Let's Talk about Farmers' Markets!

Hi everyone,

as you may have heard (or witnessed), there are some farmers’ markets in Ontario facing criticism for how they are handling issues like reselling, labeling, and managing competition between vendors. Some examples you might be familiar with include the Peterborough farmers’ market and the Guelph farmers’ market. Most recently, you may have heard that the Peterborough market is considering giving some local vendors the boot, or seen the CBC Marketplace episode “Farm Fresh?”

EFAO has created this thread to keep conversations going about these issues. We’d especially like to know what good market management looks like to you, what could be improved, and whether you see mutually beneficial arrangements at markets that allow both growers and resellers. This information is for your benefit as much as it is for EFAO, and we hope the conversation will be fruitful!

Thanks for joining the discussion with your polite & engaged contributions!

I’m not sure if my comment is along the lines of this discussion…I belonged to a farmer’s market last year and I learned that some authentic and local suppliers were excluded on the basis of competition. In specific, there was an apple grower who wanted to sell but wasn’t allowed to because there was already another apple grower selling there. I think this is completely unfair and that anyone who is authentic and local should have a right to sell at their nearest farmer’s market. Consumers should have choice, growers should have access to the opportunity, and there’s enough to go around. I don’t believe in putting limits on the economy in that regard.


Thanks for offering your experience here. It seems quite common that markets want to limit the number of vendors selling a specific product in order to keep the offerings varied and to avoid too many vendors competing for sales of the same product. In your experience, were those vendors who were already selling apples also the apple growers, do you know? Did the market management offer any other solutions?

I have participated in a number of farmers markets over the years and also started up 3 new farmers markets. I have found that markets can be poorly managed in many cases and that farmers have little to know influence over decision making. Often markets are started to support another activity - as in a business starts a market to draw more clients to their business. This is common also when BIA’s start up markets. They want to increase foot traffic in their geographic retail area - this creates a few different problems for decision making.
Markets can also be confounded by how market managers and management committees think of food. It’s important that markets have farmer representation and that this representation is fair and transparent - I have found that this does not happen often in markets.
Markets are places of competition and cooperation and so decision making is difficult should the apple vendor be allowed in the market - can the market handle another apple vendor? Can an existing vendor be let go if the new vendor is a grower?
It’s time for a more comprehensive approach to market management and a way to support markets and growers in farmers markets.


I agree that farmers have to be part of the market committee. It is also crucial for the market to have a list of goals, rules and conflict resolution in place. Perhaps it would be interesting to collect as many Ontario farm market policies in order to compare and perhaps even rate them.
If I grow it I expect to be able to sell it at market. If a manager wants to restrict my sales to certain types of produce - I will not attend that market. But then I have always been drawn to odd, lesser known produce, grown in an eclectic mix.
A market is a dynamic organism. It can be competitive and ugly or co-operative and considerate. The tone of the market is set by the policies and management. When both are good, problems are averted and the atmosphere is supportive and generous.

Hello The first market we attended was the Milton Farmers Market run by the BIA with little to no influence for growers and always with strong resellers with very low prices taking advantage of the often consignment based food system run through the food terminal. The BIA believed they needed to get lots of people in who needed food in what had become an under serviced area in downtown when the local store moved a couple km away. Part of how we create food deserts in urban spaces. They moved to the Super Centres. The Milton BIA did a great job advertising the market to tens of thousands of new neighbourhoods, working at creating a flow to the market and the community a a whole does love their market. We did well enough to sell our overflow veggies at a good price so no complaints but it’s a difficult system.

I was on the board of FoodShare Toronto in 2000 and they wanted to support building new markets into Toronto. They had approached med and large scale farms to do it and no one would since the sales required to justify it were prohibitive and market concentration and shopping habits are what they are. We then were amongst the founding growers of Riverdale, Dufferin Grove, Trinity Bellwoods, Wychwood, Withrow and Sorauren Martkets, plus the Junction and Parkdale for the local community centre. We chose these markets because we were running a large CSA and had overflow produce as well as good connections to overflow food from other growers. We could afford it if the overflow didn’t sell… We managed to work with people who were supporting Grower Priority Rules wherein if a grower did the work to get a product to market, he could sell it. We also worked in an infill process to support the growth of the market, it’s vendors and the offerings to market goers. Growers can bring 30% or so of product which is not theirs but from an agreed upon source. This product cannot compete if another market vendor has the product available from his own farm. Civil rules to support farmers producing food locally. The more you produce the more you can sell of infill products. The rules were modelled after NYC’s Green Markets and didn’t have food terminal resellers. Consider some 90+ % of people get their food through the stores. At Plan B we focused on building these markets over a number of years and succeeded in selling most of our overflow foods from 25 acres through them or at least enough to get a fair return on the last of our production, which more than one can reasonably expect to get… especially when we made a good living on the bulk of our CSA crops.

