It’s a stormy afternoon at the St. Norbert’s Farmers’ Market just south of Winnipeg, but Phil Veldhuis’s spirits are far from damp.
The market has just announced an online service that means inclement weather over the winter months will no longer stymie producers’ efforts to reach customers.
“I’ve had this dream for a number of years of this kinda Tim Hortons drive-through-style farmers’ market, where the person would stay in their car and get their order when it’s -30,” said Veldhuis, who chairs the market’s online committee. “That seemed very doable to me.”
The online market will officially open for business on September 20, allowing consumers to view vendors’ products online and place orders. Consumers will pay in advance, then pick up their purchases.
During the regular market season, orders will be picked up at the market site.
Once the regular season wraps up at the end of October, orders will be available at a yet-to-be finalized indoor location somewhere in St. Norbert.
Veldhuis, who has sold honey at the market since 1991, said the move to online sales was inspired in part by the Harvest Moon Local Food Initiative, which he has also been involved in.
“That has been working every well, but it is hitting some regulatory roadblocks… the province’s opinion is that, that is no longer a farm gate-style sale, so some of the products you can get at the farmers’ market, you can’t get in the Harvest Moon model,” he said.
Earlier this year, the province told the Clearwater-based collective it could no longer pool deliveries of ungraded eggs and uninspected poultry. Producers were taking orders online and taking turns delivering products to Winnipeg customers.
Marilyn Firth, executive director of the St. Norbert market, said comparisons between the new online service and Harvest Moon have been common, but unfounded.
“There are other organizations out there running this type of thing, but they’re not treating it as a farmers’ market… people raise Harvest Moon quite a bit, but they’re taking quite a different path from us. People do get confused about them being similar, but they’re not,” she said.
“For example, Harvest Moon’s farmers bring their stuff to a location, it’s consolidated into orders and brought into the city by an individual and then distributed, so there’s this sort of middle person acting as the consolidator.”
According to Mike Leblanc, manager of Manitoba Health’s health protection unit, it’s the use of a middle person that moves goods out of the farm gate sales category.
“Farm gate is when you’re actually going to the vendor’s house, or farm property,” he said. “All the St. Norbert’s Farmers’ Market is really doing is moving the ordering and payment online, everything else really still follows the traditional farmers’ market model as far as we’re concerned.”
Manitoba regulations require “potentially hazardous” foods sold at farmers’ markets — like meat pies, perogies and spring rolls — to be manufactured in an inspected commercial kitchen. Low-risk foods, like jams, jellies, biscuits and bread, can be made in home kitchens.
And none of those requirements will change just because people can now order goods online, Leblanc said.
Manitoba Health will also issue a permit for the indoor winter location chosen by the market, he added.
While the St. Norbert market currently hosts 150 full-time vendors, only 40 will participate in the online market for now.
“But we expect that number to grow as we do… this is all new to us,” said Firth.
Derryl Reid of GreenBean Coffee Imports is one of the 40 vendors making the leap to online farmers’ market sales.
“It’s a great opportunity for our business because we don’t have a retail store,” said Reid. “We wholesale into the Manitoba market so the only opportunity where we get to really see and interact with our customer base is at St. Norbert’s Farmers’ Market.”
In years past, some loyal costumers have tried to stock up on coffee for the winter months, he said, but he added, because the beans are roasted right before being taken to market, stockpiling doesn’t result in the same freshness.
“So it’s been a repeated question our customers ask, especially this time of year as the market winds down… Where can we get it over the winter, and how can we get it in its fresh form?” said the entrepreneur.
Being able to sell products outside of the growing season, will also mean many producers will have more time to interact with customers, said Veldhuis.
“In the winter we actually have some time to do some of that stuff right, talk to people and build relationships,” he said.
Having a little extra income over the winter isn’t a bad thing either.
“It will spread the work of marketing out… and to have a little bit of cash flow, even if it’s not huge, coming in throughout the winter months makes a huge difference,” Veldhuis said.