By MICHAEL ABLEMAN
I have been farming on Salt Spring Island since 2001 and selling our farm products at the Saturday farmers market for all of those years. When we started on the island there were very few full-time growers, but there was a strong desire on the part of the community for re-building a local island based agricultural economy.
Having been in the farming business for 28 years in California, we began developing our own island-based farm production model, and freely shared our knowledge by opening our doors and running workshops and apprenticeships to teach others.
When we started on the island, the volume of fresh food moving through the farmers market was low relative to the demand and the number of farmers were few. Now many of those who trained with us, and many others, are running their own farm businesses and selling at the market. While I have noticed our sales diminish I welcome the manifestation of the vision many of us worked for — a more dynamic, broader-based food production system on Salt Spring Island. And while that movement is still small, its importance is huge, and the Saturday market is to a great degree its primary driver.
But the Saturday market does not just inform and impact farmers and the local food system. It has had a profound impact on the success of an amazing array of talented artisans and crafts people as well, and its influence has without question made it the single most powerful economic driver on Salt Spring Island.
The market directly and indirectly affects every business on the island through its draw, bringing people who then support accommodations, restaurants, retail stores, and more. The market has created a giant weekly social and economic trickle down that impacts every island resident. And while locals love to complain about the traffic in Ganges or other related challenges that occur from so many people flooding onto our shores, we all to some degree benefit from their presence.
Now the Saturday market is at a crossroads, and the challenges it faces are a result of its incredible success. The crowds attending the market have grown and the number of people who wish to benefit from those crowds have as well. The temptation is to turn what in my view are physical and spacial design issues into personal issues pitting one group against another. But there is room for everyone, and an honest, independent, intelligent and unemotional review of the physical design of the market is desperately needed.
We need to identify and bring in a consultant from outside our community who can look at the market layout and design, learn from all of its participants and constituents, and come up with a physical design that supports the needs of everyone. There are individuals out there who specialize in farmers market design and in helping markets around North America navigate the inevitable growing pains that they all experience.
The current market layout has never made sense, it does not function well for vendors or for visitors, all of whom do not have the space or proper flow to comfortably engage with each other. There are challenges with offloading, with packing up and leaving, with limited sales space, traffic issues, aisles that are too narrow to comfortably walk down, sun exposure on perishable products, and most challenging — an inability to accommodate all of those who wish to participate as vendors.
There is the room in and around the park and on nearby roadways to create a physical market design that flows, that includes everyone who wants to participate, and that opens up space so that vendors and visitors do not feel we have been squeezed into a tiny box together. A creative market re-design could incorporate an open covered space for winter markets and events, and mimic every farmers market in the world where growers who have heavy perishable products do not need to off-load everything and can be closer to their trucks and shade.
The market was originally established on Rainbow Road by farmers and originally run by farmers. The addition of artisans and crafters to the market was an important boost and rounded out the market by drawing people who came not just for food but to experience the full range of creativity and talent that Salt Spring has to offer. As the market grew it had to re-define itself and clarify its direction. In 1991 there was a mediation process to determine the future of the market and to identify its goals. And while one of those was “local produce” and to “give farmers priority,” the slogan “Make it, bake it, or grow it” that came out of those discussions was inclusive of all types of creative endeavours. Those goals became the basis for the focus of the market to this day.
The actions we take now can either enhance the experience for visitors, continue to encourage our local economy, and make us stronger as a community or they can diminish those benefits and divide us. This is not about farmers versus crafters, or between long-term and newer vendors, it is about finding a creative way to support us all, and recognizing that the market is strong because of the diversity of players that are involved with it.
Do farmers have special needs? Absolutely. The sheer size and weight of farm products are different than jewelry or T-shirts or bowls or cookies or even cheese. Farm products are bulky, heavy and require considerably more space both for display and for back stock. Fruits and vegetables are also extremely perishable and require a superhuman effort to sell quickly and efficiently so quality is kept high and loss low. Both of these aspects require special consideration.
Farming and the health of our local food system requires the support and participation of the whole community. Everyone benefits from a vibrant local agriculture. But the success of our Saturday market requires that all who fulfill the “Make it, bake it, or grow it” requirements be able to fully and equally participate.
The market is well loved simply because it is a microcosm of our island community: the wood workers, clothes makers, designers and potters, the fishermen, the bakers, the growers of fruits and vegetables and grains, the musicians and performers who keep us entertained. They are all threads in the fabric that people come to experience each Saturday. Let us recognize the unique aspects of each, the power that is created when all these diverse elements are brought together, and accept that we need to change the physical design of the market space to allow us to move forward.
The writer has been farming and selling at farmers markets since 1976. He is an author whose most recent book is Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier.