It’s 6 am and Kevin Gallant has just pocket dialled several friends. He’s been busy loading pumpkins onto a truck headed for the Milton Farmers’ Market, one of many such markets in the Greater Toronto Area.
His wife Keara will be off soon in the other direction, to the Burlington Centre Farmers’ Market, also about an hour’s drive away from their farm near Vanessa, Ontario. Between them, the early morning banter is about their daughter Presley. At the age of nine years, she’s already a formidable sales agent. Having made a quick decision about which market she will choose this Saturday fall morning, Presley slides into the truck beside her dad. Milton it is.
Gallant Farms, home to Presley’s Pumpkin Patch, has a long-standing tradition of growing vegetables. Their pumpkins have become so popular that five Terra Greenhouse stores now feature their harvest-season globes and gourds. A pick-your-own pumpkin market also opens to the public on the farm until end of October.
Like many market growers, Kevin and his family have benefited post-COVID because the 2020 pandemic shone a light on just how important farmers’ markets are to consumers. Some markets didn’t open at all, others spread out to temporary quarters while still others clambered aboard the bandwagon of e-commerce. Since that time, the food landscape has changed in ways that could not have been imagined three years ago.
“The appreciation by customers is unbelievable,” says Gallant. “They want to hear about your farm and how the weather is affecting your crop. They are craving a connection at the market.”
Dedication to the direct-to-consumer model has paid off for Gallant Farms which has expanded from five acres in 2017 to 80 acres of vegetable production now. In 2022, the Gallant’s added the Ancaster Farmers’ Market to their mix. At that market, more than 80 per cent of their customers used a debit card --– part of a tap-and-go trend that eliminates the inconvenience and personal contact of exchanging cash.
The economic impact of farmers’ markets is challenging to quantify says Catherine Clark, executive director of Farmers’ Markets Ontario (FMO). The last study dates back to 2011 when the research showed the province’s markets had an economic impact of $2.47 billion annually. Clearly, in the last decade those numbers have ballooned.
“The dynamics have changed,” says Clark, who represents 180 members.
“There is a need to update this information and to understand the importance of farmers’ markets to the agricultural sector. With the supply chain disruptions during the COVID- 19 pandemic, consumers appear to be more dedicated than ever to shop directly from the farmers who grow the food.”
Clark is advocating for a national economic impact study that would inform provincial agricultural policy. Such a study would look at how to ensure the authenticity of farmers and local food generally and at farmers’ markets specifically.
The market landscape is very dynamic depending on region explains Justin Cantafio, executive director, Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia. In this Maritime province, less than 10 per cent of the food is locally produced and 22 per cent of the population is food insecure. Not surprisingly, Nova Scotia’s food system was massively disrupted by the pandemic.
“We recognized early on that farmers’ markets could continue as a model of bringing fresh food to consumers,” says Cantafio. “We were the first to onboard a number of farmers to online stores across the province. It was a sad, weird, and terrifying time.”
His organization secured funding from the provincial government to help migrate farmers’ markets and vendors, including senior farmers, into digital spaces such as online sales platforms and online stores.
“It was a really challenging situation,” he recalls. “It became obvious to me that farmers’ markets should be considered an essential service.”
With a lot of hard work, Cantafio’s cooperative was able to grow membership from 36 to 45 markets in Nova Scotia. In his view, it’s never been more important to support a circular economy because of the persistent fear that climate change will cause the global food system to collapse, washing out not only crops but vital distribution channels as well.
That perspective sounds apocalyptic but consider the dramatic swings in weather that Nova Scotia has experienced. A year ago, a polar vortex destroyed vineyards. In 2023, that has been followed up with a spring drought, record-setting wildfires, flooding and, just recently, Hurricane Lee.
As Nova Scotians catch their breath, there is a growing realization that regional resilience is more important than ever. Cantafio points out that if Nova Scotians shifted 10 per cent of their food purchases to local food, it would create an economic impact of hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
Out of this challenging time, Cantafio has co-founded a national association, Canadian Farmers’ Markets. This registered, non-profit is a coalition that includes: BC Association of Farmers’ Markets, Alberta Association of Farmers’ Markets, Direct Farm Manitoba, Farmers’ Markets Ontario, Association des marchés publics du Québec, Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia, Marketwurks and National Farmers’ Union - New Brunswick.
Going forward, farmers’ markets have the opportunity to become both more prevalent and more professional. For example, Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia has begun holding workshops for aspiring farmers’ market vendors, and in September 2023, launched its most recent iteration of a 10-course provincially certified farmers’ market manager accreditation program.
For many outdoor markets, Thanksgiving weekend marks the end of the season. As Kevin Gallant winds down on the outskirts of Toronto, he has one eye on the future, saluting his customers with a “see ya next year.”
He can’t help but note the diversity of consumers, a reflection of the country’s bountiful produce. And, like Canada, there’s a common tie that binds: gratitude for kinship and community.
The Grower is Digging Deeper behind the October cover story and speaking with Justin Cantafio, executive director of Farmers' Markets of Nova Scotia. In this podcast, Justin shares a perspective on the economic and social impact of the public square. Click to listen >>