to certify vendors on a larger scale, but the process is time-consuming and costly. 

He said the association is going to build a list of certified vendors that consumers can browse on their website.

Souto said he plans to have a list up a year from now. 

It took Old Strathcona Farmers' Market two years to verify its vendors (Doris Ryan)

And he's hopeful vendors will want to participate, in order to boost their local products and honesty.

Until then, the executive director behind the Old Strathcona Farmers' Market said individual markets can use its process as a model — though that may cause duplication since some farmers participate in a handful of markets. 

As for consumers, without a database of certified vendors or provincial regulatory body to reference, Langbroek said "the best thing you can do is ask questions." 

"The majority of farmers are proud to talk about their farms, their processes, where it's grown, where it comes from and if you sense hesitation or something, that usually tells you that something might not be right," she said. 

With files from Alberta at Noon and Terri Trembath


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