Think rising grocery prices are helping farmers? think again

Marc Schurman recalls a conversation he had with his wife recently about the last time he raised the prices of the vegetables he sold at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market.

It was “at least 10 years” ago, said the owner of Schurman Family Farm in Kensington, PEI

He also hasn’t raised the prices of what he sells to his chain customers, including some large retailers across the Atlantic region, even though production costs such as labour, packaging and freight have gone up “significantly.”

Schurman said he could not afford to charge more given the competition his business is facing, with products coming into PEI from other provinces as well as from foreign countries with lower costs of production.

“We just don’t feel that people will pay the extra price.”

Schurman is not alone.

The National Farmers Union says many farmers across Canada haven’t changed their farm gate prices for a long time. Meanwhile, large retailers have been charging customers more for food items.

Schurman says he hasn’t increased the prices of his crops, either to his direct customers at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market or to the retailers he supplies. (Laura Meader/CBC)

The union’s president, Jenn Pfenning, stressed in an interview that the profits of large grocers and food retailers are making are not being shared with the farmers who supply the raw material.

“While our costs have risen, we have worked very hard as an industry — and individual members within it — to keep costs down to maintain productivity, and wages have been depressed for many decades in the industry,” she said.

“We’re at a point where there’s nothing left to give.”

‘Hard to stay positive’

The National Farmers Union recently presented to a House of Commons standing committee about how the gap between farm gate and retail prices has widened in recent decades.

CBC News has reported on how big grocery chains in Canada are raking in record profits while customers are finding food prices skyrocketing as inflation soars.

And in some discussions, the blame has been directed at farmers, Pfenning said.

“If we’re going to talk about blame, don’t assign it to farmers. Because we’re not the ones that are driving this.”

She herself is a farmer, running her organic farm in New Hamburg, Ont.

Jenn Pfenning, who runs Pfenning’s Organic Farm in Ontario with her family, says the federal government should try to reduce the gap between farm gate and retail prices. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

Her business sells mainly to retailers, and she has seen her chain buyers charge customers double the price she gets for her produce.

Meanwhile, small farmers like her carry the risks, such as when the weather damages their crops, and can face significant losses if they try to keep their prices affordable.

“It’s hard to stay positive at times,” she said.

“I know some farmers … all of the various challenges have gotten to them and they just couldn’t do it anymore.”

Jumping through hoops

Pfenning said she didn’t think the federal government could easily legislate private industry. Reducing the gap between what farmers charge retailers and what retailers charge customers would require legislation to change the system “holistically from the ground up,” she said.

Apart from that, Marc Schurman has a suggestion. He said a lot of his business costs are related to the regulations his farm needs to adhere to in order to gain certification.

“I don’t know what they can do for, you know, the big corporate giants, but I know they could do much more for me by not making me jump through all the hoops that I have to jump through.”

Schurman said one way the average person can help farmers is to buy local.

“Anytime that you can give your food dollar directly to the farmer, you certainly know that you’re not splitting it up between all the different pieces of the food chain,” he said.

Consumers can also buy seasonally so that more of their money can go to local producers, he said.

“If you want to buy clementines in December, well, that’s not staying here,” he pointed out.

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