On Sept. 29, a group of farmers rode tractors on Parliament Hill and brought cows to downtown Ottawa to protest a new trade agreement. Other farmers weren’t worried at all.
“It’s mainly an issue for the big players,” said Josef Regli of Canreg Station Farm and Pasture Dairy. “For the small ones that make a unique product locally, it’s not really competition.”
On the dim north side of the Museum of Nature on Saturday morning, Regli kept his hands in his pockets until customers came up to his table at the Main Farmers’ Market. Once one person came up, others followed and stood shivering in line waiting to buy his wool blankets, lamb and cheese.
His cheese is the big draw—it’s handmade and comes it varieties customers are unlikely to find in the grocery store, like Stinging Nettle and Bee Balm. It’s also less expensive than store-bought artisanal cheese.
“Our cheeses here go for $44 a kilo, whereas in the store, the same cheese has to go between $57 and 65,” he said.
He sells his cheese through supermarkets in Kingston, Brockville, Guelph and Toronto. Closer to his home in Finch, Ont. though, he prefers to sell his cheese at the farmers’ markets because he can cut out the middle man and sell each wheel for much less than the stores.
This is partly why he remains unconcerned about the potential effects of Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between Canada and 11 other countries. The TPP is set to allow imports of approximately 3.25 per cent of current Canadian dairy production.
“I think for us it’s an advantage,” said Regli. “So I’m not afraid at all.”
Some small dairy and poultry farmers who are governed by a supply management system are concerned about being undercut by foreign producers, but for small farmers like Regli, his closeness with his animals and his product allow him to build relationships with his customers.
“I can exactly tell the customer what’s in there—it’s only milk and the herbs, or whatever you use, and nothing else,” he said.
This is one of the concerns he sees with importing American cheese. He said that since the U.S. has different regulations on their dairy products, there may be concern about growth hormones in imported milk and cheese at grocery stores.
“People who are a little bit more conscious are getting a little bit more afraid,” he said, “so they will stick even more to local or transparent processing.”
The TPP still needs to pass through Parliament after the election, but both the Liberal Party and the NDP have said they will support it. For now, all the parties have said they will continue to support supply management, which allows farmers to collectively plan in advance for how much they believe Canadians will need of things like milk and eggs each year and produce accordingly.
“In the farming business, either you grow and you get bigger or you find a niche,” said Regli.
The farmers’ markets and the local food movement have allowed him to make use of his own niche without having to rely on either the grocery stores or the government. Once the Main Farmers’ Market closes on Oct. 31, he’ll continue to sell his cheese at the Ottawa Farmer’s Market at Lansdowne each Sunday.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” he said. “For the middle- and small-sized farms, it’s the only way to survive.”