With the local food movement booming across Canada and the United States, farmers’ markets have been cropping up everywhere, from office buildings to hospital lobbies and even remote communities.
The heart of Canada’s breadbasket, though, is becoming the country’s most unfortunate place to be a foodie: In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, two of the nation’s most agriculturally oriented provinces, reams of requests for new farm markets are being turned down, and some markets regularly have dozens of empty stalls despite the crowds they draw.
The reason is paradoxical but simple: there aren’t enough farmers to go around.
“Because of the local food movement having this huge momentum now … I have calls on a regular basis from people wanting to start a farmers’ market. [But] we haven’t figured out a plan to recruit farmers’ market vendors,” said Dianna Mae Hocaluk, director of the Farmers’ Market Association of Manitoba. “There is a lack of affordable farmland for small scale farms,” she said. “We have a lot of large, corporate farms. They’ve taken over most of the land.”
With more than 7.7 million hectares devoted to farming (picture a sprawl of about 19 million football fields) Manitoba ranks third among provinces with the most agricultural land. Most of that has historically been devoted to cash crops such as corn and grain, and while small-scale farms have begun to increase, demand has outpaced them. In 2007, the province had just 13 farm markets; now there are 48.
The story in Saskatchewan is similar: The province leads the country with more than 26 million hectares of farmland, but struggles to entice large operators to local markets, which are running well below capacity.
“I know there’s good spice production in this province, but they [producers] are too big to consider doing some portion at a small scale and getting the product right into the hands of the people that live here,” said Debra Claude, manager of operations for Saskatchewan Farmers’ Markets.
“We’d love to run more markets,” she said. “We just don’t have enough people that are really taking on market gardening.”
Making a sustainable living from small-scale farming can be a slog, especially during the early years when many farmers still work regular jobs to make ends meet. Between these jobs and work on-farm, people have to be strategic about where they sell.
“We have to be selective about the markets we choose,” said Kim Shukla, an agrologist and co-owner of Stoneland Orchard, a fruit and vegetable operation near Steinbach, Man. Ms. Shukla and her husband, Richard Whitehead, bought their farm 10 years ago. Now, they vend at two markets a week and operate a successful community-supported agriculture operation (consumers pay a fixed weekly fee for a box of bounty that is heavier in good seasons and lighter in bad ones, sharing both risk and rewards with farmers). Expanding sales to more markets, particularly at new and unproven locations, upsets their balance sheet, Ms. Shukla said.
“Last year, we did three markets. We ended up just working to pay the staff,” she said.
Ms. Shukla said she needs to take in $2,000 to $10,000 to make a market day worth her time.
Numbers like that are easiest to hit in areas with more density than the Prairie sprawl. A cross-country survey conducted in 2008 by Farmers’ Markets Canada showed that 64 per cent of farm market sales occur in Ontario, which has about 150 of the country’s 500 markets. Despite ranking fourth in terms of the amount of land farmed, the province has the most farms in Canada, more than 57,000. In the populous Greater Toronto Area, small-scale farmers have dozens of options each week.
Bert Andrews runs a pick-your-own berry operation west of Toronto at his farm, Andrews Scenic Acres. He also sends staff and a fleet of rented trucks packed with produce to 11 markets across the GTA each week. The vast exposure, he said, helps drive people to the picking operation at his farm, boosting the overall viability of his business.
“We go to four on Saturday morning alone,” he said. “If we had the ability, we’d go to more.”