In the span of some 7 years there were some 50 + more markets developed in the areas and people’s shopping habits hadn’t changed. 90+ % still buying in the stores and everyone else still sharing the left overs but split more ways. It meant that markets where we were peaking at $6500 in sales are more like $500 - $1500 markets now. We find markets are very difficult to work with because they are very speculative sales and often you come home with too much of your hard work. Like I said, we can afford to do it and believe in it. We mostly agree to do a certain number to have an outlet for our overflow food and to reach a critical mass of size wherein it’s worth it to put a crop in and expect to make a living from it… We see them mostly as a social function wherein we’d like to be able to reserve the right to bring foods directly into our communities and create meaningful work for ourselves and others.

Many young or new growers we have seen will go to a market and hope to sell their food but not succeed. It’s very difficult to build markets. People are used to one stop shop everywhere. Location, logistics and generations of consumer habits no longer connected to the productive cycle. This is why we run a mixed farm CSA approach. We find it helps create what our customers want and need in their food source, and helps us to get a fair price on our production within that system.

As growers we have worked with managers of small markets who continuously brought far too many similar vendors to market. In the hopes of growth. Nobody sold much of anything and nobody made any money. How many growers a market needs and can sustain is very important to measure.

As growers we have also worked with market managers who are diligent in discussing the community’s needs and getting growers to take on those responsibilities. Often other farmers were not invited to markets because it was clear that their 12 main crops were the same 12 crops that several farmers at the market were already going home with plenty of. Growers who showed a willingness to produce diverse crops not supplied by the current growers were preferred.

Market managers need to work with farmers to help support farmers growing food for communities. We are approx. 10% self sufficient in Ontario and our entire food system is predicated on a just in time engineered cheap food policy which is bringing us food deserts and skyrocketing prices. Food Sovereignty means we need to have help from our communities to build better alternatives to food production and distribution models.

We call it the Short Chain, or Horizontal Trading:) Part of building up our Local Ecology is building our Local Economy. The money your customers spend mostly stays in their community and is spent again and again. That’s now we generate real wealth in a society. Linking Production and Consumption cooperatively. At Plan B selling direct means we are in the 30th percentile of farm size but closer 70 % in sales. Thanks for the Food for Thought.

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I was a founding board member of the St. Marys Farmers’ Market and helped write our rules and regulations 25 years ago. I have been on the board much of that time and the chair for several years now. In the early 90’s there was a push to start new farmers’ markets across Ontario and in smaller communities, a push that I believe started first in northern Ontario, and a push that was led by Farmers’ Markets Ontario (FMO). FMO provided valuable support to the start up of the St. Marys Farmers’ Market, including templates of documents like constitutions, bylaws and rules and regulations. With those templates we drew up those key documents specific to the St. Marys community and had a market on the ground within two months. There have been very few changes to those key documents over the last 25 years, I think largely because we took the templates offered, templates put together based on experiences of what worked. I have at times shared those St. Marys documents with other markets.

The St. Marys Farmers’ Market is:

  • a vendor based market;
  • but we kept the option open for vendors to sell products from other local farmers/bakers/food artisans by stating that 70% of what any vendor sells must be their own product and no vendor can be a reseller only;
  • vendors must be local, which we describe as within 30 km of St. Marys,
  • but again we left an option to have vendors from further away. The board can give approval to vendors from beyond 30 km but in doing so must consider whether or not any non-local vendor is likely to impact the sale of local produce/food products. This allows the market to have a vendor bring fruit, like peaches and cherries, that are not available within 30 km;
  • any local farmer/baker/food artisan is welcome to attend the market. It doesn’t matter if there is someone else selling the same product - if you are local you are welcome. Competition can push all vendors to be better. But the board may not approve vendors who are not local if they will be in direct competition with vendors already at the market;
  • one of the market rules is no-clear out or distress pricing, something that is a bit difficult to clearly define, but it has been discussed with vendors from the first day of the market and vendors are encouraged to cooperate on pricing. It doesn’t mean that there are no price differences, but it does mean there is some sense of working together for the benefit of all among vendors;
  • the board has 8 members with a requirement that 2-4 of those board members be vendors. The board cannot be all vendors nor all non-vendors;
  • the St. Marys Farmers’ Market Association is a stand-alone organization, not a committee of or part of the Town, the BIA or any other larger organization;
  • the Town of St. Marys has always supported the market, most importantly by providing a Town owned parking lot as the site of the market for free;
  • we require 4 farmer/food vendors to every craft vendor, so the market remains food based;
  • changes to the Ontario Food Premises Regulations in the 2000’s, led FMO to advocate on behalf of producer based farmers’ markets, so that Producer-Based Farmers’ Markets are exempt from some of those regulations. Specifically if 50% or more of vendors at a market are farmers then vendors at the market are still able to sell baking/preserves/etc. made in their own home kitchen, rather than being required to have an inspected kitchen. So to remain an exempt market, as a market board we now have to make sure we have 50% farmers, which may mean we have to limit the number of home bakers/home preserve makers we may have at the market;
  • remaining a member of FMO has been valuable to us. It provides us with affordable insurance as a market but it also provides us with valuable resources, training, and a place to go for support/experience/ideas when challenges arrive.

