While global trade currents deeply impact most of Canadian agriculture, there is one type of market which has remained virtually unchanged since the dawn of humankind.
Local farmers markets were the first means of food exchange between human communities and between neighbours; and many in Alberta agriculture today continue to heavily rely on them to reach nearby customers.
Conny Kappler is executive director of the Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association, an organization which represents hundreds of market sellers province-wide. She herself farms near Rolling Hills, and is a regular seller at the Medicine Hat Farmers Market and at the Little Market on the Prairie in her hometown.
Kappler grows strawberries, potatoes, field cucumbers, kale, garlic and other products, which she picks straight off her farm.
Kappler says farmers markets are crucial to many smaller scale farm operations throughout southern Alberta, and often serve as a compliment to more industrial forms of agriculture.
“We represent the interests of farm direct marketers and growers,” explains Kappler. “Our mission is to bring farm fresh, healthy food and experiences to Alberta communities.”
Kappler’s family also runs a more conventional cow/calf operation, but she admits her heart is in the farmers market.
“You have to love what you are doing because it is a lot of hard work,” confirms Kappler. “If you don’t love what you are doing, you are probably not going to do well at a farmers market… I like interacting with customers.
“When you are in this organization,” continues Kappler, “you have to like people. There’s nothing more rewarding than selling a butternut squash to a lady who says ‘My baby just loves butternut squash.’ You get that gooey, mushy feeling inside.”
Providing produce for the farmers market is not without its own unique challenges, however.
“It’s labour intensive,” admits Kappler. “And many just don’t have time to do it. That’s an issue too; finding labour to pick all that… There is a lot involved with washing and cleaning and packaging, and we’re on a smaller scale so you are never getting the best deals on packaging.”
There’s also no guarantee you will make a sale on the day you come.
“The odd time, I have brought twice as much as I can sell; so you take it home and start making pickles,” Kappler says with a chuckle. “Or you start juicing. Or you start throwing things in the freezer.”
But, according to Kappler, there is also much to love about the farmers market from a marketing perspective— you build up a trust relationship with local buyers, and you have a centralized venue to find new customers.
“There are a lot of people who wander down to the farmers market to check things out,” she says. “More often than not, they will end up buying something.
“You are also cutting out the middle man, but we try to keep our prices close to what you would buy in a store. I know some people think it should be cheaper, but this intensive labour.”
With an increasingly urbanized sensibility, many Albertans now look to farmers markets as a trustworthy source of local food and as a means to make direct connections to the surrounding agricultural community.
“People want to know where their food comes from and who is growing it,” states Kappler. “It’s important for us to communicate to people how crops are grown, and how food is done. There is a lot of misinformation out there. This gives an opportunity for our customers to ask a farmer directly.”
That’s not to say there aren’t sometimes differences in perspective between those from urban environments and those working in agriculture.
“You get a little bit of dirt on your potatoes,” Kappler says with a chuckle. “At a farmers market generally everything is very clean, but it’s also fresh from the field.Things like potatoes grow under the soil, in the ground; so it sometimes is an education for some people who never grew up on a farm.
“The odd time you get a little ladybug in there. Someone will say: ‘Look there’s a ladybug in my parsley.’ And I will say: ‘Well, the ladybug is free.’”
Kappler says despite the success of farmers markets, there is never enough sellers to meet the needs of local buyers for some products.
“There’s a need for more growers, especially strawberry growers. There really is a shortage. We have a lot of our members who are retiring or slowing down, and we’re just not getting the replacements.”
While hard work is definitely a part of the equation when it comes to being a seller in the market, Kappler feels the rewards outweigh the demerits.
“My favourite thing is the going home afterward. When you take all those empty packing boxes and are put them back in the truck, and you go: ‘I had a great day today.’ There’s lots of pride there as a seller.”
The Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association is co-sponsoring the 2017 “Farm to Market” conference at the Pomeroy Inn and Suites at Olds College March 2-3.
For more information visit albertafarmfresh.com.