The City of Saskatoon has big, bold dreams for the future of the old electrical building (current home of the Saskatoon Farmers' Market Co-operative). That’s fantastic, but I believe their plans are fatally flawed. Here’s why.
Party or Buy Food?
The City wants more “animation” at the market site. First of all, I’m not sure what that means. Secondly, I go to the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market to buy locally grown food. I don’t go there to be entertained. If your primary goal is to bring lots of people to the site, turn it into a Tim Horton’s or a discount fashion outlet. If your goal is to support local food production and food security, then a farmers’ market is your best option.
It’s true that Granville Island Public Market is animated 6 days a week. (In fact, it’s so busy there are traffic jams and locals have turned the site over to the tourists.) But Saskatoon isn’t Vancouver. We don’t have the population, the idyllic location, or easy access to tropical Asian fruits. Instead, we have an out-of-the way location and a limited amount of space.
The City complains that Market vendors attend community markets held in various locations around town. What they fail to realize is that the public attends those markets because they’re conveniently located and provide ample free parking.
Do We Want to Be 1980s Nashville?
On the surface, it appears reasonable to combine a public market with a farmers’ market in order to hold a 6-day-a-week market, especially as the City says they’d make local food a priority. But let’s look at how it works in practice.
Public markets provide a space for retailers to sell their wares. They don’t have to grow or produce the food themselves. They can purchase it from wholesalers, add a mark-up, and sell it on to consumers. It may look more attractive than a supermarket, but it could well be exactly the same produce. You won’t know where the produce was grown. You won’t be able to talk to the farmer. You won’t be supporting the local economy.
Some of the retailers at a public market will be selling mainstream brands of yogurt, milk, dried goods – convenient yes, market-worthy no. It would be great to have a downtown supermarket, but let’s not try and force a market into that mold.
Farmers’ markets in Alberta are 80% local farmers/producers and 20% resellers. That sounds okay until you look at it in practice. The resellers can afford large booths that take up most of the space. Local farmers are squeezed into the corners, forced to compete over price with large-scale resellers.
Peterborough Market resolved the conflict between local farmers and resellers by kicking out genuine farmers who had questioned the resellers’ practices. The public started boycotting the market and both attendance and revenue went down.
The Nashville Farmers’ Market was founded in the early 1800s as a producer-only market. In the 1980s, they changed their mind and vendors were selling commercially available, often resold, products. By 2014 vendors had realized this model wasn’t working. It was at odds with the current emphasis on local foods, traceability, and transparency, and they switched back to being a producer-only market. In 2015, the Nashville Market had its best season ever with 4 times as many farmers and peak-season sales more than making up for the drop in the low season. A comprehensive review of the Nashville Farmers' Market's decision is available online.
A Sense of Community
The City says its goal is to ensure quality of life and meet community needs. Those are praiseworthy goals – that can be best met by providing the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market with an extended lease and full municipal support.
There’s a huge sense of community at the Market. A trip to the market is a part of many families’ weekly routine. Friends get together over breakfast; we catch up with our neighbours; and we spread our purchases out between our favorite vendors. Tourists enjoy an authentic experience they won’t find at a public market.
In addition to Market events, the Co-operative participates in a wide range of community events – from NatureCity Festival in the spring to Nuit Blanche in the fall. It’s been an absolute delight over the past few months to see how the Co-operative has partnered with the Saskatoon Open Door Society to provide Newcomers with an opportunity to test-drive their food-based businesses.
If It’s Not Broke, Don’t Fix It
We have a fabulous farmers’ market, which is regularly on Chatelaine’s list of the top 10 farmers’ markets across Canada. Let’s focus on what we have and support it rather than threatening to shut it down.
Edmonton City Council supports the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market with free parking and a $1/year lease for an indoor market building that is only open on Saturdays. That’s the kind of support Saskatoon needs for local food, local farmers, the local economy, and local food security.
Please join me in showing support for the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market Co-operative at the Saskatoon City Council meeting at 1 pm, Monday, September 24. Here is the agenda for the meeting. You can request to speak for 2 minutes.
See also: I Support the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market – Here’s Why