Not having a plan turned out to be the best plan of all.
That may the best way to describe the fortunes of the St. Norbert Farmers' Market as it opened the gates for its 25th season of operation Saturday morning. The little market that could, located just south of the Perimeter, is all grown up now, surviving through a combination of quality vegetables and meat, crafts and baked goods, gathered and sold by people who just wanted to enhance their community.
Judging from the hoards of people strolling in and out of the soggy market area Saturday — what’s a farmers market without a little mud? — the lack of framework or structure has worked out just fine.
Good ideas don’t need any extra thought.
"The market was just built on an idea of what people wanted in their lives," said beekeeper Phil Veldhuis, owner and operator of Phil’s Honey stand. "The growth of the market has been driven by the grassroots — there never was a master plan to achieve this, it’s just happened very organically."
No plan. Let’s just see what happens.
In a way, Veldhuis and the market board have been riding the brake the whole time, not looking to speed up through the lucrative seasons of good weather and big attendance numbers. Slow and steady has been the way for the market, growing incrementally each year – standing pat some years – just to make sure the community spirit they sought to celebrate wasn’t lost.
"Some volunteer organizations, if you’re on the board of a church or community centre, you have to push hard all the time to keep the thing going," said Veldhuis, who left his board presidency in February after a 20-year run. "Here, we’ve had the exact different problem."
Many believe Veldhuis’ work over the years to keep things at bay, to not push for radical change to the size of the market area and to not allow for major investment risk, is the reason why a 25th anniversary is being celebrated this summer.
"His hand of the tiller has been a wonderful thing for the market," said Marilyn Firth, the market’s community relations manager. "He’s done an amazing job keeping the focus on the people and the market community."
It wasn’t always this good. In the first few years, starting with the eight vendors who decided to open up shop in 1988, there wasn’t much foot traffic. Veldhuis, based out of Starbuck, made it to market in 1991 said there were times when it just seemed like they were having coffee outside with fellow merchants. Occasionally, they’d interrupt the conversation to make a sale.
Most times, the sale led to another conversation, and a new relationship.
Longtime vendors and residents of the area remember the market starting to gain traction in 1997, just after the flood shook the area. The rising water put St. Norbert on the map and, as was the case in many communities along tributaries that year, the fight brought people together.
From that point on, things at the market started to take root and the faces looking for fresh vegetables, flowers, meat — really, everything under the sun — started to be more familiar through weekly visits.
Now there are big crowds and 150 vendors, with just 115 vendor stalls (there were only 80-90 vendors on hand for Saturday’s opening), creating a demand organizers never would have dreamed of. The market is operational two days a week: Saturdays (to Oct. 26; 8 a.m.-3 p.m.) and Wednesdays (June 5 to Sept. 25, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.).
"It’s like my favourite day of the year, when the market opens," said Winnipegger Sarah Lorde, who’s been coming to St. Norbert for 10 years now. "The products are so much better than what you’d find in a supermarket."
Among the items in her reusable bag Saturday: a pumpkin plant (she plans on entering a pumpkin growing contest this fall), some Swiss chard, Chinese chives, and some cookies. But those items were just a small part of the reason she comes to St. Norbert.
"Really, it’s the experience," she added. "There’s something about walking aimlessly around the site, finding things as you go."