By Tom Collins
BROCKVILLE — Chris Hall owes his life to farmers’ markets. It’s where his parents met and how he now earns a living.
Hall, of Hall’s Apple Market at Brockville, said his father was a teenager at the Brockville Farmers’ Market in the late 1940s working harder on romance than selling apples. His father would leave the booth to visit his future wife, who was selling vegetables.
Hall also grew up on farmers’ markets but today it’s a much bigger business. And not just for Hall. Thanks to an ongoing and growing trend to buy local, and the willingness to pay more for it, more and more producers are finding that farmers’ market can be a great place to earn a good living. The number of farmers’ markets across Ontario has ballooned to 200 from 60 only 20 years ago. Hall now sells at eight farmers’ markets each week from Ottawa to Brockville. They account for one-third of the farm business. Another third comes from his on-farm store and bakery. Another third comes from selling wholesale.
A big boost to sales is in hiring the right person to man the booths, said Hall. Shoppers can go to a grocery store, buy $300 in groceries, go through the self-checkout and leave without ever talking to another human being. Part of the charm of a farmers’ market is talking directly to the farmer.
“My wife, she’s a natural,” said Hall. “She’s got the smile, she’s got the good looks, people are just drawn to her, and she always figures she can make a few extra hundred dollars than I could. If you’re a farmer who really isn’t outgoing, you might want to send your wife or your kids or hire someone.”
The personal touch extends to building and maintaining loyalty. A customer once mentioned he could never find Gravenstein apples anymore. So Hall planted some Gravenstein trees and now has those apples available for that small niche clientele. Another customer once asked for a raisin pie, so Hall asked his wife to make one for the next week’s market.
“Once you make that connection with the guy, where do you think he’s going to go when he wants a raisin pie three months from now or next year?” said Hall. “He’ll be a customer for life. That’s something you just can’t get on the wholesale level.”
Hall remembered one man asked him why Hall’s pies were more expensive than at another booth. Hall explained he uses real fruit, his pies are home rolled, and since labour and packing costs have increased, $14 was fair. He politely told the customer that if he wanted a $10 pie, the customer should buy the pie from the other farmer.
“He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Well, I tried his pie last week. It’s no good.’ ” Then he purchased Hall’s $14 pie.
Farmers’ Markets Ontario executive director Robert Chorney said that farmers’ markets exceed $750 million in sales each year — that’s an average of $3.75 million for one farmers’ market. The biggest draws are strawberries, sweet corn, peaches and apples, Chorney said. He added that farmers at the larger markets need to sell at least $1,000 per day to make it worthwhile. Farmers generally pay $20 to $35 a day to rent space at a market, which can last 20 to 22 weeks per year.
But to make it work you have to hustle. Hall said farmers’ markets are a young man’s game when you’re hauling a heavy product. The long hours and the loading and unloading apples eight times a week can take its toll on a body.
On a Saturday, the farm has stalls at six markets. Hall is out of the house at 4:30 a.m., packing his products into a trailer and then dropping the trailer off at the Brockville Farmers’ Market. He meets the rest of his staff at the farm and heads into Ottawa, holding a staff meeting on the way. By 6:30 a.m., they start setting up at the first of three Ottawa markets while others set up markets in Kanata and Carp.
Hall stops at a restaurant for a quick breakfast around 10 a.m. For the rest of the day he is running back and forth between the markets helping to replenish supplies and delivering to restaurants. He starts packing up at the first market at 1 p.m. and he’s home by 5 p.m. to unload the trucks, count the day’s earnings and fill out paperwork. He wraps up around 8 p.m. before starting again Sunday morning.
John Beking of Beking’s Poultry Farm, south of Kemptville, sends only about three to four per cent of his eggs to farmers’ markets but the six markets where he sells also promote sales in stores he supplies. If a nearby store sells his eggs, it increases the chances that Beking will have a stall at the market. About 10 restaurants and stores carry Beking’s eggs that are within five blocks of ByWard Market, in the heart of downtown Ottawa and just down the street from Parliament Hill.
“When we’re there for six months of the year and then we close in the fall, people ask “Where else can we get your eggs?’” he said. “Once the markets close, some of our outlets see an increase in their sales.”
David Phillips of Avonmore Berry Farm first started selling at one farmers’ market in Cornwall 27 years ago. He opened a second booth at an Ottawa market in 2006 and has been expanding every two years. He now sells at eight markets and their sales make up around 50 per cent of his business. He hands out pamphlets at the markets as a way to encourage customers to visit his pick-your-own berry farm.
The popularity of markets is still growing as the younger generation is looking to buy local, he said. In Ottawa alone, there were just four Ottawa farmers’ markets in 2006 but there are now at least 12.
“People want to see who’s producing their food,” said Phillips.
Hall believes that the potential for farmers’ markets is still huge. He said studies show the number of people visiting Ottawa farmers’ markets to be about 25,000 to 30,000, about three per cent of Ottawa’s population. Hall thinks it would be easy to push that to 50,000 people and open another 10 to 15 markets if someone would champion the cause for each new market.
“There’s so much more potential,” he said. “We’re riding a wave right now. People are more conscious about what goes into their body and where their food comes from. And there’s the whole local food movement. Farmers’ markets are just an extension of that.”