The perception is farmers’ markets are booming, and that’s true if you’re a consumer.
More farmers’ markets with more vendors selling at them is great for customers, but it’s adding challenges for those whose livelihood hinges on how well a day’s sales goes — especially when customer traffic falls off.
Jeff Veenstra, is co-owner of Wild Earth Farms, a 20-acre vegetable farm near Birds Hill Provincial Park. He and his wife Janna have sold their fresh produce at the Pine Ridge Hollow Farmers Market since 2011. At the beginning, PRH was the only market in their area. Today there are four or five north of Winnipeg.
“When we started it was the only market on that edge of the city, and we had that whole corner,” said Jeff Veenstra. “Now there’s an increase in markets and an increase in farmers.”
Which would be fine, if there was a corresponding uptick of customers, he said. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Customers are now spread out more thinly among the increasing numbers of markets. The Veenstras also sell at the Downtown Biz Market in Winnipeg in addition to the Saturday PRH market. There, nearly a dozen sellers sell fresh produce and they’re all depending on high customer volumes, he said.
“I definitely see a flooding of the market,” Veenstra said.
The small-scale vegetable producer was a presenter at the Direct Farm Manitoba conference February 9, offering his general observations of trends and issues facing farmers’ market vendors.
The Veenstras also offer community-shared agriculture (CSA) contracts with customers and do sales to stores and restaurants. They’re working hard to expand their CSA customers, as well, but there, too, Veenstra says they face considerable competition.
There has also been an uptick in farms offering CSAs and presently 32 operate in Manitoba, with about two or three added yearly, according to CSA Farms of Manitoba.
And while all these farms are obviously successfully finding customers, Veenstra said, they also know customers increasingly have more options to buy local food, and can choose from variations of the home-delivered grocery box, including food companies that consolidate items from various farms, use online ordering, and also offer home delivery. That means more competition with the traditional buy-direct-from-the-farm CSA model, said Veenstra.
“I think there was a bit of a novelty to having a box of vegetables, and now you can get a box of everything,” he said. “I think the novelty of receiving a box has kind of disappeared.”
Bruce Berry, with CSA Manitoba agrees the market is changing with regard to demand for the traditional CSA model, or buying direct from the farm. The traditional CSA model is undergoing some transformation as farms offer different sizes, more box customization, more product diversity, Berry said.
“Ten years ago, we had to explain what a CSA is to just about everyone, and now the term CSA is desirable enough that we are seeing people use it for an offering that doesn’t fit the standard description,” he said.
Wild Earth Farms also diversifies its customer base with sales to stores and restaurant owners as well. Veenstra said those sales present their share of challenges as well, but admits selling direct to restaurants is one of his favourite marketing activities. That’s because chefs tend to be genuinely interested in the food they grow.
“I really like restaurant sales,” he said. “I enjoy it so much I sometimes forget about the business side of things, and so I’ll deliver $50 worth of produce to a chef just to chat and call it a coffee date.”
To address the customer traffic at markets issue, Direct Farm Manitoba is putting more effort into boosting awareness of farmers’ markets by promoting market locations, operating times, and highlighting their vendors and products they sell.
CSA Manitoba also has a website at CSAManitoba.org where customers can look for growers offering direct from the farm home deliveries of vegetables.
Veenstra said he doesn’t know to what extent fresh produce owners, or other types of farmers’ market vendors use online sales to reach customers.
“I think with more people being more comfortable doing click and collect and buying online I think there is space in that for market gardeners to get into,” he said.
What the competitive environment at the farmers’ market really boils down to, however, is always maintaining excellent customer relations, he said. Every vendor needs to try to distinguish themselves and what they offer in some way, because it defeats the purpose for everyone if there’s too much copying, or too many vendors selling the same thing.
“And it’s only going to make it very confusing for the customer,” he said.