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Farmers want to sell online

A jar of homemade jelly from Manitoba's Harvest Moon collective can be sold at a farmers market, taken home and enjoyed.

Selling that same jar on Harvest Moon's website is illegal and could prompt authorities to seize the jelly, issue fines or shut down production.

The same goes for farm-fresh eggs and poultry. Manitoba farmers are allowed to sell their products directly to consumers at markets and at the farm gate, but selling them through a website is a grey area.

"It seems like a lot of this stuff is fairly irrational," said Troy Stozek, one of the farmers who belong to Harvest Moon. "We really should be finding ways to look for opportunities and encouragement for startup farmers or long-established farmers that are trying to diversify their incomes and respond to supply and demand."

Manitoba has been criticized recently for making it difficult for producers to meet a growing demand for locally sourced food. Many were outraged when food inspectors seized meat from Harbourside Farms — producers who won an award from Manitoba's Agriculture Ministry for its prosciutto.

A Winnipeg charity that has been selling homemade spring rolls for 20 years to raise money for poor children in Vietnam was recently shut down. The province said it didn't have a licence to prepare the rolls.

Harvest Moon farmers have been taking orders on the collective's website. The products are delivered in a communal van once a month. But while the farmers can legally sell their eggs, poultry and jams from their front door, provincial inspectors have said they cannot sell them through the website or deliver them in the van.

Stozek said they were told that to sell preserves legally they would have to drive 200 kilometres to the nearest inspection lab and get the product analyzed. Same thing for eggs and poultry.

Harvest Moon has written a letter to Agriculture Minister Ron Kostyshyn in hopes of resolving the issue.

"It just seems like it's a no-brainer to try to figure out a way to make it work."

Manitoba says selling products over the Internet falls under the category of retail sales and isn't considered an extension of the farm gate. It says its interpretation of the rules is in line with other provinces.

Kostyshyn said he's open to looking at the regulations. The province doesn't want to make it harder for people to support local farmers, but it has to ensure food that is sold is safe, he said.

"Maybe we need to review some of our regulations today. But should certain things not be processed appropriately, we're the ones who are going to be held accountable as far as food safety goes, so we want make sure we cover all bases."

Alexander Svenne, one of Winnipeg's top chefs, said he is extremely frustrated — and baffled — by how hard it is to get the locally produced food he tries to use in his entire menu. The chef of 7 1/4 Bistro said colleagues in other parts of Canada can't believe the challenges he faces.

It doesn't make sense that it's legal to sell uninspected eggs at the farm door, but not through a website, he said.

"It's absolutely crazy," added Svenne, who met with Kostyshyn last year to discuss barriers facing producers. "I think the regulations probably were written before there was such a thing as websites."

He said he's encouraged that Kostyshyn is open to reviewing the rules, but he's also worried that bureaucracy moves too slowly for producers who are living close to the line.

"In the meantime, you have hundreds of chickens laying hundreds of eggs that producers can't sell," he said. "They're not rich and to remove a chunk of their income and to review the process, so that two years down the road it's changed, is not going to be fast enough."

The Canadian Press

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