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Farmers markets remain a growing concern

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The awnings are up at Le Marché St. Norbert Farmers’ Market, located on Pembina Highway just past the Perimeter Highway. Empty on this late-May morning, the stillness of the site belies the hustle and bustle that will arrive on Sat., June 2, when the largest outdoor market in Manitoba opens for its 24th season.

Offering shoppers the opportunity to buy fresh produce, meats, baked goods and crafts from upwards of 130 local vendors — the majority of them farm families that make the trek into Winnipeg each week from around the province; twice a week if they participate in the smaller Wednesday market, as well — the St. Norbert Farmers’ Market is probably the best-known of its kind in Manitoba. However, it’s hardly the only one.

In recent years, the concept of buying fresh local food straight from the people who grow it has caught on with consumers — a shift in purchasing habits that has led to an increase in both the number of farmers’ markets and their popularity. More than 40 such markets will be open this summer in communities across Manitoba. That includes 11 in Winnipeg; among them, the Red River Market, which operates in the Red River Exhibition Park on the Western edge of the city, the Transcona Biz Farmers’ Market, the Osborne Village Farmers’ Market, Central Market for Global Families, located in the heart of downtown and, new for the 2012 season, the Wolseley Farmers’ Market.

Marilyn Firth, community relations manager at St. Norbert Farmers’ Market, can attest to the growth in demand. Five years ago, she says busy Saturday mornings would give way to quiet afternoons. Not so anymore: not only is the market now packed from the moment it opens at 8 a.m. till the time it closes at 3 p.m., but even inclement weather (such as a recent Thanksgiving weekend snowstorm) doesn’t keep the crowds away.

Firth says people come to the market not just to grocery shop but also to experience a unique atmosphere created through the inclusion of live entertainment, kids’ activities and this year, chef demonstrations.

"They’ll come, they’ll meet their friends here, they’ll have something to eat together, they’ll enjoy the time here together," she says.

"We’ve noticed a big increase in families coming out, and I think part of that is because the market is becoming more of a family kind of environment."

Still, St. Norbert’s edible offerings remain its primary draw. Particularly enticing, Firth says, is the opportunity for city dwellers to interact with rural producers and ask questions.

 "As much as they can, (people) want to know where their food’s coming from, who’s growing it, how are they growing it," she says.

The success in St. Norbert is something Jasmine Tara, a food security network co-ordinator with the North End Community Renewal Corp., hopes to emulate at the Main Street Farmers’ Market.

The fledgling urban market will open for its fourth season on Fri., June 29 at a new location: the parking lot of Neechi Commons at the corner of Main Street and Euclid Avenue. Tara says the new site offers more parking, more space for buskers, face-painters and the 15 vendors she’s still working on lining up for 2012 (she confirms that fresh produce grown in some of the North End’s 19 community gardens will definitely be available) and more visibility.

"I really want the market to be a family, fun thing to do," Tara says. "I also want to attract all the people coming down Main Street on their way home on a Friday afternoon."

Like Firth, Tara says farmers’ markets offer a special connection that many find appealing.

"Pushing a cart down an aisle is so not personal," she says. "When you’re going to a farmers’ market, it’s sold outside and you’re meeting the farmer face-to-face — there’s something in that interaction that’s much more than just going shopping."

Although little data exists, it would appear local vendors are taking full advantage of the rising appeal of farmers’ markets. A 2008 economic study commissioned by the Farmers’ Markets Association of Manitoba Inc., a co-operative that formed in 2007, found a 51% increase in the number of vendors taking part in markets from 2003 to 2008. Gross sales during that same period jumped to $2.2 million from $600,000.

Jean-Guy Côté understands the value of farmer’s markets to local vendors. In addition to sitting on FMAM’s board of directors, the 31-year-old owns and operates John Boy Farms, a fifth-generation family farm just south of Ste. Agathe, Man., which he runs with his wife.

Côté says he earns approximately 90% of his annual income by selling the vegetables he grows at the St. Norbert Farmers’ Market. This is somewhat unique, he notes, as farmers usually rely on markets for supplemental income — though that, too, can be extremely important. "Sometimes, it’s the difference between being able to keep a family farm running and it folding in," he says.

While the motivation of individual shoppers may vary, Côté appreciates those who have chosen to buy into the buy-local trend by supporting farmers’ markets — and vendors like him. 

"It’s a beautiful thing," he says. "It’s so amazing for our economy — and it’s good for community."

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