Opinion » Odd Job

Market forces: from farm to tablelands

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At 6:29 a.m. on the Sunday of Labour Day weekend, nothing stirs at Blackcomb Base, the only sound the rush of Fitzsimmons Creek rising from the forest across the road. At 6:30, sprinklers come to life in the raised garden beds and hanging plants lining the empty Upper Village Stroll, which, like the children's Adventure Zone fronting Blackcomb's day lodge, shows zero sign of the industry to come. For the next 15 minutes, the only action is a lone runner on Blackcomb Way, conspicuous in the grey dawn light because of her fluorescent pink top.

At 6:45, Chris Quinlan, impresario of the Whistler Farmers' Market for seven years now, pulls his pick-up into the lodge's drop-off area. I plan to learn the ropes of running a weekly market, and it starts here. Quinlan backs a trailer into the loading dock and from it we lift the makings of a bicycle valet stand to be set-up later by a pair of summer employees.

After picking up some tents, anchorage and signs from a storage "shed" — a repurposed cabin from the old Whistler Village Gondola — we head to Mount Currie Coffee to prepare for what lies ahead. I get an idea when "Quinny" orders a quad-shot latte. "That usually helps keep me flying for a while," he says of the ritual. "It's a long day."

The former councillor and longtime small businessman may lament the passing of his Behind the Grind coffeehouse, once a Whistler institute, but his caffeine habit remains intact.

Back at the market by 7:15, Quinlan begins a protracted meet-and-greet with vendors, who are just starting to arrive through the gate we've opened in front of Whistler Blackcomb's admin building. Friendly banter is easily exchanged when, as Quinlan does, you know everyone's personal story. "That guy," he nudges me, after a particularly bleary-eyed farmer passes with a lifeless wave. "Lack of sleep. New baby."

A first crisis: the pizza trailer is the single biggest object in the market, and the vendor is having trouble squeezing through the narrow first part of the stroll where other vendors have already unloaded and are erecting their booths. We jump in to move pressurized canisters from the trailer's way for Ellen of popular SPARK Kombucha. "She was the first kombucha-maker certified by Vancouver Coastal Health. So, she basically wrote the food-safety book on the stuff for them," notes Quinlan. "You should try her pineapple-jalapeño flavour."

By 7:30 the stroll is a jam of trucks, trailers, stacked goods, sagging canopies and minor set-up issues concerned with space, sightline and storefront practicalities. In the middle of it all roams Quinlan, clipboard in hand, directing, answering questions, softening bristles, offering solutions, deploying the market's signage and musicians' tents.

Vendor space assignments appear on a website and are managed through software Quinlan developed with a couple of partners. The program also streamlines and standardizes the application process — a boon to farmers' markets and market organizations in general that has seen his software sell as far afield as Australia. My surprise that a folksy enterprise requires such high-tech hectoring diminishes when the market's logistics are explained: from 175 applications, some 120 are accepted and managed through alternating schedules (i.e., not all vendors want to attend every market). Because of this ephemerality — and some forgetfulness on the part of participants — not all can be guaranteed the same spot every time. Even today, a couple of sheepish vendors who didn't confirm on the schedule must be accommodated. Quinlan must quickly shift around some chess pieces. Hence the clipboard.

"Physically we have about 90 sites to work with. We're maxed-out for food concessions at 20 — prepared foods, baked goods, and food stands, including the strategically placed food trucks. There's also some finessing. I try not to put liquor people on a tilted area — ha!"

Old-school rules for farmers' markets held that the majority of vendors must be farmers, but clearly that would never have worked for Whistler, especially a decade ago. Even today there's only seven or so actual farm stalls among the glut of artisan food and various arts, crafts and wellness concessions, all carefully aligned.

What kind of satisfaction resides in seeing a small town breathed into life from nothing every Sunday, to flourish briefly then disappear — microcosm of a minor civilization?

"Basically, you're programming a mall," says Quinlan. "Then opening a new one every week."

At 8:45 a.m. the last vehicle entry is allowed, and all must exit "the mall" by 9:00. People who didn't get in on time now have to hand-bomb their stuff from the gate. Once gates at both ends are shut, things heat up — literally and figuratively. During set up, all talk is of how hot it's going to be today, a light abstraction in the cool of a mountain morning.

Although the market officially opens at 11:00 a.m., tourists are wandering through by 9:30, and by 10:30 most vendors are selling. From the truck, Quinlan retrieves his trademark straw farmer's hat and places it ceremoniously. "We're open when the hat goes on," he smiles.

Next week — Market forces: Making a day of it.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.

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