Saturday, 8 February 2014

Farmers Markets are Incubators

I'm working on writing a larger article that I hope will get picked up by a media outlet with an impressive audience, but in the mean time I thought I'd share some of the information I'm finding with you here because it is really fascinating.

Working behind the scenes at the Southwest Edmonton Farmers' Market, I'm starting to really understand how our local food system works. From farmer/grower to farmers' market, to restaurants and food trucks, to local stores and big grocery chains... and somewhere along the way onto your plate... it is a fascinating and complex system.

Farmers markets are incubators for small businesses. They act as a testing ground for products and for ideas. They are safe places to begin a business. Some vendors are content to stay at the market level, while others see it as a leaping ground… a place from which they can establish a valuable clientele and launch themselves into the big leagues, once they are picked up by larger businesses or open a store front themselves.

Many vendors, whether they be selling produce, meat, prepared food or craft items start at farmers’ markets and never leave. They are content to maintain connections with their customers, keep their operations smaller and more manageable, and avoid paying the middleman, so they see more of their profit. Many start there, love it, and never leave it.

Janelle of Riverbend Gardens

Attending multiple farmers’ markets, as Janelle Herbert of Riverbend Gardens does, creates a hard, demanding life. When asked what the biggest hurdles were when attending multiple farmers’ markets, Janelle said, “Capacity! Having your head in more than one place at a time.” And then there are the organizational challenges of staffing many markets, some of which occur all over the map on the same day. There are long days to put in with a lot of travel, a lot of set up and take down manual labour, a lot of work spent preparing goods for market, and a lot of time spent standing in very inclement weather…. not to mention, in the case of Riverbend Gardens, all of the planting, harvesting and nurturing their crops, maintaining the land, managing a staff of labourers, and dealing with a city’s land expansionist visions, processes and plans… to endure. 

Vendors who sell at multiple farmers markets have to be strong, hearty people! As Eileen Kotowich, Farmers’ Market Specialist at Alberta Agriculture says, “You have to love the market channel to stay in it for years and years.” And yet many chose this life, never desiring to move into large-scale production. Never wanting to lose touch with their loyal customers. Never wanting to lose control over their product’s quality or the integrity of their creative vision.

Ron & Teena of TR Greenhouses
There are also some who dabble in both ends of the food system spectrum: they still attend large farmers’ markets, but they also step up their production to meet the demands of big business agriculture. Eileen gave me the example of Doef’s Greenhouses (at the City Market & Old Strathcona). They, along with TR Greenhouses from our market (& Old Strathcona), are part of Pic ‘N Pac, a trio of greenhouse growers that supply hot house vegetables to local grocery store chains like Save On Foods. In 2008, before their large expansion, a whopping 85% of Doef’s business that came from their 11 acres of greenhouses went to the big retail food chain markets. They sold a mere 15% of their produce at farmers’ markets that year. But an astounding 25-30% of their profit came from those farmers’ markets… not from the large store, retail contracts. Selling directly to consumers, a grower retain far more of the profit.

This is one of the reasons why it is so important to support your local farmers’ market. The money that you spend there is money that stays in the local economy and doesn’t go to huge retailers whose head offices may be in other cities, provinces or even countries.

Eggplants at TR Greenhouse's Stall at the
Southwest Edmonton Farmers' Market
Another interesting part of Doef’s story is their eco-friendly pest control involving growing eggplants. According to Deborah O'Connell of the Grower Talks article, "Using Plants to Fight Pests," eggplants are grown as an eco-friendly way to manage whitefly populations in contained environments like greenhouses. Eggplants act as trap plants, luring whiteflies away from the tomatoes, peppers, beans and cucumbers that the vegetable greenhouse growers in Alberta grow. Doef’s doesn’t raise enough eggplant to sell them commercially, so they need a smaller market to sell what Eileen calls “their odds & sods.” Farmers’ Markets create this opportunity for them. And what that means for us as consumers, is that we get to experience more variety.

The Mallow Fellow's marshmallow treats
Jewels By Amy's sets

Some businesses use farmers’ markets, not just as a way of selling individual products to market shoppers, but as a way of breaking into the profitable niche market of wedding planning. It allows them the opportunity to take their selling up a level,
Violet Chocolate Wedding Truffles
while not taking on the financial risk of opening their own store-front. Two vendors from The Southwest Edmonton Farmers’ Market create items that are used as party favours for wedding receptions. The Mallow Fellow creates custom-flavoured, custom-coloured marshmallow treats for reception place settings. Rebecca, of the Violet Chocolate Company, creates decadent and spectacularly beautiful chocolate truffles for the same purpose. Yet another vendor, Jewels By Amy, creates necklace, earring & bracelet sets for brides and bridesmaids, custom created to suit the dress colours and tastes of the wedding party. The markets are used as an ordering and pick-up place, saving them delivery time and saving them having to use their own homes as places of business.

Evangeline of El Mercado Tortillas (on right)
Farmers markets, like our Southwest Edmonton Farmers' Market, can be incubators of sorts for businesses that want to start off small, test the waters, get immediate feedback on their products, have an agreeable audience for the reworking of their products or ideas, build a customer base and then grow big, moving into a larger store once they’re ready. El Mercado Tortillas is a good example. Evangeline Lopez began her business supplying some restaurants like Tres Carnales and the Southwest Edmonton Farmers’ Market with her authentic Mexican corn tortillas. Part way through the season, she realized that she had made a big enough name for herself so that there was a large demand for her product that would involve stepping up her production. Now her tortillas are found in many South and Central American grocery stores, like Mi Casa Market, Tienda Salvadorena, Paraiso Tropical, Argyll Foods Tienda Latina and places like Acme Meat Market, the Italian Centre Shop and Gluten Free Mart… all here in Edmonton.

For any businesses wanting to follow this route, there is a lot of support. Alberta Agriculture has a Market Development Team that works with people across the province to help them meet their ultimate goal of getting into a larger retail store. As Eileen says, many of the big chains are “looking for products that are retail ready” and Alberta Agriculture is ready to help a vendor get to that stage:
  • Darcy Peters (780-638-4756) has a lot of experience getting growers, farmers and food producers into grocery stores. Save On Foods is an excellent example of a large-scale chain that is actively searching out local produce, meats & value-added foods for its shelves and aisles. Darcy can help coach you through that process, teaching you about the requirements of stepping up that production and giving tips and tricks about what the large store buyers are looking for. 
  • Nicole Schroth (780-643-1003) specializes in helping vendors get their produce, meat and products into the food service industry… from restaurants through to institutions (like Northlands).
Farmers’ Markets play an essential role in the health of our local food system and, lucky for us all, they are on the rise. The 2010-11 Alberta season saw 104 markets spread across the province. As of last year, that number had increased dramatically to 131 markets. The support is out there. We are all becoming more consumer savvy… we know where to get good quality, locally produced goods, we know how to vote with our dollar and support the local economy, and we are starting to see the impact of the decisions we make about where and how we shop.

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Contributed by Sheri Hendsbee

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