“Silly,” “completely stupid,” and “offensive” are some of the words a popular farmers’ market vendor uses to describe the Nova Scotia Loyal program.
Farmer Ted Hutten and his produce have been a fixture at the Halifax Brewery Farmers’ Market for decades. For the last three weekends, the market has participated in the “prototyping” or research phase of Nova Scotia Loyal, which is supposed to reward shoppers for buying local products.
“I think promoting local, buying from Nova Scotians, is a great idea. There are a lot of reasons why a customer like you should be buying from a Nova Scotian like me,” Hutten said in an interview. “And I think the chance to win a gift card is about at the bottom of the list of reasons I could probably think of. There are environmental reasons, social justice reasons, quality of product reasons, and people in urban areas supporting rural infrastructure. There are reasons related to ethics, social justice, and transportation.”
“It absolutely blows my mind that those reasons are not mentioned in the promotion of a ‘buy local’ campaign.”
The Houston government has said it wants 20% of food purchases in Nova Scotia to have been produced locally by 2030. To that end, it’s launched a “Nova Scotia Loyal” website and social media campaign, and hired consulting firm Davis Pier to do research on what would motivate Nova Scotians to buy local, including different rewards. (Davis Pier did not respond to an interview request.)
Employees from Davis Piers will be visiting stores and farmers’ markets to do consumer research. The prototyping project started at Masstown Market, and has also signed up three farmers’ markets to participate. So far, Davis Pier employees spent three market days at the Lunenburg and Brewery markets, and will soon be heading to New Glasgow.
At the Halifax and Lunenburg markets, shoppers were handed a paper with “Your NS Loyal shopping list” printed at the top, and were asked to write down what they bought and the name of the vendor. Vendors, in turn, would validate the list by affixing an “NSL” sticker. Participants would either get back vouchers to spend at the market, be given a gift, or be entered into a prize draw.
Gary Andrea, a spokesperson with the Department of Economic Development, which is responsible for Nova Scotia Loyal, said in an email that “vendors have been positive about the opportunity to promote local consumption.” But vendors at both markets who spoke to the Examiner expressed confusion and irritation about the program.
Brianna Hagell, the owner of Vessel Meats, which operates at markets including the Brewery, said some customers did hand over the cards to be filled out when they made a purchase, while others “kind of circled back and asked us to fill it out.” Asked about the program itself, Hagell said, ” “They didn’t tell us anything.”
Customers seemed confused, too. Market regular Jennifer Parker said she was “not sure what happens if you filled your passport with stickers. Maybe some sort of draw, or prize… I didn’t see any vendors look particularly interested in the program. Mostly I saw customers ask for stickers, and vendors trying to locate them under their produce to be able to stamp/sticker the passport.”
Musician Kev Corbett, who loves farmers’ markets so much he wrote a song about them, said he and his partner took advantage of the market bucks, but only after ensuring the money wasn’t coming out of vendors’ pockets. He said testing a buy local program at farmers’ markets is “preaching to the converted.”
“What we are looking for is a diversified and robust regional economy — and more to the point, to not further line the pockets of the Weston family or Walmart or whatever,” Corbett said.
By definition, people shopping at a farmers’ market are already interested in buying local goods and foods.
“People at farm markets are already there. You’re preaching to the choir,” Hagell said. “You’re better off going out to a parking lot at Walmart or something… There is a certain percentage of people who value, seek out, and can afford local food, and those people are already doing it.”
Hutten said he only recalled one of his regular customers participating in the program. Instead of asking for a sticker, most wanted to know if the program was “a pain in the butt.” Short answer: yes.
“For anyone whose got a lineup, it’s a total pain in the ass,” he said.
Melissa Berry, co-owner of LaHave River Berry Farm, sells at the Hubbards and Lunenburg markets. She said dealing with the Nova Scotia Loyal forms slows things down.
“Having to fill out the card and put on the sticker. I admire what they are trying to do, but it’s not ideal for a vendor that has no help with them to have to stop everything and fill out the cards,” Berry said.
Several shoppers reported that one vendor at the Brewery just left a pile of stickers on an adjacent table, letting customers help themselves.
Alison Lynes, who is the market program coordinator at Brewery Market, said the main feedback she got from vendors was “it’s just annoying” and the program involved “a lot of administration.”
