This time of year is a great time to focus on one of my favourite topics, farmers’ markets. As we reach peak summer harvest, markets across the province are booming!
As noted on the official website of the Ontario farmers’ markets, these markets are loved by shoppers, communities and farmers alike. Increasingly discerning shoppers appreciate being able to buy farm-fresh, local and sometimes unique products directly from the person who produced them. Communities love the bustle of local economic activity they create. And farmers love connecting with consumers who want to learn about their products and appreciate their hard work. Plus they are an important source of income for farmers.
Farmers Market are Growing, but Farmers Doing More with Less
In recent years, farmers’ markets have seen a resurgence in popularity after bottoming out in the 1970s. Today, Ontario is a leader in Canada in terms of sharing information to aid the renaissance of Farmers’ Markets all across the country.
Recent research by the Greenbelt Farmers’ Market Network (GBFMN) in collaboration with Informa Market Research provides insight into farmers who sell at these markets. In 2015, researchers visited 30 network markets and interviewed 82 farmers, plus 26 other market vendors who sold prepared foods, plants, honey, crafts, and the like. The farmers were from 27 farmers’ markets across the province and were drawn from an estimated pool of 600 Farmer Vendors.
To learn about growth and change in the sector, results were compared with GBFMN’s 2009 survey of 60 farmer vendors.
Among the findings were these:
- Markets appear to be growing stronger as a destination for fresh local food.
- The pool of farmers who are participating in markets is growing and is being renewed by new producers who are turning to this ‘customer direct’ distribution and sales channel.
- Farmers are deriving more of their business income from markets.
- Local food sales are prompting farmers to grow new varieties and increase acreage for market production.
- Farm employment numbers have decreased in all measured categories over the past 5 years (from an average of 3.8 full time on a farm to 2.2), due to growth of second career farmers who tend to work on a smaller scale.
- Farm vendors have taken advantage of opportunities to acquire new skills by apprenticing on other farms, pursuing agricultural-focused educational programs, mentorships, and more. Numerous vendors cited the importance of small initiatives such FarmStart, an Ontario organization that works with would-be farmers, providing access to plots and critical supports.
Canada’s changing ethnic profile and food consumption
Downturns in the agricultural economy has eroded the tradition of passing farms along from one generation to the next, yet this intergenerational farming is still quite evident. The research found two types of market farmers: people from farm backgrounds (55%) and newer ‘second career’ farmers (40%).
Younger farmers (40 and under) tended to be located in the Greater Toronto Area. Older farmers were more likely than their younger counterparts (40 and under) to be based in the Niagara/south. Second career farmers are more likely to be growing East of Toronto with particular emphasis in Northumberland County.
The local food movement is sparking increased consumer demand, and farming is experiencing some growth, though under a new model of food production. According to the report,
“One factor that is influencing new ways of food production is the changing ethnic profile of the Canadian population, thus slowly providing new jobs and opening up markets for a wider range of food.” (p.17)
Indeed, the survey found a higher percentage of Farmer Vendors in 2015 were born outside of Canada compared to 2009, as shown in the table below:
Based on this data, there appears to be a slow evolution towards more growers from around the world.
Trends in Market Items
The survey asked farmer vendors about their market items. From 2009 to 2015, they found an increase in vegetables, herbs, and meat, and a decrease in tender fruits, berries, and apples (shown below, vendors could choose all that applied). Not shown in this graph, there was a marked increase in the offerings of popular prepared food and other food products in order to capture more demand.
In closing, farmers markets have evolved to fit the needs of today’s consumers who are demanding more prepared foods, more local foods, and a wider variety of products. Immigrants are part of this trend, both as vendors and consumers.
Click here to access the full report, including a copy of the interview questionnaire.
Full report citation: Greenbelt Farmers Market Network and Informa Market Research Co. Ltd., Greenbelt Farmers’ Market Network, 2015 Research Report, December 2015.
Sarah Wayland, Principal Investigator