This summer’s Whistler Farmers’ Market could be in peril if organizers are unable to secure a new location.
The popular market was slated to kick off on Sunday, June 21. Earlier this month, the Whistler Farmers’ Market board and market manager sent out a letter to its members explaining that the board had passed a unanimous motion not to host the market at its Upper Village location—property owned by Vail Resorts—this year. The letter went on to say that “after months of negotiations, the highest number of vendors the market is currently able to accommodate represents only 13 per cent of our membership,” due to physical-distancing guidelines.
That would mean only 17 vendors would fit in the current space with the requisite two metres between vendors and customers. To that end, the board said the Upper Village was no longer a financially viable location, as a minimum of 30 vendors are needed.
Organizers had been hopeful that the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) would approve an alternative plan to host the market with up to 30 vendors behind the Audain Art Museum on the day lot connector road, but the proposal was ultimately turned down.
In an email, the RMOW said the area wasn’t a suitable location because the road is important for the flow of vehicles; parking traffic that would normally use the connector road would cause congestion on Lorimer Road and Blackcomb Way; and work is taking place in the adjacent Lot 4 to install overhead lighting and EV charging stations.
“We recognize the challenges the Whistler Farmers’ Market is facing and want to work with them on finding a location that allows for their operations to meet physical distancing requirements,” said the email.
The board wasn’t satisfied with the reasoning, said board member Alyssa Belter, who also co-runs small-scale certified organic Plenty Wild Farms in Pemberton.
“I was pretty surprised to get the response,” she said. “It was, ‘No, it was not approved.’ We had to go back and say, ‘Why? Can you let us know why?’ To me, the reasons felt like not super strong reasons.”
Vail Resorts also offered the market its property in Parking Lot 6 on Blackcomb Mountain near Base II, but the market said that spot wasn’t suitable for a number of reasons.
“Vail did propose Lot 6, which we felt would almost be like a death knell for the farmers’ market,” Belter said. “It’s so out of the way… There’s no parking, public transit. If you’re walking or on foot it’s super inaccessible. It felt like a barrier coming up to the market. You need a car and no tourists are going to find it.”
Sarah McCullough, director of government and community relations with Vail Resorts who works with the market, said that they’re happy to support the board however they can.
“We love it, we love to support it with the Upper Village lands,” McCullough said. “There are many retail operators that have supported it for years and years and want it to happen. But this year with all the things we need to take into account that have to be physically distanced, we just don’t have room for more than 17 … Despite what the board voted, I’m absolutely open if they want to revisit it to look back at the 17 [vendors].”
The Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre also offered its parking lot to the market and, at press time, Belter said the board was exploring the idea of using that space in conjunction with the Upper Village space as well.
In the meantime, Chris Quinlan, former market manager who was involved in a lawsuit with the farmers’ market last year that ended in a negotiated settlement, posted on a popular Whistler Facebook page and reached out to Pique about his concerns for this year’s market.
He said that the market should have moved forward with a reduced number of vendors this year.
“Their first responsibility is to the farmers,” he wrote in the post. “There were 10 vendors in 2018 in the [farm] produce category, including a honey farmer and Lillooet rancher. All of these could have been accommodated, plus 7 other artisan or craft vendors. The WFM board could easily subsidize the operations for a season and meet this responsibility. The board chose not to.”
Belter, meanwhile, said she’s had the difficult task of approaching the situation as both a board member and a farmer who stands to lose 50 per cent of her gross income for the year.
“It’s pretty heartbreaking and I feel for the other vendors as well,” she said. “This is their livelihood, their small business.”
In the meantime, farmers like Andrew Budgell at Laughing Crow Organics—who said he is not blaming any parties for the challenging year—are grappling with how they will make ends meet if the market does not go forward at all this season. While they do have a vegetable box delivery service and participate in agricultural tourism, the Whistler market is their biggest market.
“Starting next week, that big pile of Whistler Farmers’ Market food is going to start flowing off the fields and it’s got to go somewhere. It’s really expensive if it goes to the compost pile,” he said.
Going forward, Belter said the board remains hopeful they will find a suitable location, but is putting a call out to the community for support.
“As a farmer and a board member, I’m asking the community for help,” she said. “I want to see a market, but if the community wants to see a market, it feels like we need some movers and shakers to help us out and help us find a location that will support the organization and the community. We can’t do it alone.”