Fresh fruit, veg and paranoia

Personality conflicts at farmers’ markets aren’t that unusual, says one expert, but even he admits Calgary’s are ‘on a different scale’

Fresh fruit, veg and paranoiaIn late July 2008, Antonio Souto, a B.C. fresh produce broker, drove out to Charnapal “Paul” Sandhu’s orchard in Osoyoos, B.C., just north of the U.S. border, “with a view,” as he puts it in an affidavit filed at the Court of Queen’s Bench in Calgary, “to purchasing an order of nectarines.” In terms that can sound almost Biblical, Souto continues: “I saw that the nectarines on the trees at Mr. Sandhu’s orchard were ripe and so purchased from Mr. Sandhu 119 18-lb. cases.” Affirms Sandhu in his own affidavit: “I did personally pick, sort, and pack these nectarines.” Upon buying the fruit, Souto goes on, “I went directly to Calgary. I then sold a number of these subject nectarines to Ms. Sharla Dube.”

Nectarines, a species of fuzzless peach, aren’t the standard stuff of litigation. But such were the tensions at the Calgary Farmers’ Market last fall that Dube, owner of the Cherry Pit fruit stand, filed suit against Calgary Farmers’ Market NGC Inc., the market’s general manager, the six members of the market’s board of directors, and two of her competitors (fruit and veg stalls owned by two of those very directors).

At issue was the market’s allegation that Dube’s nectarines last July were not Canadian but sourced from the U.S. (vendors are permitted to sell American produce but must seek the permission of management first). The “shape, size, consistency, colour, smell, and flavour” of Dube’s nectarines, wrote the market’s then-general manager, Darrell Komick, were not consistent with B.C. nectarines, which at the time were rare, smaller and “the shapes irregular.” Therefore, the market fined Dube $10,000 and briefly suspended her stall. In turn, Dube amassed considerable evidence that the nectarines were indeed B.C.-grown, sought the return of the $10,000, compensation for lost revenue and damages of at least $100,000.

The lawsuit, later settled (Dube has since been elected a board director herself), was just the first in a string of indications that all is not well at the non-profit Calgary Farmers’ Market, one of the most successful year-round markets in North America. Dube alleged that the defendants named in her suit “abused their position of power and acted in bad faith and with extreme malice,” all with the motivation of giving her competitors an “unfair” advantage. She further charged that the market had “harassed and targeted” her “for years for minor infractions” with the hopes that she would “simply leave the market altogether.” (Neither Dube nor market board president Rod Bradshaw would discuss the lawsuit.)

If such intrigue, real or imagined, doesn’t jive with the image of farmers’ markets as cornucopias of goodwill—edens of green, slow-food solidarity—then prepare to have your sensibilities bruised. “Farmers’ markets are notoriously difficult to run,” says one vendor at the market. “I’ve been in this business a long time, at different farmers’ markets, and there’s been trouble at every single one.” (In speaking to Maclean’s, market vendors requested anonymity, citing fears of possible repercussions and even suggesting the market has fined those who talk to media; Bradshaw denies this.)

When a farmers’ market in Duncan, B.C., devolved into two warring factions in 2002, the rhetoric included words like “betrayal” and “traitor.” “I’m not going to comment on legal threats,” the head of one of the duelling markets was compelled to tell a reporter. “The farmers don’t like the crafters,” said a man on the wrong side of the farmer-crafter divide last year after a Virginia market became so successful that it outgrew its lodgings, creating a run for space. In Greensboro, N.C., disagreement over what constitutes a farmers’ market prompted a proprietor of Goat Lady Dairy to fear that “the integrity of the local farmers’ market is being breached.”

While such schisms don’t usually go public, it’s widely acknowledged that markets are hothouses of character-driven drama. “Vendors are a different breed,” says one. “There’s a reason why they’re at farmers’ markets and not in a mall: they just don’t comply with rules very well.” Though he says flare-ups are rare, Mark Bomford, program coordinator at the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm, describes vendors as “innovators” who “aren’t in it for the money—they’re in it for a very strong value set and strong vision. Many wouldn’t want to compromise those strong values.”

The consequent political brew can be overwhelming, says Bradshaw: “Some days I feel everybody should be chained in their boxes when the day opens,” he says. “The politics are on some days ridiculous. I’m glad that I’m not there on a day-to-day basis.” Indeed, the situation at the Calgary Farmers’ Market is extreme. It is in many ways a victim of its own success. Bradshaw estimates it sees 1.2 million customers a year and generates $50 million annually. That’s a major contribution to what’s already a fast-growing food-retail sector: farmers’ markets now generate $1 billion in annual sales in Canada and more than $3 billion in economic impact, according to a recent Farmers’ Markets Canada report.

