The St. John’s Farmers’ Market is heading into its fourth season on an all-time high.
Last year it witnessed record attendance, in November was incorporated as a co-operative and now, just one week before the first market day of 2011, it’s dealing with more vendor applications than it knows what to do with.
After a successful season last year it was clear to organizers, vendors and consumers that the market’s growing popularity was placing constraints on its home at the Lions Club Chalet on Bonaventure Avenue.
But the venue’s proximity to downtown, Georgestown and the university, and its location in a green space and family-friendly park, are too ideal to pass up with any ease.
With the co-operative’s primary goals for 2011 being “to keep growing and keep building on the strong relationships with the community by supporting our vendors and potential vendors,” according to co-operative chairman Dave Jerome, it’s unclear how the contradiction between the market’s growth and its current limitations will play out.
Jerome says the co-op’s board and membership are “aware that we have many more vendors who are interested in coming to the market than we can possibly accommodate in our current location,” and that plans to relocate are being considered.
At the annual general meeting last month, members — including many vendors and consumers — agreed to reconvene in the near future to vote on a mid-season “six-to-eight-week trial period” at another location should a viable space be available, Jerome adds.
The location under consideration is St. Mary’s Anglican Church on Craigmillar Avenue, west of downtown, and the vote is likely to happen sometime in June, according to market manager Terry Smith.
Emphasizing the value of non-members’ input, Jerome adds, “We would really encourage people to let us know what they think … about the location, about one possible move that we’re still actively investigating, which is St. Mary’s Church, or any other locations that they’re aware of in the city, either for short-term or long-term plans.”
In 2008 the market was initiated by the Friends of the St. John’s Farmers’ Market, a group of individuals who saw the opportunity to support local agriculture and provide a feasible alternative for consumers who are interested in knowing where their food comes from and who grows.
Since then it has succeeded on both counts.
Karen Durfey of Ripple Trail Farm in Markland says she was reluctant in 2008 to give up her Saturdays in the field to sell at the market, but the venture has proven both lucrative and rewarding.
“When we sell at the market we get market price, and when we go wholesale we’re probably getting sometimes not even half market price,” she explains. “It depends on the produce, the availability and how much has been trucked into the province cheap. So going direct to the consumer like we have at the market has worked out really well for us. Even though we’re not selling a big volume, it’s just been a different atmosphere because we sell directly to people,” she continues, “and we’re getting the feedback, which is good for us.
“We can probably do as well on a Saturday morning as we might do in probably two trips to a wholesale customer.”
Nadya Bell of Seed to Spoon, a Portugal Cove-based workers’ co-operative that does community supported agriculture, says the market has accounted for a third of its business.
“It’s really important for us because if people don’t want to commit to a full season with us then they can come and find us every week at the market and pick up some of our surplus produce.”
Despite the positive feedback from those who sell at the market and efforts to encourage more farmers to participate, only a small number actually do.
Last year about seven or eight primary producers set up at the market, a number that pales in comparison to the dozens of art, craft and prepared food vendors.
“Word of mouth is being created within the farming community, which we’re hoping is going to encourage some people to take advantage of this offer we have for them to come try it out,” says Jerome, referring to a decision to waive the $20-$25 table fee for farmers in their first week at the market.
“Our hope is that once they come see how many people come to the market, how enthusiastic people are about supporting primary producers within their own province, that would encourage them to make the commitment to come at least on a semi-regular basis.”
Although the market’s growing popularity among non-farmer vendors points to expansion, Bell is concerned it might lose its reputation as a place to find produce.
“People want it to be a farmer’s market, so you can’t really expand it beyond the number of farmers that you have, otherwise it dilutes people’s perception of the market,” she says. “It’s really important to have a farmer-to-craft seller ratio that reflects the fact that it is a food market.”
Even though more farmers at the market would mean stiffer competition for those with established clientele, Durfey believes the effect would be positive.
“The more (farmers) that are there, the better products you’re going to get because people are going to strive to grow better,” she says.
This week, Smith plans to ramp up efforts to reach out to Avalon farmers and extend the invitation to sell their produce at the market.
“Farmers will have priority when we go through the applications,” she says. “They’re the backbone of the market.”
Bell is optimistic the market will attract more farmers, but says it may take some time.
“Farmers tend to think very long-term because you’re dealing with land and with nature and that’s just how it works,” she says. “So I think it’s just going to take a bit longer for some of the older farmers to come around to the idea of coming to the farmers’ market.
“Give (it) another five or 10 years and you’ll see a lot more of the traditional growers showing up.”
With respect to long-term plans, most notably the need for a permanent home, the market has some supporters on city council, including Deputy Mayor Shannie Duff and Coun. Sheilagh O’Leary.
“Last season the place was blocked all the time and they were bursting at the seams,” says O’Leary. “They really need to have a new space. The demand is there and we know it will draw more and more local producers and craftspeople into it and it’ll help them make more money. And people in the community want it, so it’s a win-win situation any way you look at it.
“Of course, the city is not a big cash cow. But the city, in my opinion, in many different facets basically can take a leadership role in helping to facilitate or initiate projects like this.”
The 2011 St. John’s Farmers’ Market season opens June 4 and runs 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday through December at the Lions Club Chalet on Bonaventure Avenue. If the potential trial period at another venue materializes, Jerome says, vendors and consumers will be notified well in advance.