From the Editor: Cutting out the middle man

January 05, 2009
Written by
Shopping has never been one of my strong suits, unless it’s to buy something for me, but I’ve always enjoyed farmers’ markets. You’re strolling in the country, without leaving the city limits.

The vendors are extremely knowledgeable, and always quite friendly. On my last visit to the Brantford Farmers Market, I remarked to “Dan the Mushroom Man” that he must be one of the veterans. “If you can tell me the year I started coming here,” he challenged, with a twinkle his eye, “I’ll give you your mushrooms for free.” I was off by eight years, but that type of banter is quite common.

Everything is fresh and usually local in origin. “Picked late yesterday,” was the reply when I asked one vendor about her corn last summer, “and the truck will be here before lunch with some picked this morning.” Her point was that I’d have to set up a pot of boiling water in her fields to taste anything fresher.

And the price is fair. Supermarkets might have a few cheaper items, but overall, farmers’ markets compare quite favourably at the end of the day. And the service is far superior, the quality unsurpassed.

It’s a marketing opportunity more greenhouse growers should pursue. Direct marketing is an important retailing stream, and one that governments are encouraging. In Ontario, for example, the government recently earmarked $4 million for new initiatives “to help people buy food directly from Ontario farmers.”

This support will provide a real boost to direct farm marketing in Ontario, said Mark Saunders, president of the Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association.

Farmers’ Markets Ontario chairperson Philip Powell was equally enthused. “We’re looking forward to expanding the number of markets, vendors and products they sell, improving the quality of research and training we can provide to them, and, ultimately, increasing the production and sales of Ontario products, which benefits all of us.”

Research carried out in 2006 showed that the 125 farmers’ markets represented by Farmers’ Markets Ontario have annual sales of $645 million, and have an economic impact on the province of $1.9 billion. That’s a sizeable customer base.

On-farm marketing provides seasonal employment for 10,000 Ontario residents, and represents $116 million in annual gross receipts, according to a 2005 study. And roadside stands can be profitable and easy to manage. Just 10 minutes from my office is a greenhouse with a stand set up along a driveway. Tomatoes and peppers are two dolllars a bag, and cucumbers just a dollar a piece. A primarily wholesale potted flower grower in the same general area has roadside sales every summer and fall.

Many Alberta greenhouse growers make extremely good use of farmers’ markets. The Leamington region is well-known for its roadside stands of greenhouse produce. Nova Scotia growers recently resolved a highway signage issue with their provincial government.

Growers who haven’t yet added direct sales to their marketing program are missing a great retailing opportunity; and what better way to obtain customer feedback on new products and trends.

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