Plastic Bag Farm Story

Thoughts on plastic bag bans from an organic potato farmer.

Clamorous demands for a plastic bag ban at Vancouver farmers’ markets have resulted in… a (pending) plastic bag ban at market. The association that runs the markets at which we have been selling potatoes for over 25 years recently announced that starting with the 2020 season all single-use plastic bags will be banned. I have been privately fuming about it for ages, with no proper articulation. The formal announcement has forced me to publicly admit that I have issues with the new policy.   

First some groundwork. Let me lay this on you. I sell a lot of things in plastic. Potatoes mainly, but also carrots, beets, parsnips, and even on the odd occasion broccoli, beans and basil. Retailing with plastic is effective and efficient. It’s not completely brainless and some merchandizing skills are required. The tops should be tucked under the bags, for example, or the display can end up looking like a farmers’ market stand that sells plastic bags, as opposed to potatoes. The bags should be of good value with the price stickers visible. You should know when to use a twist tie for closure and when to use a knot, and what type of knot. The bag should contain no unsightly culls. There ought to be a bulk option right beside the ordered heap of pre-packaged product. Half the customers will choose one, half will choose the other.

Things in plastic bags sell. Every retailer knows this. That’s why you see in the grocery store that everything is packaged, particularly in the produce department. If you want to sell more, put it in plastic. I think too, consumers have been convinced that things in plastic are more hygienic so that adds to the appeal and bolsters demand for plastic bagging. It’s entirely about boosting sales, however.   

So to continue with the summary of my current situation, plastic bags are a major part of our retailing plan at farmers’ market. I rely on them. If I want something to sell, I put it in a plastic bag. Boom. It sells. My farm depends on farmer’s market sales for almost 80% of our revenues and at least half those sales come from things in plastic: We make it convenient, attractive and of good value. We are managing to come up with lots of packaging alternatives, but none check all the boxes. The pending plastic bag ban is causing me to feel (and this is just for starters) highly irritated, somewhat stressed, and quite mis-understood.  

A mild yet persistent panic over-rides everything: how am I going to maintain sales at market if I can’t use plastic bags? I have known this was coming for a few years but now it is officially imminent, and I still don’t have a good replacement.  

My other feelings include indignation and not a little derision: how dare anyone who has never tried to sell potatoes in the rain demand a plastic bag ban. You can’t just put them in paper. A paper bag containing heavy potatoes is going to be very disappointing at some future possibly inconvenient and ruinous point, even in only slightly moist weather. The more fickle customer is going to pass on potatoes in soggy paper. There are a lot of that type of customer.  

This line of thought leads to a further point of indignation: why is it okay to impede my ability to compete in the retail environment? People need to understand that we feel ourselves slightly in competition with grocery stores who have a lot of very cheap potatoes, which they sell in plastic bags, because that’s how potatoes sell best. I have customers on the bubble to whom convenience and price almost outweigh taste and quality, and we will lose them. Resentment bubbles in my bosom…   

…followed by more derision: what exactly do you mean when you glibly say “single-use plastic bag ban”, which appears to be the go-to wording of this pending policy? It sounds a little jingo-y, to my ears, and it’s semantically weak.  

How about those produce roll-bags. They don’t have holes. They get used again. And again. Especially to carry potatoes and carrots in damp weather, and to store them at home. You know, it has been a long, long time since there was no plastic in the household. Before plastic bags, homes featured things like root-storage rooms, and somebody doing daily cooking and shopping. Freshly dug, delicate, oh-so-tasty nugget potatoes store well in a plastic bag in the bottom crisper drawer OR in a log-walled, dirt floor roothouse. Do people really know how to live without plastic? It’s kind of a big deal. Anyways, I am pretty sure those roll-bags are included in this ban.

As another aside, because it is irresistible and the resentment has briefly bubbled over, are the same people also calling for a ban on plastic dog-poop bags? Oh? What’s that? You have a dog? And you think those dog poop bags aren’t rife with environmental issues and that your dog poop is pure? Bah. Pick it up with paper, why don’t you.

I guess I think demands for plastic bag bans are thoughtless and not a little frenzied. Seems crazy to expect a little farmer like me to have to re-invent packaging, and that having done so, it will matter. I guess I don’t want to have to go through this with my 600 customers a week when the other 4 million people in the Lower Mainland are being offered, and are voluptuously consuming, singularly useless plastics galore at the grocery store.

I don’t think anyone should feel like an environmental champion because they have been successful in their calls for a plastic bag ban at farmers’ market. This is, and you will forgive the expression, very small potatoes, and the price is being paid by a small, local organic family farm. Hardly heroic.   

Having said all that (and perhaps I have said too much), I am going to stop using the plastic bags with holes. I accept this. We have been thinking creatively for some time now, even before we heard the baying calls for a ban. It will cost us money, both in terms of lost sales and replacement packaging, but obviously I don’t think plastic bags with holes in them are useful beyond the single use for which they are so well designed. They are the junk food of packaging. We can do better. And I can even recognize that I might be wrong about the consequences.  

It would be super nice in return if people could check their calls for this ban. Farmers’ markets themselves are already on the cutting (and bleeding) edge of the quest for low environmental impact business operations. Environmental glory for all can certainly be found there. I am in awe of and deeply appreciative of the efforts that people will make to avail themselves of well-grown food at farmers’ markets. Speaking of plastic alone, a farmers’ market customer must barely use any compared to a grocery store shopper. Should we not be boasting about that? And enticing more of them over, rather than scaring them off?

It is a simple exercise to find something environmentally devastating in someone else’s lifestyle. I try to resist (dog-poop bag rant an exception to the rule), because…well…sometimes it is none of my business.

Anna Helmer farms with family and friends in the Pemberton Valley and dearly loves to pile it high and watch it fly.