In many ways it is easier to start a farmers’ market with rules based on local/farmer-based than to change long-standing markets with a history of re-sellers. In the same way it is easier to start and work hard to maintain a spirit of cooperation/working together among the vendors than it is to change the dynamics within long standing markets. I also see more interest in setting up farmers’ markets in more and more communities (whether smaller rural towns or communities within cities) than I see farmers or shoppers to support those farmers’ markets.

Last year I attended the FMO conference, which is part of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention, on behalf of the St. Marys Farmers’ Market. Michelle Wolf from Nova Scotia was the main speaker at the FMO conference. She is a great speaker and has great insight to offer farmers’ market organizers/managers/board members, as well as farmers’ market vendors. In addition, she is a good fit with EFAO people because of her strong background as an organic farmer and farmers’ market vendor.

I could say more but this post is already too lengthy.

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Some other farmers, members of the community and I started the Thorndale Farmers’ Market in 2014. @aslater was gracious enough to send me a copy of the St.Mary’s Farmers’ Market rules and regulations, bylaws documents etc. as a starting point for our own market. We agreed from the start that we wanted to make the market 100% local (to this region of Ontario) and that there would be no reselling of any kind allowed. That was our vision for our market.

We also controlled (as a committee) which vendors were allowed in in order to limit competition given the fact that we were trying to build a roster of vendors that would be interested in returning year after year. The difficulty here is that if you allow too much competition, you end up losing vendors that offer interesting products but that don’t make enough money to make attending the market worth their time. So in that sense I tend to disagree with @sabiletrimm, because depending on how many visitors come to the market, and especially in the first few years, there “isn’t” always enough to go around. So you have to balance building the market itself as well as its clientele, which led us to making some of these choices such as limiting direct competition (for a similar product).

@schaefermx > If you would like me to send you a copy of the market’s bylaws, I would be happy to forward them to you.

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Very interesting discussion here and informative posts. While agreeing there must be collaboration and representation with farmers and managers/boards the other piece of the puzzle in the broader context of Farmers’ Markets is how they can be supported and encouraged by municipal and provincal governments. How to grow customer numbers instead of getting the management at markets fair to evenly divide the tiny piece of pie. Does anyone have knowledge on how this is/has/could be done?


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There is some great information here - thanks everyone for sharing your thoughts so far.

I wanted to reach out to anyone in this thread who might be interested in writing a short (500 words) piece for the next EFAO newsletter about farmers’ markets - specifically, what your experience has been in terms of what works well, and what needs to be improved, in order to support growers while maintaining clientele. The submission deadline is Feb 9th.

If anyone here is interested please email me, admin@efao.ca. Thanks & let’s keep the discussion going!

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@info.healinghandsfar That is an interesting point - have you seen support from government that has worked well?

@schaefermx No I haven’t, and maybe government isn’t the answer I’m just starting to dig into ideas and look at what’s been attempted/successful in other places.

That is a very good point. Here is our experience in Wiarton:

I am heading into my 3rd year selling at the small local farmers market. The location and the times of the market have changed over the years due in large part, as I understand it, to the wishes of the local BIA. Now we have settled in to a Friday Farmers Market from 10-2, downtown, for the past 5 years.

In January, we learned that the BIA is starting a second market to be held on Sunday at a local park. This was done without consulting the current market manager or vendors. The park is one of the locations the Farmers Market was directed away from by the BIA in the past. Our customers are confused, thinking the Farmers Market is changing location and times. The BIA are calling the market a “Producers Market” and details are still very fuzzy about who will actually be vending there, as most of the local farmers were taken by surprise and not very happy.

This is messy and has left us feeling zero support from our local business community, despite being members of the Chamber ourselves.

I’d much prefer to work with the Chamber on how to grow our traffic at our current Market, bringing people into the downtown to support other businesses. It seems that the stage is set for wrestling for the same small piece of pie.

Any insights or suggestions are welcome!