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Blossoming markets face growing pains [Peter Mitham]

APRIL 2017 | NEW WESTMINSTER – The explosive growth in BC farmers markets over the past decade is presenting operators and vendors with hard questions as they embark on a new season.

With local produce available in more places than ever before, the province’s 165-odd farmers markets are hoping to expand their customer base and become more business-like.

“The ecosystem around us is changing and we really need to be cognizant of this change,” said Richard McCarthy, the founding president of the Farmers Market Coalition in the US and current executive director of Slow Food USA.

What farmers markets have to do is identify the value they bring to communities, what they do best and focus on doing it well, McCarthy told the 120-plus participants at the annual meeting of the BC Association of Farmers Markets in New Westminster on March 4.

“We need to figure out how to improve best practices,” he said.

These include improving protocols in the key areas of mission, governance, staffing and marketing.

While markets have flourished in a space beyond the economic pressures of the chain supermarkets – fostering authentic connections between producers and consumers – market managers shouldn’t fear intervening in the rich ferment of market activity. Somewhat like a vigorous plant, it may need to be pruned so that energies and resources flow to where it will bear the best fruit.

McCarthy encouraged managers to set performance goals and to measure market activity against those, not necessarily in a cold-blooded way, but to ensure the market is performing well.

Ethnic attraction

The theme was picked up in several other sessions during the three-day event, with the sessions on Saturday including discussions of branding, risk management and best practices for vendors and producers.

The growth of markets has largely limited the need to consider such questions but as farmers markets become more mainstream, they need to meet consumers’ expectations and broaden their appeal beyond white, middle-class consumers.

Roberta LaQuaglia, the departing operations manager for Vancouver Farmers Markets, said 43% of the Metro Vancouver population is ethnically Asian but just 14% of market attendees identify as such. She wants to see that change and for new immigrants to know that farmers markets “can be a viable option for their grocery dollars.”

Kevin Huang of the Hua Foundation has produced a guide that aims to raise awareness of market greens among Chinese consumers but many still patronize shops within their established network.

Surrey farmer Eric Koo, meanwhile, said carving a niche for Asian greens was tough because non-Asians were unfamiliar with them. Winning acceptance for them requires education and time.

Risk management

Bob Prenovost of Propellor Social Enterprise Advisors in Vancouver led a discussion of risk management that saw market managers from around the province discuss issues such as contracts, liability waivers and when to seek legal counsel.

Prenovost walked participants through two scenarios to help them gauge the risks to their operations: one, relocating a market displaced by development; the other, a vehicle ploughing into market stalls.

Unlike the vehicle incident that prompted Christmas markets in Europe to tighten security in December 2016, Prenovost’s example was a matter of lax oversight by market management – a good reminder of how managing risk often comes down to good protocols and following them.

Prenovost urged farmers markets to write down protocols, and keep records that demonstrate compliance and that reasonable steps were taken to limit liability in the event of an incident.

While many people think simply having insurance is sufficient, he told them not to be sure. Adequate precautions must be taken to prevent claims in the first place. This reduces both risk and potential accidents from happening, in turn, keeping premiums low.

It also demonstrates that accidents weren’t a result of negligence, which can expose a market to civil claims and may compromise liability coverage.

“Don’t hang your hat on insurance,” he warned, noting that adequate steps must be taken to prevent claims.

Best practices were also the focus of a presentation Emily Hansen, a research associate with the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Based on interviews with 15 producers in autumn 2016, Hansen presented preliminary findings to be incorporated in a report KPU will release later this year. The goal was to share best practices among market vendors and to raise awareness of the opportunities farmers markets offer producers.

Hansen presented tips related to the financial, human resources, marketing and management aspects of a farm business.

“This is intended to be a resource for farmers to access around business development ideas,” she said. “A lot of these challenges are common across the sector regardless of what you’re producing.”


Vol.103 Issue 4
APRIL 2017

CLBC April 2017 cover CLBC April 2017