Should beer and spirits be allowed in farmers’ markets?

Kingston Public Market. Kingstonist file photo.

In July, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce released a report, “Unleashing the Economic Potential of Ontario’s Beverage Alcohol Sector,” providing recommendations to Queen’s Park on how the government can ‘modernize the sale and distribution of beverage alcohol to responsibly promote growth across all four categories – wine, beer, spirits, and cider.’  The suggestions in the report deal with taxes, trade, e-commerce, and also a recommendation to allow the sale of beer and spirits at farmers’ markets in Ontario.

Beginning in 2014, Ontario wineries have been permitted to sell their products at farmers’ markets, and hard ciders were permitted as of 2016. However, craft beer and local distilleries have been omitted. The Ontario Chamber of Commerce’s report encourages the government to level the playing field and allow small-scale beer and spirits producers to feature their products at farmers’ markets.

“We heard from the craft distillers that there is an unequal treatment across the four categories,” said Scott Boutilier, senior policy analyst at the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. 

“We make the point in the report that the spirits industry also relies on inputs from Ontario farmers. There is a positive effect on the consumer experience as well. We think that both spirits and craft beer should be available.”

Ivan MacKinnon, co-owner of the farm-based brewery MacKinnon Brothers Brewing Company in Bath, is in favour of the proposal.

“I think it’s really progressive,” said MacKinnon. “My understanding is that wineries and cideries have to use 100 per cent Ontario-grown fruit. We should take that same line with breweries and distilleries selling at farmers’ markets – using 100 per cent Ontario-grown ingredients.”

Ruthie Cummings, manager of the West Market Kingston farmers’ market, sees great potential for her market should the recommendation be implemented.

“I’m 100 per cent for it. I don’t understand why breweries and distilleries are discriminated against,” said Cummings. “People are looking for this type of thing at markets. You want to be able to offer as much as you can to give the best experience possible.”

Boutilier said that this recommendation, and others in the report, will not only benefit alcoholic beverage vendors, but also Ontario farmers. 

“While these four categories are treated much differently in terms of sales and taxation, they all rely on local agricultural inputs, so if we can recommend policies that promote the growth of these industries, it will have a positive benefit to farmers and farmlands. There is also a broader ripple effect on the economy such as tourism and promoting Ontario as a destination,” he said.

The report also deals with the issue of allowing beer and other alcohol sales in convenience stores, something that Ian Arthur, MPP for Kingston and The Islands, thinks is bad for Ontario.

“I think that there is really good potential [with having beer and spirits in farmers’ markets]” said Arthur. “It’s something that needs to be explored. But it shouldn’t be lumped in with breaking The Beer Store contract. I see this as fundamentally different than spending hundreds of millions of dollars just to get mass-produced beer into corner stores. I think the big three international brewers [referring to InBev, producer of Labatt, Molson Coors Brewing Company, and Sapporo Brewery that owns Sleeman] will get most of those contracts and small, local breweries will be shut out.”

While Boutilier is excited for the changes to be implemented, he cautions that it needs to be done right with the public interest as first priority.

“The case we’re making here is to make sure that we are modernizing alcohol sales and tax regulations across all four categories,” he said. “This needs to be done in tandem with Public Health as well. Our report offers several recommendations as to how the government can partner with local public health officials.”

The full report can be read at the Ontario Chamber of Commerce’s website.

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