The temperature is hovering around -25 C outside, but shoppers at St. Norbert’s Farmers’ Market mill among its stalls like it’s a balmy Saturday in July.
They’re indoors, of course, visiting Manitoba’s largest farmers’ market’s winter market.
This is the second winter St. Norbert’s stayed open for biweekly Saturday markets after October, with about 30 vendors here to keep right on selling until April when the outdoors warms up again.
Most weeks they’re inside the Eagles Club, a community centre near the grounds of the summer market. It’s a tiny market compared to the summer, but with about 500 visitors through the doors most weeks, St. Norbert’s executive director Marilyn Firth says the crowd is growing as more learn St. Norbert’s is operating year round.
“We’re really happy with how things are going,” she said. “It’s really been a big increase in the number of people coming out.”
These past two winter markets have been test runs in preparation for the future as St. Norbert fundraises to erect a permanent year-round market housed under a canopied structure on its grounds. It should be ready to go by the time the snow flies in 2017, says Firth. With that in place, they’ll be ready to expand, with plenty of room for more vendors, she said.
“I can see us having a 60- to 70-member market on the new site,” she said.
St. Norbert’s plans to bring Winnipeg on par with other Prairie cities such as Calgary, Saskatoon and Edmonton where year-round permanent farmers’ markets have operated for years.
“Why we didn’t do it years ago… I guess we’re kicking ourselves about that now,” says Phil Veldhuis, chair of the Farmers Market Association of Manitoba and longtime executive member of the St. Norbert Market.
“It’s just taken time to figure out how to do it.”
Backers of St. Norbert’s have reason to be optimistic a winter market will grow from this small start. In recent years, the summer market season has as many as 120 vendors and upwards of 10,000 visitors on a single Saturday during peak season.
No one could have envisioned such a thing when St. Norbert’s Farmers’ Market got its start in 1988 with eight stalls.
The potential for a winter market is very strong, say Firth and Veldhuis. Their vendors’ capacity for servicing a year-round market has improved year over year, with fresh produce growers gradually altering their cropping systems to include more root crops and adding on-farm storage to have product to sell year round. More growers have also begun to erect greenhouses to extend their fall and spring seasons.
This move to being open year round is purely customer driven, adds Firth.
“We’ve just found that the market season is too short,” she said, noting that many of their vendors were asked to keep up their customer deliveries after they closed in the fall.
The Farmers Market Association of Manitoba first looked into the prospect of a year-round market in Winnipeg a few years ago. The idea didn’t gain traction at the time, said Veldhuis, adding FMAM was busy trying to grow the existing markets around the province and didn’t have the capacity to take the idea further.
One of the biggest hurdles to operating a year-round market is having a site, and there’s never been one available in Winnipeg, Veldhuis said.
Other cities in Western Canada, B.C. and Eastern Canada have permanent year-round structures because buildings were made available to them, due to outside investment from various levels of government. The Saskatoon Farmers’ Market, for example, rents its space inside a permanent home that is part of the city’s River Landing development in the downtown, a project developed with support by all three levels of government. Edmonton’s year-round City Market Downtown is housed in an atrium adjacent to Edmonton’s City Hall and has several corporate partnerships including Edmonton’s Downtown Business Association.
St. Norbert operates as a non-profit co-operative, and with no site available for year-round operations, has never had the working capital to erect a permanent structure on its own.
“The economics aren’t there to build a huge building. You either have to co-operate or find a building you can share with someone else. In Winnipeg, that opportunity just hasn’t come around in the right way.”
They’re confident this foray into year-round operations will be successful “in gradual steps,” he continued.
“We now have growers who are able to produce for it, either in greenhouse conditions, or with good storage to have the produce people are looking for. And the other thing that’s changing is food prices. It probably is now cheaper to produce it in a greenhouse here than it is to fly it from California.”