British Columbians continue to flock to farmers' markets — there are 125 registered markets in the province with more popping up each year — and Whistler sits at the centre of that boom in a variety of ways.
The proof is in the numbers: The Whistler Farmers' Market will kick off its 22nd season this May long weekend with a record-setting 120 vendors slated to participate over the course of the summer.
That lightning-quick growth is testament not only to the quality of vendors the market typically attracts, but customers' growing desire to connect more deeply with the products they buy.
"People want to reconnect with their producers and their service providers," explained market manager Chris Quinlan "They want to see (the product), they want to touch it, they want to hear the story of it and they're sick and tired of going to big box stores. As nice as the greeter is there, that's not the same as meeting the farmer and talking to them."
Quinlan said the aim is to strike a healthy balance between its popular food vendors, farms and craft artisans. Good news for the gourmand out there, however, is that food "definitely" remains the focus, Quinlan said.
Along with the usual suspects, there will be a handful of new food stalls to choose from. Quinlan highlighted Gauchos, helmed by an Argentinian couple based in Squamish, whose handmade empanadas "blew the roof off" with the jury, as well as another Latin-inspired vendor, Vancouver's Muy Rico, which serves a range of pre-prepared Mexican goodies, including homemade salsas and moles.
On the craft side of things, this summer will feature a large number of rotating potters, jewelers and clothing designers, such as Whistler's own Sunfish, the market's first ever swimwear company.
With 172 vendor applications this year, the market continues to attract strong demand from emerging businesses across the province. Quinlan said the unique testing ground that the Upper Village market provides remains one of its biggest draws.
"Whistler is very, very fortunate in that the number of people we put through — 5,000 to 7,000 people depending on how busy the day is — you're going to get a lot of international exposure," he said. "It really does provide a small business with the opportunity to grow, and at an exponentially quicker rate than you'd imagine."
Take Function Junction's Paleo-centric Caveman Grocer as a shining example: Owners Kara and Travis McMaster first participated in the market three years ago, selling raw chocolate. Since then, they've expanded to offer a full menu of fresh and frozen meals that are now delivered in 26 cities across B.C. They also recently purchased a fully equipped food truck to sell their organic meals in Whistler's parks this summer.
"There's a lot of criticism about the cost of doing business in Whistler and the challenges that are here," said Quinlan. "But I think something that people have to realize is that the opportunities are exponentially greater as well."
Now Quinlan is helping other farmers' markets across North America with a piece of software he helped develop, called MarketWurks, meant to streamline the vendor application process. Tired of dealing with paper applications, Quinlan went looking for an online application and market-mapping program. But every one he came across was "too expensive and too clunky,' so he set about making his own.
Today the software is being used in markets in B.C., Oregon, Utah, Idaho and Washington state, with a portion of sales going back to the Whistler Farmers' Market and, ultimately, the community itself.
"We make sure that a percentage goes to community granting," Quinlan said. "As part of the Whistler Farmers' Market's budget policy, we grant $10,000 a year back to community organizations."
The Whistler Farmers' Market is hosting a neighbourhood street party on May 22 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Upper Village. The market runs every Sunday after that, with the Wednesday market beginning in July. For more information, visit www.whistlerfarmersmarket.org.