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Sales at farmers markets across Canada are rushing toward $1.5 billion, and their farmers have plans for much, much more

Situated on the south edge of Winnipeg, the farmers market at Le marché St. Norbert was bustling on the chilly Saturday morning in late October when I visited. A fiddler entertained inside the market’s new 11,700 square-foot canvas canopy, and vendors with a range of local products for sale were busy engaging with the crowd.

Extending their season into the winter this way is new for this market, but it’s typical of the way farmers markets across the country are growing more and more ambitious.

Celebrating 30 years, St. Norbert welcomes about 10,000 visitors and 130 vendors on any given Saturday in summer, says executive director Marilyn Firth. This is the first winter the market has been open for business in the new heated structure with about half the number of vendors — a significant improvement after renting a small space for the last few winters across the street in a community centre.

“Over $1 million has been invested,” says Marilyn Firth. “Producers stepped up.”
photo: Ellen Goodman

“The new canopy is part of a 10-year infrastructure project that was divided into three phases: landscaping and drainage, permanent washrooms, and a new structure for year-round use,” Firth says. The canopy is enclosed in winter and opens up for summer when market activity spreads onto the adjacent grounds. “In total over $1 million has been invested in the site over the past decade.”

Firth says that getting the word out that Manitoba’s largest farmers market, a non-profit co-operative, is open for business during the winter has been a challenge. Most markets in the province are seasonal, which included St. Norbert up to several years ago. St. Norbert has been open Saturdays from late fall until Christmas and then bi-weekly Saturdays until May when the market is also open on Wednesdays.

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Firth says the decision to open year-round came about partly in response to hearing that during the off-season, some producers were making special arrangements with individual customers to deliver their goods, which can be inefficient and expensive. Better production techniques and greater demand for local food products has boosted the potential for year-round business.

“For many years, producers in Manitoba focused on seasonal sales, but improvements in farm technology means that the season can be extended year-round,” Firth says. “For example, many of our vegetable vendors were interested in investing in better greenhouses and storage facilities, but without a regular sales outlet, those investments were questionable. So we worked in tandem with the producers. Once we were able to offer a year-round sales outlet, the producers stepped up and made those investments, and the winter market has grown steadily ever since.”

The response to a winter market has been “overwhelmingly positive” from both the customers and vendors, she says. “People who are really committed to supporting local are thrilled to find a regular space that fits their needs all winter long. And for our vendors, it has been a really great way to extend their season.”

St. Norbert has been both a regular sales outlet for producers and an ideal place for new producers to try out their product lines, she says. The winter markets have focused more on food items but with the new and larger space, other vendors are selling a variety of products such as arts, crafts and specialty items.

Diversifying “local”

This is the first year that award-winning craft distillery Capital K has set up a booth at St. Norbert. Assistant general manager Jesse Hildebrand, who offers visitors samples of Tall Grass brand specialty spirits, says setting up at a farmers market to promote a high-quality local product is an ideal way for the two-year-old operation to reach potential customers.

A farmers market can be an ideal way for a new value-add project to get in front of potential customers, says Jesse Hildebrand of Tall Grass Spirits.
photo: Ellen Goodman

“There has been a lot of interest,” he says. “I’ve been here since May and now people even come to the distillery or I see them out at events and they recognize me. It’s good for us and for the farmers market.”

Many Manitoba farmers markets are “make it, bake it, grow it,” but St. Norbert is the only one that inspects their vendors for that assurance, says Firth. Although it involves extra work, the inspections guarantee that customers get the value they expect.

“There are a few other differences at St. Norbert,” she says. “The size of our market means that there is always a broad variety of products and it’s possible to price compare. We are also able to make going to the market an event with live music and workshops and other activities.”

St. Norbert offers activities on market days and occasionally on non-market days, giving visitors a taste of the country, Firth says. “We often provide demonstrations around local food and farming. With so many young families coming out, it’s a great opportunity to share some of that knowledge. Many people have never seen a sheep being sheared, or a jeweller shaping stones, or a cook making kimchi.”

One highlight is the annual Farmers’ Festival: Home Skills for the 21st Century featuring demos and workshops that can include everything from sour dough baking and sewing skills to fish filleting and mixing cocktails.

Like many farmers markets across Canada, St. Norbert has evolved beyond, though still includes, the traditional sale of staple products such as fruits, vegetables and baked goods. It also attracts a broader multi-generational consumer base than a decade or so ago, according to long-time vendors.

Helen Eidse, owner of Strawberry Lane Fruits and Flowers, has been selling products at the St. Norbert summer market since it started in 1988 with only eight vendors. She now focuses on flowers and flower/herb arrangements. One trend she sees is grandparents bringing their families to the market. “They are often gardeners themselves and know how good the market is, so they are teaching their children and grandchildren. I have customers now who are the grandchildren of my early customers.

“I like to feel we’re part of the solution,” says Helen Eidse, owner of Strawberry Lane who says her customer base is increasingly multi-generational.
photo: Ellen Goodman

“The trend I really see now is buying fresh and local,” Eidse says. “People are aware of the carbon footprint, especially young people. They care about the environment, the cost of fuel to ship products, chemicals being used, and things like child labour. If you come to a farmers market you can talk directly to the grower and ask questions.”

