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Food and drink: Behind the market stalls

It takes a village, or a very patient manager, to raise a farmers’ market

It's a theatrical experience - a place to get wowed or be soothed, or just step out of the boredom of day-to-day reality.

It's a pub, a coffee house turned inside out and placed outside, a place to hang out, people watch, meet those neighbours you hadn't talked to in ages.

It's an incubator for start-up businesses. It's an economic driver that flips 1.5 times the money spent there into the surrounding community.

It's a place to buy your dinner and to put a face on your food.

It's your local farmers' market - spelled variously as farmer's, farmers' or farmers market, but I will stick with the original dictionary-certified "farmers' market" for now.

However you spell it, running one can be quite the experience, hovering somewhere between directing a play and running serial counselling sessions. Sometimes you could even be justified for taking a course in mediation, juggling or self-defense along the way.

"When I get new staff they say, you know, I didn't realize it was so deep," says Roberta LaQuaglia, operations manager for the past six years for Vancouver Farmers Markets. They run four summer markets and one winter market in Vancouver. Their catchy motto: "Meet your maker."

"People ask us what do you do all day  - talk to farmers on the phone and that's all? But there's so much of this that is not just a daily thing, there is so much below the surface."

Market managers are like counsellors and moms, with vendors calling when they're having a bad day, like their equipment is breaking down, or they're having troubles on the farm.

They're business development centres, helping young businesses to get going, and offering advice like which crops to grow or which products to bring.

They're mediators, working with the health authority and other local authorities, making sure vendors are on board with things like food safety and bylaws. And working with neighbours, who may not like all the cars being parked on market day; with vendors who are pissed off with fellow vendors; or with parks boards who want the space for baseball games.

While he may not have all these issues to deal with, halfway through his first season managing Whistler's farmers' market, Chris Quinlan is quickly discovering the many aspects to the game.

Ironically, as a member of the Upper Village Merchants Association he had a hand in starting up the market back in '93. He's run his own restaurants, managed and/or worked in some of Whistler's most demanding eateries, including the food and beverage side of Blackcomb Mountain, and he's handled a staff of 75.

He's also a raging thespian, and I don't mean his stint as a newly-elected councillor. ("Before I was elected to council the most times I've been onstage at Millennium Place was in a dress, so it was quite different to be there without some sort of make-up on," he notes.)

But no matter what depth and what background you bring to the job, nothing quite prepares a person for running the part-spectacle, part-shopping mall, part-plaza creation that is a farmers' market.

"The first thing was the intensity," says Chris, who starts walking the market at 7 a.m. and doesn't stop until closing.

"We're dealing with merchants like the artisans, the farmers and the crafts people who all have a vested interest in the thing. It isn't like dealing with a staff member!" he cautions.

What we, the blissfully engaged but unaware customers, may not realize as we stroll through the market, sampling the delightful wares, enjoying the live entertainment and yakking with the vendors we've gotten to know like friends or our long-lost neighbours we bump into, is that the whole experience has been carefully and painstakingly orchestrated for us.

At every farmers' market - correct that to read every successful farmers' market - people like Chris and Roberta work tirelessly to make sure everything is running as smoothly as a Broadway production.

First, the right mix of vendors is important. The B.C. Association of Farmers' Markets and most market managers agree that the majority of stalls should be given over to farmers for the optimal experience for everyone. The association even mandates that 60 per cent of stalls be filled by farmers.

Some farmers' markets, like Whistler's, don't reach that ratio but the invisible hand of the market manager still ensures you'll find a good mix of products. Is there a berry vendor, and not too many berry vendors? A cheese vendor? Someone selling baked goods, eggs and meat? So you can buy your whole dinner at the market.

To create a healthy flow of customers from one end to the other, managers will sometimes bravely face the wrath of vendors in order to reposition in strategic locations what are known as anchor vendors - those favourites that regular customers will flock to, like North Arm Farm and the Helmers out of Pemberton, Lee Mounsey and her Okanagan fruit, or GBE Organics with their heirloom tomatoes from Chilliwack.

They'll keep an eye out so one popular vendor's lineup doesn't block another vendor's booth. And the night before the market opens they'll answer the phone good-naturedly and make all the ensuing arrangements to ensure there isn't a hole in the production when someone rings up to say, oh, I won't be there tomorrow because I've run out of organic whatevers to sell.

All this to ensure that we customers have a good experience buying food and products that are good for us and our local community.

For those of us who can remember when you couldn't even get a head of iceberg lettuce at Whistler when it came to buying fresh produce, the farmers' market really has changed the way people eat.

"When the product is available, people who live in Whistler will go to the market, pay the premium price and they'll get the quality product... I think it's just a fact that once it's there, they'll go to it - they appreciate those better things," says Chris.

"Fresh is important, organic is even more important - and getting stuff that is locally produced is a big, big part of it."

It's telling that the one day it's a slower day at the Whistler Farmers' Market is when the Slow Food Cycle is going on in Pemberton. And the tale is you can't keep a good thing, or two, down.

 

Wherever you are, get out and enjoy your local farmers' market. The one at Whistler runs every Sunday until Oct. 10 in the Upper Village. See whistlerfarmersmarket.org for details. For hours and info on Vancouver's farmers' markets, go to www.eatlocal.org

 

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who loves her farmers' markets.

 

 




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