CVFM: Growing farmers – and the local economy – for 25 years

LIFT (as sponsored social media marketing at the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market from 2012-2016. Why? Because I’d been writing about food since 2004. Writing about the Farmers’ Market was a “feel good” thing to do. I thought that writing about farmers would me more interesting and wholesome than writing about restaurants.
I did a lot of farmers’ profiles. (You can watch them here.) And, over those 40+ interviews it sank in: the Market isn’t just about local and fresh and “local food” cool. The Market is about the economy.
I’d interviewed Vickey Brown, CVFM Executive Director, a number of times over the years. We’d had a great time, helping tell the story about farms and food in the Comox Valley. But I recently interviewed about something different: the bigger picture. I asked her about the role of the Market in the local economy, a role that many of us take for granted or don’t understand.
INTERVIEW (April 2, 2017)
HPM: You’ve described the Market to me as a “business incubator.” What does the Market do that helps grow food businesses?
Vickey Brown (VB): We were started in 1992 by farmers, for farmers, so this is our 25th anniversary year of doing what I call “growing farmers,” and helping farmers sell their food. Even with our processors and concessions, are required to use locally grown ingredients as much as possible.
At the most basic level, the Market recruits customers with our marketing. We provide farmers with an opportunity to introduce products, test flavours, and hear directly from customers. We also provide a number of opportunities for farmers to meet a variety of customers, in a variety of locations. For example, during the peak season, we have three weekly Markets: Wednesday in downtown Courtenay, Saturday at the Exhibition Grounds, and Sunday in Cumberland.
The Market also connects farmers with organisations like the North Vancouver Island Chefs’ Association, local restaurants, Lush Valley, to name a few.
At another level, the Market provides an educational service. People need to know who our producers are, and why they do what they do. And, importantly, we’re here to educate people about the realities of local food economics. It’s difficult to make a living farming. The Market plays a role telling the story about the value of local food, beyond simple price.
Most farmers work in isolation, not only from customers, but from each other. So l, the Market is also a place where farmers learn from and support each other. It gives them a place to talk about farm and business issues, like how they’re doing irrigation, pest control, etc. It’s a learning place.
HPM: How many businesses are currently active in the market?
VB: Just under a 100. Vendors come and go, but that’s number’s been fairly steady since I started working here in 2010. Of course, the number of vendors actually at the Market changes with the season. We have a maximum of between 70-75 during peak season.
HPM: What are some examples of businesses that have “graduated” from the market?
VB: Some of the more visible success of the Market-as-incubator are Tannadice Farm, DKT Ranch, Tree Island Yogurt, Green Acres Pies – to name a few. Others, like Prontissima Pasta, Natural Pastures, Healing Bliss, and Big D’s Honey have grown into storefronts, but are still active at the Market. Recently local wineries and distillers have added to what the Market offers. Wayward Distillation House won the People’s Choice for their vodka at BC Distilled in 2016, but they’re still at every Saturday Market. Stone’s Throw Winery, 40 Knots Winery, Hornby Island Estate Winery, and Blue Moon Winery are other high profile businesses that are active at the Market even as they grow their own storefront businesses.
HPM: What are some of the biggest obstacles to growth for local food businesses, and how does the Market help address these?
VB: The biggest obstacle is early stage revenue. Like many startups, farmers struggle to generate enough cash flow to keep going. So food producers are juggling multiple jobs to get their business growing. For example, Cottage Farm was at the Market for several years before they were able to give up their “day jobs.” It’s a bit of a catch-22: you’re not putting enough time into the farm to grow it, but you need the other job to to invest in the farm. We’ve created the New Farmer Bursary to help with some of this early stage difficulty. But we could do much more.
Weather is a factor that we have no control over. But we can play a role in telling the story. For example, the reason your local food sometimes costs more is because the weather has been hard on farmers. A long, cold winter this year has meant that many early season crops weren’t ready for sale, and that the spring season will be later. That puts a squeeze on cash flow. A couple of years ago we had a long, dry summer. That reduced yields, and has even had an impact on livestock and meat in years following. We’re used to the industrial food model, where we, as consumers are somewhat insulated from the real world of what farmers deal with. That’s not the case with the Market. Because farmers sell direct to customers, we get both the freshest and tastiest produce, and the real cost of that produce.
Another issue facing our local food producers is capital investment, whether it’s production space or cold-storage and distribution. Some farmers’ markets are creating production and testing spaces. These could also include co-operative cold storage and distribution. All of this could spin-off of an enhanced farmers’ market function.
HPM: What’s stopping the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market from addressing these issues?
VB: We don’t have the capacity. There is a significant need for infrastructure in our local food economy, and we don’t have the money or the staff to do what we could be doing. Even though we were voted Best Large Market in BC in 2015, we know we could do more.
HPM: How is the Market currently funded?
VB: The majority of funding to run the Market comes from the farmers, from vendors’ table fees and member fees. Local government contributes close to 4% of our current operating budget, and we pay local government about 10% of that budget in venue rental costs. Occasionally we are eligible for grants for special projects, like promotion and advertising. We also are seeking sponsorship support.
HPM: What are the priorities if there were better funding?
VB: We would definitely like to do more for our vendors. Priorities would include office space accessible to the public and vendors, more staff support for education and promotion for farmers and local food. We also see a great need for more direct supports for farmers. For example, the New Farmer Bursaries are helping people get started, but we could also help farmers replace weather damaged greenhouses, help them set up irrigation. I’d really like to see us expand the nutrition coupon program to go year-round, not just summer-only. We’d also love to do workshops for our vendors, to help them grow their business.
HPM: How can we – the public, other businesses – support the Market?
VB: Sponsorships are a big help. A sponsorship from Hinterland Studio is helping with the Cumberland market. Jace Pierson has helped with New Farmer Bursary. Courtenay KIA is providing a tow-vehicle for our Market stage and gear. We’re also looking for sponsorship of our music program, for a kids’ area, and for specific markets – eg downtown, Winter, Cumberland – and for special events at the market, like Farmer Appreciation Week, and our Food Fests. That kind of thing.
HPM: Have you considered a non-vendor Market membership as a way for the public to support the work you’re doing?
VB: We are looking at a “Friends of the Market” type program. We’re hoping to have this in place in 2017. We’re also working on a “donate” button for the website, for people who want to help in that way. And, we always welcome cash or cheque donations at the Market table.
At LIFT we’ve recently created a Young Entrepreneur Fund that will enable food entrepreneurs – in local food, business, the arts, and more – to participate in business development workshops. We’re also re-engaging as social media sponsors to help tell the story of the Comox Valley’s food entrepreneurs at the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market. Watch for profiles on our social media channels on the blog, on our Facebook page notes, Instagram, and Twitter.
hpm for LIFT
@hanspetermeyer on Twitter & Instagram Growing the economy, one entrepreneur at a time.
ps. Our local economic development body is doing some good work to promote our local food sector. Hat’s off to them. That’s a very good way to spend the almost $1M they get from local taxpayers. I just wish that the CVFM would get some help doing its work at the grassroots. That’s why I support individual giving and business sponsorships. That’s why LIFT is doing what it can to support the Market. Without you and me making sure that good food is grown locally, it won’t happen.