Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A Tale of Two Farmers Markets

Has the farmers market movement peaked? An NPR article said so on Feb 5, and another one in The Los Angeles Times reinforced this view a few days later.  As for the markets in Kingston, we instead see a tale of two farmers markets:  one on the rise and one in decline.

As we began loading up the car for last Wednesday's farmers market, we paused for a moment and asked each other, "do we really want to do this?"  It's a lot of work going to a market, and when you barely break even, it's also a strain on morale.  We are small-scale farmers who market our goods from our farm and from local stores, but farmers markets have been our best avenue for establishing a customer base and generating income. Good farmers markets, that is. There are those you look forward to attending, and those that just are not worth the bother.

What is it that makes the difference between good and bad markets?  There are people working to make small farms and local food viable again, and there are also people working successfully to keep Big Ag getting bigger.  When it comes to farmers markets - one of the main hubs for local food in the absence of the new big thing that will make local food more sustainable over the long term - there are some that grow into something solid and there are others that fall from great heights.

Here is a little tale of two markets right here in Kingston.  One is at the University, the other is at the Memorial Centre.  The latter seems to be growing, while the former has dwindled.  The farmers market at Queens was once a bustling, vibrant gathering of vendors selling everything from Indian Curry to Russian specialties to produce and home baking.  When I ask other local farmers if they were ever involved in that market, I often get a response like, "years ago.  It used to be good.  And then..."

The number of vendors has slowly dwindled to the two or three that currently attend, us included. When attendance falls, it is due to a lack of business.  But business doesn't slip just because. Something new has to come along to take customers away, or something has to be taken from the strength of the market.  

When, several years ago, market vendors were no longer allowed to sell hot food, the central attraction was gone.  You could still sell frozen and refrigerated items, but the smells of cooking and the promise of a hot lunch were no more.  

When major chains like Tim Hortons and Pizza Pizza started to set up shop, lines formed.  When I was a student a decade ago, the only chain restaurant at my university was Subway, which stood out like a sore thumb among the quirkier, more exotic booths, like the one run by a Korean woman who sold tacos and ice cream.  Even that little university out on the prairie has come of corporate age since then.

Many students and faculty are interested in a weekly offering of something different - and local.  But with a couple of unassuming sandwich boards and a quick blurb on the TV screens announcing upcoming events, few remember to head over to the quiet spot where the market is held.

When the organizer of the market also organizes the space for the national brands, it's easy to imagine which takes priority.  While our humble farmers market would never really mount anything more than negligible competition to these ubiquitous food outlets, we are kept on a tight rein, and I fear that the market itself is on its last legs.  What vendor wants to pay $35 to a market that does not seem to be invested in its own success?

Where a market like the Memorial Centre differs is in its understanding that a market does not simply sustain itself by existing.  There is a recognition that a sandwich board alone does not constitute promotion.  When organizers took the bold step to hold a December market in an unheated barn and managed to attract crowds of people week after week, it was not taken with the mantra "if you build it they will come."  They hired a market manager and a promotions manager, whose hours are minimally compensated but who have been working hard to find ways to get word out in a world saturated with messages. There is also a board that includes vendors from different walks of life; a member from the local community; and subcommittees of members involved in everything from organizing events to finding sponsors.  Finally, there are volunteers from within the community to help make the market run smoothly week after week.  It is a massive, ongoing effort of coordination. And where farmers markets lack capital, they have to make up for it in investment of time and energy. Through all of this, the stall fees are lower and business is good.

The contrast between the two markets is a reminder of the fact that a successful local food movement involves more than just farmers selling to customers.  It involves other people being invested in the success of those who make local food available.    It also points to the fact that when reps of large food companies assume the role of growing the local food movement, well, it doesn't happen.