Farmer fears future after Sobeys rejects $24K worth of strawberries
'It's literally a question of survival right now'
An Annapolis Valley farmer says he's taking the financial hit for a shipment of strawberries rejected by grocery store giant Sobeys — and he worries it's putting his family business in jeopardy.
Anthony Morse, current owner of Morse's Farm Limited in Berwick, N.S., said he was told there were quality concerns with his berries, something he vehemently denies.
The strawberries on Morse's farm are picked and sent to Agri-Growers Limited in Port Williams, N.S., which then distributes to Sobeys directly.
Often, shipments from Agri-Growers will include berries from three or four farmers in one load.
But the CEO of Agri-Growers, Jim Daigle, said the rejected shipments only contained berries from two farmers, including Morse.
Daigle said there's no doubt in his mind some of the poor berries came from Morse's farm.
He showed CBC News emails from Sobeys, which contained pictures of berries that were mouldy, over-ripe and had been pecked by wildlife.
'Confused, concerned, stressed'
But Morse says those berries didn't come from his farm and must belong to another farmer.
"We had no mouldy berries. There wouldn't have been mouldy berries in the batch that we sent, or over-ripe, for sure on those 10 pallets that got sent back from the Debert warehouse," he said.
"I'm very confused right now. Confused, concerned, stressed, all of those things. Especially when you look at all this crop we have to harvest."
Morse said the two rejected shipments cost him $24,000 worth of business — and in nearly six generations of farming, his family has never had to deal with this kind of stress.
"I'm just at a loss as to why we're being ... shut out. It's literally a question of survival right now."
Who owns which berries?
Morse is concerned there's a "traceability issue" as to who's at fault when all the berries are blanketed under Agri-Growers.
"When they go to the distribution centre at Sobeys ... there's no differentiation there. I think they look at a batch of them, and they might see some badness in a bit of them perhaps and they may say the whole batch is done," Morse said.
Daigle told CBC that he can tell whose berries are whose based on how they're packaged, and if there's more than two farmers in a shipment, they label them.
But he did say if the berries get rejected, there isn't a way to be 100 per cent certain which berries should be sent back to which farmer.
Worries about his farm's future
Morse said some of the rejected strawberries that were returned to him were not his berries.
"I know they weren't mine by the way that they were packaged. I wrap mine in a certain way and these were wrapped in a completely different way," he said.
Morse said Daigle also told him this would be the end of Morse's dealings with Sobeys.
"I'm not overly optimistic right at this point because I've been given no sign that that door will open up again," Morse said
"It means that we perhaps would no longer be in existence, that's what it means. Plain and simple."
But Daigle told CBC News this didn't mean the door was closed for Morse.
In fact, Daigle said Tuesday that a shipment that included strawberries from Morse was sent to — and accepted by — Sobeys on Friday.
"If he brings the standards up to our specs and Sobeys, yeah, we can definitely ship his product again," Daigle said.
"We have to please the consumer and we have to make sure that the product is right when it goes on the shelf."
Shauna Selig, a spokeswoman for Sobeys, said in an email they have an excellent relationship with Agri-Growers and this was simply a case where the berries "did not meet quality standards."
"Sobeys is committed to supporting local suppliers and purchasing local first as long as our standards are met," Selig said, adding they source strawberries from over 50 growers in the Maritimes.
"[We] purchase more local than any other grocery retailer — these are important relationships that we want to cultivate and build to ensure they are successful."
Selig also said their quality standards for berries haven't changed from past years.
'Not every family farm has to die'
"It seems as though there may be some layers to this, but I can only speculate that there may be something else that is kind of elbowing us out of the way," Morse said, adding that their products have always met standards before this year.
The only exception to that, he said, is the occasional pallet they've had returned near the end of the season, when berries tend to be smaller and over-ripe.
His theory is that perhaps Sobeys has too many berries, after a bigger-than-usual crop season for some farms.
But Selig said this year is "very similar to a typical year for our region." And Daigle said Sobeys has always needed more berries than he can send, not less.
Morse says he feels family farms need more support from retailers.
"We're always talking about buy local, support the local farmers, so I'm not sure where that philosophy falls with what's happening right now. Is it just talk or do they really mean it? If they really mean it then we need to be moving our strawberries," Morse said.
"It always falls back on the farmer.… Not every family farm has to die."