Rural and urban

Phil Veldhuis, a long-time honey vendor at St. Norbert and chair of Direct Farm Manitoba, with a membership of about 50 farmers markets and 100 farms, says most growth in farmers markets has been in urban centres, while rural areas have the challenge of a more fixed customer base.

“There are small towns where they have a market, and down the highway there’s also one,” Veldhuis says. “So the number of people that are generally going to come to your market is your local population.”

Phil Veldhuis targets market-goers tastebuds with his local honey.
photo: Ellen Goodman

Veldhuis says there has also been a gradual increase in ethnic diversity and ethnic foods in a market like St. Norbert, but it still has a ways to go to reflect the area demographic.

A study of Ontario’s Greenbelt surrounding Toronto shows that Canadian agriculture, dominated by generations of European-based farmers who have traditionally passed on their farms to family members, has been changing and opening up new opportunities for others. Canada’s shifting ethnic profile has been influencing new ways of food production and markets that offer a wider range of foods.

Iain Brynjolson has been selling at St. Norbert since 2015 as proprietor of Food for Folks. After working for more than a decade in produce, he decided a few years ago to try his hand at dehydrated foods, including products such as fruit jerky.

“There are still a lot of traditional farmers selling at the market but there are also people who are innovating, coming up with unique stuff,” Brynjolson says, adding that often, they hadn’t really planned on becoming vendors. “For me personally, I’m not following anyone else’s lead. I have been relying on my past experience.”

Iain Brynjolson has been selling at St. Norbert for several years, offering dehydrated foods such as fruit jerky.
photo: Ellen Goodman

Brynjolson’s business has been doing well, but as a one-man operation he says he carefully balances his time between production and sales. He is opening up a small retail operation but enjoys selling at farmers markets and intends to continue on his own in winter at St. Norbert as well as at two other smaller indoor markets in Winnipeg. During the summer he says he sells his product at a couple of music festivals but doesn’t produce enough to sell all season.

Veldhuis agrees that with production requirements, vendors can spend only so much time on market sales. “There’s lots of vendors here who participate in three or four markets a week… it becomes a full-time job.”

Veldhuis points out that there has been “tremendous growth” in local markets with about 20 now in Winnipeg and about two or three new ones each year. Growth in local business associations and initiatives involving street level activity has supported an increase in farmers markets. “Sometimes it might be a couple of times a year, or a short seasonal market. Then some of them might find a niche and become self-sustaining.”

An economic impact study of Manitoba farmers markets was last conducted 10 years ago, Veldhuis says. “We haven’t looked at it significantly since that study was done. There certainly has been growth in revenue of the markets. I would think, for individual vendors, revenue is up 30 to 35 per cent.”


More, more, more

Farmers markets boost demand for local while contributing to the ag economy

The increasing popularity of farmers markets is borne out in a number of studies conducted by provincial or local organizations in Canada, although most of the information is older than a few years and there are regional variations. (The now-defunct Farmers Markets Canada conducted a national study nearly 10 years ago.)

A relatively recent study, released in 2016 by the Greenbelt Farmers’ Market Network in the Toronto and Niagara region, contains a number of conclusions including:

  • Markets are growing as a trusted source for fresh local food.
  • Farmers are deriving more of their business income from markets as secure and predictable sales channels.
  • Sales are prompting farmers to grow new varieties and increase acreage for market production.

The study also shows that most farmers who participate in farmers markets believe demand for local food is on the rise, and some are expanding sales channels to include farmgate/farm stands and CSA sales/distribution.

As well, the study states that farmers markets help strengthen the local food economy, given their role in bringing together farmers with buyers including chefs, food service, caterers, local retailers, and small-scale processors.

A recent Ontario study found that farmers markets are helping strengthen the local food economy.
photo: Ellen Goodman

Catherine Clark, executive director of Farmers’ Markets Ontario, which has 180 farmers market members, says the group last conducted a study in 2009. Sales in Ontario are estimated to have increased annually about 10 to 12 per cent to about $800 million with an economic impact of over $2.5 billion.

“Consumers want to buy from the farmer, not re-sellers,” Clark says of the Ontario market. “They want to know where their food comes from. That’s the new trend.”

According to the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets, that province has a high rate of direct marketing due to the prevalence of small farms. Georgia Stanley, membership and communications manager, says support for farmers markets is strong as customers have a desire for different types of shopping experiences that align with their values, and they want to build direct relationships with the farmers.

“There is a continued interest in accessing fresh, healthy, in-season and local food, and farmers markets are an excellent place for that,” Stanley says.

In addition to the benefits, growth in the number of markets has also brought some challenges in that B.C. farmers and other vendors may have to travel more to smaller farmers markets, she says. “Overall, they may get the same sales, but they’ve had to travel further and put in more time. Another challenge, which is often discussed across Canada, is the declining and aging population of farmers. Yet, despite the challenges, we know that farmers markets play a very significant role in marketing and sales for small farmers in B.C.”

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