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Whistler Farmers’ Market to get more farmers and a lot more local

Whether you’re environmentally enlightened, community minded, quality conscious, health conscious, or just plain cheap, the Whistler Farmers’ Market has something for everybody.

It was only one year ago that the Whistler Farmers’ Market became a democracy, by, for and of the people who have a stake in the way the market was being run. Rather than a single person handling all of the details, the job of organizing the market fell upon local farmers, bakers, crafters and artisans – market vendors who shared the same general idea of how a farmers’ market should operate.

The idea was to make the market as local as possible and to structure the market in such a way as to bring more farmers into the fold.

"We have enough food, and our artists and crafts makers are talented enough to fill every booth at the market," says market manager Lovena Harvey, who tends The Gathering Place Organic Farm with her husband. "We don’t need anyone else."

The Whistler Farmers’ Market is part of the B.C. Farmers’ Market Association, an organization Harvey helped to found and worked with in its early stages to establish guiding principles for participating farmers’ markets. Before the association came into being, the prevailing feeling was that farmers’ markets were slowly turning into flea markets and local content was slowly disappearing.

To counter this, the market association implemented a 100 per cent "Make, Bake or Grow" guideline that stipulates that every product sold at the farmers’ market has to originate in the geographical region served by the farmers’ market. In addition, a full 50 per cent of the booths had to be set aside for the local farmers, who were becoming a rarity in the farmers’ market scene.

The first season under the new guidelines was a huge success, says Harvey, and every vendor from last season is planning to return this year.

"Everybody did very well last year. I didn’t hear a complaint from anybody. Farmers and bakers sold out, artists sold paintings, crafts were moving, it was just incredible."

What’s more, she has received phone calls from dozens of other local farmers and vendors this who are interested in leasing a space at the market this year.

"Last year we had about 50 booths on our busiest weekend, and this year I could see us going as high as 70 booths, and averaging between 50 and 60," Harvey says.

There were between 15 and 20 farms on the average weekend, which meant that only 25 to 40 per cent of vendors were farmers on any given week. While this average was well shy of the 50 per cent stipulated by the market association guidelines, more local farmers have indicated interest. Harvey believes it will only be a matter of time before the market is fully compliant.

"We’ve only really had a year to put these changes in place, and we’ve already come a long way. A lot of farmers who stopped coming to these things a few years ago are ready to come back," says Harvey.

Wherever possible, the market organizers will try to limit the amount of duplication among vendors, assuring every farmer and craftsman that they won’t have to compete with another farmer or craftsman with the same products to sell. That means being more selective of who gets in.

To make theses decisions, local vendors established a 10-member Market Advisory Board this season with a cross-section of representatives from farming, arts and crafts communities. "We’re one step closer to becoming a society, maybe with a board of directors who will make all the decisions for the good of the market and take care of all the little administrative details," says Harvey.

And what’s good for the market is generally good for the customer.

"We’d probably say no to another potato farmer," she says. "On the Helmer farm for example, that’s what they grow, and the last thing they need at the market is direct competition from another potato farmer. Before we could approve another farmer, we’d have to make sure that they don’t plan on selling potatoes, too."

By ensuring that every vendor is different, farmer’s don’t feel obligated to lower their prices to compete and customers get a wider variety of products to choose from.

There is a loophole in the "Make, Bake or Grow" guideline that allows farmers to sell produce that doesn’t grow within the farmers’ market region, which in this case is the area between Lions Bay and Lytton. A farmer can sell Okanagan peaches, for example, or cheese from the Island as long as it is through a neighbour or a "friend farm" that is a member of the Whistler’s farmer’s market. The farmer who sells outside products should know everything there is to know about those products.

"Part of the appeal of the farmers’ market, and one of the reasons we’re so successful, is the ability for the customer to talk to the farmer who grew the food. They can ask us how it was grown, what kind of season it was, what’s the best way to prepare it, and we can answer their questions because we know that food. We planted it, we nourished it, we picked it and we brought it to the market," says Harvey.

"People want to know, and we enjoy telling them. Farmers are happier dealing directly with customers than with some buyer for a distributor who could care less."

In these days of factory farms and international trade, we don’t really know all that much about where or how our food was grown. With all the controversy over genetically engineered or modified foods and chemical fertilizers – and the growing public awareness of the overall nutritional value of foods (i.e. fresh verses preserved; organic verses factory farmed) – people are starting to take a greater interest in homegrown products.

There’s also an environmental issue to be considered, says Harvey. "Direct marketing really is the way of the future for farmers. One of the stories we always use to illustrate just how ridiculous our food distribution system really is, is about a truck loading up with tomatoes from the Okanagan and driving down to California. Five days later the same truck returns to the Okanagan loaded up with tomatoes from California. Think of all the fossil fuels that are wasted to gain absolutely nothing."

Many restaurants in the Lower Mainland and Whistler have started to use regional ingredients wherever possible, and chefs are being widely credited with pioneering a whole new style of cooking based on local produce and wildlife. Regional cookbooks have started to hit the shelves and menus around town are often printed daily during the summer as more local produce becomes available. Many local and regional farms deal directly and exclusively with local restaurants, eliminating the middle man altogether.

"It’s amazing to watch chefs walk around the market in their uniforms, buying ingredients they plan to use in that night’s special," says Harvey. "People are blown away."

The market is scheduled to open on June 17 for Father’s Day, and will run every Sunday at 11 a.m. until Thanksgiving weekend (Oct. 7). Special events include a Canada Day festival (July 1), and the "Hops and Crops" festival showcasing local microbreweries (Aug. 4 and 5). They also plan on bringing back a homegrown cooking series, where local chefs are paired with local farmers to put on cooking demonstrations for the crowd – there wasn’t an empty chair at this event last year. On Labour Day weekend (Sept. 1 and 2) Harvey is hoping to host a wine festival featuring regional vintners.

"The idea is to showcase local talent, whether its growing vegetables, making wine, painting pictures, or building furniture," says Harvey. "There are a lot of locals who can really use your support, and their quality is as good as you’ll find anywhere.

"And the best part is that when you buy from a local farmer, you know your money is staying in the community – this is where we shop to buy the things we need, food and groceries, you name it."

The market is looking for volunteers to sit at an information booth that will explain the farmers’ market to tourists and locals, and tell people about upcoming events. They are also looking for tables. If you wish to volunteer or have any tables to give away, contact Lovena Harvey at (604) 452-3313.

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