“They had to do a survey every week, and now they are keeping track of vouchers…. if you go and buy $10 worth of carrots, they write that down and then put on a sticker,” Lynes said.
She wonders if the program will eventually move to a card or an app, but she said, “I don’t know how that would work.”
And what about those rewards?
Davis Pier piloted three different rewards at the Brewery: a chance to win a Visa gift card, a voucher for a cup of coffee, and 10% cash back in the form of “market bucks” that could be spent on site. At Lunenburg, the cash back and Visa rewards were offered, along with local gifts. One person close to the program said Nova Scotia Loyal apparel had been considered at one point.
Lynes was puzzled by some of the incentives. Originally, she said the coffee voucher was supposed to be for Tim Hortons. Hardly a local company. And as Lynes pointed out, there’s a coffee vendor at the market.
“I have a problem with the incentives being anything other than local products,” Lynes said. “A Visa card can be used online to buy something from far away. Seems wild.”
While Lynes said she had no complaints about the consultants themselves — she called them “very understanding” and “lovely” — she said she didn’t understand why the government didn’t consult directly on the Nova Scotia Loyal program with the “people who have been encouraging people to buy local for 250 years in Halifax.”
“We have been doing this forever, and nobody ever asked us about how to introduce it,” she said. “Most of us would argue that if you want to get consumers buying local, you can support the producers and retailers and they will do the work for you.”
Hagell says “there is only one incentive that’s going to motivate people, and it’s paying less money.”
Jillian Banfield, a social psychologist by training (she doesn’t work in the field) and market regular, took a similar view. “Getting people to change their behaviour is enormously difficult,” she said, adding the best way to ensure people spend money on local products is “making sure they have enough money in their pocket.”
During last year’s election campaign, Houston was quoted in Huddle Today as saying, “If you’re in the store and you’re looking at Smucker’s Jam or (a local Nova Scotia product) …it’s just a little incentive to pick that up and buy that one… Politicians talk about ‘buy local’, but there’s very little in the way of government policy that’s been implemented that actually encourages people to buy local.”
“Has he ever talked to anyone buying jam? That’s not how it’s going to work,” Banfield said. “He is assuming you are buying the jam that’s cheapest, but if you had these loyalty points you would buy the jam that’s more expensive… If you are scraping by and trying to pay the rent, I don’t think loyalty points are going to get you to buy the more expensive jam.”
Houston has implied the buy local program would come in the form of a points card, but at this point there’s no word on what the final program will look like. But even though Nova Scotia Loyal is still in the research phase, the province has launched a website for it, and is promoting it on social media including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. There are also ads in bus shelters and vehicles decked out in decals.
Many of the people the Examiner spoke to are glad the province is trying to do more to support local products and businesses, but said they were baffled by the campaign and its branding, which includes promoted tweets with phrases like, “Give Nova Scotia Loyal a bond!” and “Give Nova Scotia Loyal an attitude!” Several Facebook and Instagram posts ask, “What makes you #NovaScotiaLoyal?” with pictures of hiking trails, beaches, and harbours. Only two of the 18 Instagram posts (as of this writing) actually show products. (Both feature produce.) As of August 25, the Twitter account has 152 followers.
Very few posts have any engagement at all, and many on Twitter are using the hashtag ironically.
Don’t worry about the collapsing healthcare system. Just save up enough #NovaScotiaLoyal points to access the new private clinic.
Only 30 minutes after opening the registration for a walk-in clinic this A.M., the medical receptionist had to cut the line down the middle and turn 25+ people away because they’re already at max capacity for the day #NovaScotiaLoyal
And then there’s the word “loyal” itself.
Colin Duggan owns Tidal Salt, a small business that produces local sea salt. He said he doesn’t understand why the campaign rests on the concept of loyalty, and said it has overtones of “Nova Scotia Strong.” (Duggan is a longtime Liberal, but he doesn’t have a position within the party, and said he was trying to speak as a small business owner, and not through a partisan lens).
“Loyalty implies the state. If I’m buying local apples, I’m not doing that to support the state; I’m doing it to support local apple growers,” he said. “The branding should be easy: Nova Scotia Local, Buy Nova Scotia Local, I Love Nova Scotia Local… The brand should evoke what you’re talking about. This evokes some sort of militia.”
The campaign’s website doesn’t help dispel that impression, with phrases like “Loyalty comes from our heritage” and asking Nova Scotians to turn “pride” into “loyalty.”
