MyMarket Planning Meeting

I spent half of yesterday at a planning meeting for this year’s MyMarkets, run by Farmers’ Markets Ontario: several of the farmers showed up, plus volunteers from some of the five markets. We spent an hour on each of the markets, with the farmers discussing what worked and didn’t work at that market, things that they’d like to change, and whether they plan to apply for that market for 2010. Richard Brault, one of the other St. Andrew’s MyMarket volunteers, was there with me to plead our case for farmers to sell at our market this year, and try to get some meat and cheese vendors there.

Although we had the lowest attendance of all the markets last year, it was our first year (all others were in their second or later years), and we also had no meat or cheese vendors. This meant that some people skipped our market in favor of either heading to the grocery store or waiting for the Liberty Village market the following day in order to be able to do most of their shopping in one place.

The numbers of attendees and vendors at each market isn’t correlated, but I would guess that a wider variety of produce than what we had could improve the attendance:

Market 2009 attendance
(from December review meeting)
2009 # of vendors
Sick Kids Hospital 12,000 8
St. Andrew’s 5,800 10 (peak, although 6-7 on any given day was more typical)
Liberty Village 9,500 19
Bloor Borden 13,000 12
East Lynn 18,000 14

The biggest of the markets doesn’t have the largest number of vendors; in fact, the market with the largest number of vendors (Liberty) had the second-lowest attendance in 2009. I think that Liberty was heavily promoted as the place to be, resulting in the large number of vendors who ended up competing with each other: one of the three meat vendors who was there last year skipped the last month because he wasn’t even making gas money; he had asked to shift to St. Andrew’s market mid-season, but somehow that didn’t happen. The key is finding the right mix of vendors for each venue: items requiring refrigeration, for example, aren’t as popular at Sick Kids market, since it is most frequented by hospital staff who are just starting their shift, and don’t have a place to store cold or frozen items until they head home. There’s also an issue of demographics: Liberty Village, home to more hipster singles per square foot than most other areas of the city, saw declines in sales for most vendors, but Kind Organics with their trendy (and delicious) organic greens did booming business there. We have a similar demographic to Liberty, possibly a bit older but just as child-free, so in general need to have smaller packages for the smaller households, and are very keen for organic produce.

The feedback from the farmers at the meeting wasn’t especially promising, but we’re not giving up hope yet. Only two farmers were firmly committed to returning – Bosco Farms, who had the largest vegetable stand and did fairly well last year, and Cedar Creek Farms, who sold out of their cut flowers every week. There were a couple of maybes, including a meat vendor who could also run a sausage-on-a-bun stand. The combination of low numbers last year plus the Saturday date, when we are competing for the farmers’ attention with all the other Saturday markets in the province, meant that many may not be willing to risk another year at St. Andrew’s in order to see if we can make it the success that we feel we can. Applications will be going out from FMO to the farmers soon, and we should know by mid-April whether enough farmers will commit to St. Andrew’s for another year.

Although the volunteers are doing this in order to benefit our community, we have to recognize that the farmers are running a business, and can’t afford to subsidize our market by showing up when they’re not making money: one farmer estimated a stable repeat customer base of only around 60 people at St. Andrew’s each market day. Saturdays are a popular day for markets all over, and if a farmer can take their produce to market somewhere closer to where they live and make more money, their choice is clear. Although larger famers can deploy at two markets on the same day, the smaller ones just don’t have the logistical support to do that. Unfortunately, since we are using a city-owned parking lot that is in use during the week, we can’t switch to a weekday market unless it were to start fairly late in the day. We’d also be competing with the Trinity Bellwoods, City Hall, Metro Hall and Sick Kids farmers’ market (although not all are certified local MyMarkets) on various weekdays. Add to this the proximity of Liberty Village market, both geographically and temporally, some of the vendors heard that people were going to the Liberty market on Sunday instead of St. Andrew’s on Saturday because they could do more shopping there due to the broader range of foods offered.

Farmers are pretty practical people, however, and realize that without the farmers’ commitments, we can’t get the critical mass of customers there for a successful year.

So what are the possibilities for the continuation of St. Andrew’s market?

First, and we hope that this happens, is that FMO is able to find enough farmers to commit to St. Andrew’s for 2010, including meat and cheese vendors. We believe that we have plans in place to bring in more customers this year, and make it a success all around.

Secondly, we could look at some sort of hybrid market, where we have some of the certified local farmers referred by FMO, but also encourage local businesses to participate. The addition of a local meat or cheese shop, if we can’t get those through FMO, would add greatly to the appeal, as would baked goods or other ready-to-eat food from a local restaurant. I think that we should stay food-focused, disallowing flea market or craft stands (although that’s just my opinion), and not bring in any business that directly competes with the FMO farmers in order to maintain the highest standards of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Thirdly, we could look at some way to combine Liberty and St. Andrew’s market. With Sunday, they clearly have the more popular day for farmers, but they have no one involved from the local community, which puts a much larger burden on FMO to provide all the promotion and logistical support. If we brought our kick-ass group of volunteers to bear on a Sunday market, that could really work. However, all of our volunteers are local to St. Andrew’s (2-1/2 km from Liberty, which is a long ways when you consider that we all walk to St. Andrew’s now) and many don’t have cars; supporting a market in Liberty Village just wouldn’t work for many of us.

We’re crossing our fingers and waiting for mid-April to find out which farmers have decided that we’re worth taking another chance on. Think positive thoughts, and hope for the best!

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