Bullish on Farmers’ Markets
Organizers see value in working together for the greater good of the industry.
Illustration by Genevieve Simms
Call it a harvest moon rising. Or a bumper crop of bumper crops. Whatever your epithet of choice, the ascent of farmers’ markets in Alberta in recent years is undeniable. In 2004, just over half of households in the province bought something from a farmers’ market. Not bad. But, by 2012, that number had leapt to 72 per cent. And when you factor in the simultaneous explosion in the province’s population, that’s nearly a million new Albertans picking up dozens of free-range eggs, splurging on deluxe carrot cakes, or stuffing multiple cloth bags full of organic produce, all in less than a decade.
In Edmonton, the boom has been even more tangible. That’s because here, the biggest explosion isn’t the number of people in attendance. It isn’t the dollars being spent, either – though that’s also on the rise, with per-household spending more than doubling in Alberta since 2004. It’s the number of markets themselves. Whereas a small group of heavyweights – Old Strathcona, downtown, and St. Albert – once dominated the scene, markets have now sprung up in just about every corner of the city, from Mill Woods to Castle Downs to Callingwood. In all, there are more than a dozen farmers’ markets currently in operation, in various places and at various times, within city limits, and a half-dozen more in the surrounding areas – and that’s not including the handful of “public markets” that aren’t official members of the Alberta Farmers’ Market Association (AFMA), but are largely identical to the untrained eye. “The demand still seems to be very strong,” says Eileen Kotowich, a farmers’ market specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.
But now that farmers’ markets have captured the public’s attention – and their wallets – organizers and vendors alike are faced with a new challenge: How to transition from a pop-up sensation into a permanent industry.
What’s already happening is a uniting of market organizers. In the past, some organizers regarded their peers as competition for what was thought to be a relatively small customer base. There were also lines drawn between markets that were provincially approved and those that weren’t. When Kirsta Franke opened the 124 Grand Market on 124th Street in 2012, she joined AFMA for that first year. This meant, among other things, following Alberta Agriculture’s rules about getting sponsored by a local non-profit, creating a board of directors, and that 80 per cent of the market’s vendors make, bake or grow their products within the province. In 2013, however, Franke decided she wanted more control over the market’s day-to-day operations, which is why 124 Grand Market is now registered as a public market instead.
There are pros and cons to getting provincially approved. Yet Franke says, when 124 Grand Market switched to become a public market, some of the AFMA-approved organizers looked at it as if it was doing something wrong. “Approved markets would see me and say, ‘You shouldn’t be here. You’re bringing in food from California,'” Franke says. “And we’re not. We’re just as local as the approved markets. But they looked at us almost as the enemy.”
Those territorial instincts may be on their way out. Last summer, Alberta Agriculture established a pilot committee, made up of market organizers from across the city, to discuss mutual concerns and look for ways they can team up for the greater good of the industry. That monthly face time has already helped ease tensions. “It was nice for [organizers] to get together and realize they’re not alone in this,” Kotowich says. “Any issues they’re facing, the others are also facing. Now they have faces and names they can contact. That has been a real positive.”
Perhaps most tellingly, the committee includes organizers from both approved markets and public markets, including Franke. “Because of this initiative, I see a lot of people changing their tune [toward public markets],” she says.
Another factor that has historically worked against farmers’ markets becoming permanent fixtures is their, well, lack of permanent fixtures. Many markets are designed to be temporary, taking over a parking lot or city block for a few hours, then disappearing again until the following week. This works great for saving on rent, but it can be hard to build clientele without a base of operations to remind people you exist during the off-hours.
That’s part of the reason Bob Holm opened up Mother’s Market last summer. Located in the old Mother’s Music building on 109th Street, it’s an indoor, multi-day, year-round farmers’ market that runs every Friday to Sunday. In doing some research, Holm realized Calgary had several such multi-day indoor markets, while the closest thing Edmonton had was the Old Strathcona market, which is only open Saturdays. “It’s something we needed, big time,” he says.
Being located indoors means Holm doesn’t have to move the entire market according to the weather, and being open three days per week gives his market specialties that his peers can’t match. Seniors, for instance, appreciate that Mother’s is open on Fridays, “because they don’t like to shop on the weekends,” Holm says. He also reaches out to corporate chefs to come by on Fridays, before the crush of the general shopping public takes over. “Not everybody can shop the same day.”
The biggest challenge to the farmers’ market industry, at least as it currently stands, is finding quality vendors – specifically, farmers. Holm also maintains a herd of 200 bison near Morinville, and he says he’s had no problem moving his product at market. In fact, demand has been so high that Mother’s Market sells meat from two other bison farmers in addition to that supplied by its owner.
For others, however, it’s a different story. Since 2000, Graham Sparrow has run Sparrow’s Nest Organics out of his farm in Redwater. In that time, he’s put in stints at the City Centre, St. Albert and 124th Street markets, and he earns approximately three-quarters of his income that way. While Sparrow recognizes that the explosion of farmers’ markets around the city is a boon for consumers, suppliers like him are being stretched thin. Many farms don’t have enough bodies to staff multiple booths in a given week, and the dilution of customer dollars across so many venues means that perishable products like his are often the first casualties.
“I can’t tell you how much produce I had to throw on the compost pile this summer,” Sparrow says. “It didn’t move at the market. It didn’t move at [produce-delivery organization] The Organic Box, because they didn’t need it that week.” Even if the unsold stock is put back into coolers right away, it might already be too late to save. And, unlike grocery stores, here it’s the vendors – not the organizers themselves – whose pocketbooks take the hit. “You need to just go to market and sell it,” Sparrow says. “That’s what needs to happen. If you can’t do that, you start to question the marketing strategy.”
Sparrow’s business plan recently did change, however, rather serendipitously: He landed a spot at the ever-packed – not to mention year-round and indoor – Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market last fall. “It’s a dream,” he says of his new digs in Aisle 5.
As Edmonton’s local food scene continues to grow, it’s clear that farmers’ markets will have an increasingly large role to play. But whether that takes the form of more indoor permanent markets like Mother’s, a united lobbying group or something else entirely, remains to be seen.
In the meantime, market organizers remain ambitious. Speaking on behalf of the 124 Grand Market committee, Franke wants the government to update what she believes are outdated and overly restrictive food safety regulations, while Holm sees a future in which farmers’ markets are more competitive. “Everybody shops,” he says. “Seven days a week, grocery stores are open. We could be open seven days a week, eventually.
“I think the future is local food. It’s just going to get bigger and bigger.”
*Mother’s Market, which is featured in this article, has since shut down