Despite those numbers, it’s been a rough 12 months for the Calgary market. Komick, the former general manager, was mysteriously let go in May after the board elected not to renew his contract. Last fall, the market, located since 2004 in an aircraft hangar at a defunct military base, failed to convince Canada Lands Co., which owns the property, to keep it as part of a new development planned for the area. Though it must vacate the hangar by November 2010, board directors only told the bulk of vendors where the market will reopen a few weeks ago (a location in an industrial area next to a shooting range). The vendors still don’t know how much money they’ll be required to pony up for the new digs, or even if they’ll all be invited (Bradshaw says everyone will). “It really almost couldn’t have been more secretive,” says one vendor. “As a result of that secrecy, we’re probably not moving to the new market.”

At the same time, a series of exposés published by Calgary’s Fast Forward Weekly quoted unnamed vendors accusing the board of intimidation—strong-arm tactics that in many ways echo the complaints in Dube’s lawsuit. Some charged that the market’s bylaws—dictating the height of display tables, the use of hot plates—are arbitrarily enforced to punish disobedience or push out unwanted vendors. “It sounds really nasty and it is,” one vendor told Maclean’s. (Bradshaw maintains that the bylaws are consistently enforced and that recent surveys of vendors suggest the complaints are coming from a small minority.)

In an apparent bid to staunch the flow of bad press, management confiscated copies of Fast Forward Weekly from the market floor after it published “Fear and loathing at the Calgary Farmers’ Market,” a particularly damning piece. “Why would we want to distribute information that is not in the best light?” Jack Habina, a board director, asked a Fast Forward Weekly reporter. (Habina and others dispute many of the allegations in the Fast Forward Weekly articles.) “We pulled their papers—we felt that they were not being objective,” Bradshaw told Maclean’s. “There’s nothing wrong with criticism if it has justification.” The optics were dismal. “Smile! The Calgary Farmers’ Market board is watching,” ran a subsequent Fast Forward Weekly headline.

But while personality conflicts at markets aren’t “terribly unusual,” says Vance Corum, the Vancouver, Wash.-based author of The New Farmers’ Market: Farm-Fresh Ideas for Producers, Managers & Communities, Calgary is “on a different scale because of the fact that they’re doing tens of millions of dollars of volume. It’s this interesting question: in order to be bigger, do you need to get messy?”

That growth, especially in harsh climates like Calgary’s, typically depends on resellers who, like Dube, purchase produce from brokers. Corum argues that much of the trouble that arises at year-round markets like Calgary’s is caused by the friction between these resellers and the farmer-vendors who actually raise what they sell. “A reseller can generally out-price or lowball a producer,” says Corum. “Where resellers and hucksters and peddlers infiltrate these markets in an attempt to take them over,” says Farmers’ Markets Canada president Robert Chorney, “you want to bet they’re a very negative force.” Chef Wade Sirois, co-owner of Forage and Infuse Catering and one of the Calgary market’s major buyers, estimates resellers there have “30 to 40 per cent of the space—all the prime spots along the front.”

The stakes are enormous. Vendors at the Calgary market can do hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in business (in her lawsuit, Dube claimed $15,000 a week in lost sales due to her suspension). For others—in particular, farmer-vendors—the market is their one precarious hold on making a living. That may account for much of the high dudgeon in Calgary. For the typical farmer-vendor, says Bomford, “you are dealing with very, very tight margins financially.”

Nor is argy-bargy anything new for the Calgary market, which in some ways was born of disagreement. Earlier this decade, a conflict between vendors at the Blackfoot Market and a landlord led some vendors to bulldoze the shacks and other buildings they’d erected to sell their goods, rather than see them fall into the hands of the leaseholder. What happened next led to the Calgary Farmers’ Market’s subsequent boom—and arguably to much of its backbiting.

In the beginning, 27 vendors pooled more than $200,000 to transform a hangar into a successful market. Those 27 ultimately became members of the market, enjoying full voting rights (a number that’s since slipped to 25)—a sort of fruit and veg oligarchy. Another 60 or so vendors have no voting rights, leaving them at the mercy of the few. The consequent frustration may well have led to the escape valve of those Fast Forward reports.

Bradshaw makes no apologies: “He who pays calls the tune,” he says. Sirois wonders if farmers’ markets shouldn’t be held to a different standard. “Only 25 of the vendors in there actually have a say—the others are informed on a need-to-know basis,” he says. “As a shopper, I hear how that negatively affects some of the vendors. What I think as a shopper is, what am I supporting when I’m doing this?”