On Facebook, Nichole Catrone wrote, “Guys, this is a good idea but the name really sounds white supremacy-ish.”
Duggan said he’s had customers asking if his company is participating in the campaign, and calling it “creepy.” He added, “People buying my salt aren’t being loyal to Nova Scotia. They’re supporting their community!”
Despite being on the board of Taste of Nova Scotia, a local food and “culinary experiences” marketing program partly funded by the government, Duggan said he had heard nothing about Nova Scotia Loyal before it launched, and he got no response to his one attempt to contact the program.
Bob Cervelli is executive director of the Centre for Local Prosperity, a non-profit that describes itself as encouraging “communities to begin a shift toward an economy that is properly scaled for the place,” and has been involved in several local currency initiatives. Despite having organized conferences on supporting local economies, he said he didn’t know a whole lot yet about Nova Scotia Loyal.
The centre contacted Houston’s office when the ministerial mandate letters were released last year, and Cervelli said there was talk of “some kind of digital card.” Asked if he’d received a response, Cervelli said, “We’ve had some discussions, but I’d say fairly limited.”
Cervelli said regardless of the branding, if the Nova Scotia Loyal campaign is going to succeed, it needs to do more than provide incentives. It needs to involve education in the importance of buying local, and help create a cultural shift. (He said PEI and Cape Breton are both examples of places where pride in local products runs deep.)
“It really has to become part of the local community culture. Kind of a loyalty to local,” Cervelli said. “It’s tricky. How do you define local?”
“One of the benefits that could be derived from [Nova Scotia Loyal] if they do it really well is basic food education. Where does our food come from? What’s the difference between local food… compared to non-local food trucked in from who knows where?” Cervelli said.
Lynes, the market program coordinator at Brewery Market, said she didn’t understand why there wasn’t an education component to the program. She used to live in Sault Ste. Marie, where she managed a farmers’ market and ran a student nutrition program. She said the work involved understanding barriers to buying local and helping connect producers and customers.
“I don’t see these conversations happening (in Nova Scotia),” Lyne said. “What’s standing in the way of you buying local? Or for producers, what’s preventing you from growing more?” She said those are more interesting questions than the “low-hanging fruit” of giving shoppers 10% back on their purchases.
While people who want to promote buying local have concerns about Nova Scotia Loyal, they are also happy to see the government trying to do something.
“I definitely don’t want to crap on people for trying, because Nova Scotia is really good at that,” Hagell said. “Every time you try do something, people are like, ‘no, you can’t do that.’” She added, “I feel that anything the government is trying is better than what the previous government tried the last eight years…. I’m not a Conservative voter, but the Liberal government did nothing.”
The province does have some programs that promote local products already. For instance, the Buy Local NS website offers a directory “designed to raise the awareness, value, and sales of Nova Scotia’s fresh and exceptional quality agri-food, seafood, and beverage products through retail, food service, marketing initiatives, and partnerships.”
Buy Local NS launched an ill-fated marketing campaign called “Get Your Hands on Local” in February 2020, with images focusing on people’s hands — just a month before the COVID-19 pandemic would make us see our hands as potential vectors of infection and death.
None of the Buy Local NS social media accounts have posted anything since last summer.
Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia also runs a program called Nourishing Communities, which partners with community organizations to provide people experiencing food insecurity with coupons they can spend at any of 27 markets across the province. In July 2021, the provincial government announced $350,000 in funding for the program.
Lynes said more money for that program would both support local producers and help people who need access to local food. “Why not just increase the amount of money flowing through the Nourishing Communities program?” she said.
Duggan also mentioned Nourishing Communities, and said it makes little sense to just focus on individual consumers, without directly supporting businesses or the infrastructure they need.
Marlin, who manages the Lunenburg market, agreed.
“I love the idea of increasing local demand for local products, as well as encouraging tourists to buy them. But we also need to increase the supply end,” she said. “It’s great to try and send business their way but… I have farmers who need better access to storage and abbatoirs, if you want to increase the supply of local meat.”
Lynes goes farther. She said her main motivation in having the Brewery participate was to be able to try and influence the direction of Nova Scotia Loyal: “Really, the premise of participating is for me to offer feedback on this good-hearted but malformed idea. We do want people to buy local and I’m glad people are thinking about it, “she said. “But the way that this program is structured doesn’t make any sense.”