Communal Beat

The Comox Valley Farmers Market

I’ve spent countless Saturday mornings waking at the crack of dawn, loading the trailer with steaming pots of hot tamales and coolers full of salsas verde, roja and mango cranberry. Some readers may remember those days as fondly as I do. It was quite a unique feeling to be able to say hi to so many neighbors and friends, all of us having a great morning interacting with each other over coffee and a cinnamon bun or saying hello over a delicious stack of sweet peppers and  eggplant. You only have to scan the wonderful veggies on sale at the market to know what that night’s meal will be. I felt so much a part of my new community at the market. Above everything else the valley has to oer the market allowed me to put down deep-seated roots here; to be at home. I wonder if it has had a similar effect to any of you?


Farmers Market - Commox Valley


So, is the market important to us in other ways? The food sold there is only a  small fraction of the total sales of produce in the valley over-all. I’d venture a guess that a good weeks revenue at one of the chain stores in the valley outstrips our little markets’ entire summer sales. In one way of thinking that makes the market an inefficient method of getting food to plates. All those Saturdays just to serve as many meals as the big stores do in a week. In this, a prot and loss economy directed and run by bean counters, (not real “beans”) and folks far away from our valley, the market constitutes a lot of work to do a lot less in the simplistic terms of customers served and product delivered. So why then does our beautiful market exist? Why do hundreds of people come every Saturday, basket in hand and rain or shine, to buy that small percentage of their weekly groceries?


While doing some of the research for this article, I read a study by the credit union Vancity and the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets, (BCAFM) titled “The Value of Farmers’ Markets in British Columbia”. The study was conducted in 2013 and our market was a participant and contributor of data. Many factors were considered in evaluating the markets including economic activity, food security and the building of community. It’s the latter two factors that cannot be modeled simply by the numbers. What “economic activity” are they talking about? What is “Food Security” in the modern times? What community? 


There is a small but growing movement among some very smart young people constituting a new generation reminiscent of the “back to the Landers” of the sixties and seventies. Many of these folks could choose comfortable professions in any number of fields but have taken to small scale farming instead. Not an easy vocation by any and all accounts. Encouraged by their peers and helped by networking and information gathering unavailable to their predecessors, they are fast becoming very important elements in the local economy. They face untold challenges to generate the sales necessary to survive however, including access to farmland and the capital necessary to expand operations, but on they push regardless of the daunting difficulties.


Through creative marketing as in the CSA’s (Community Shared Agriculture) whereby you as a consumer get a share in your chosen farm’s seasonal production for a set fee and through sales generated at the Farmers Market they are indeed making a go of it. These young people shop in our stores and spend their money on services right here in our community. They buy the small and seemingly un-viable farms once called “hobby”. They generate economic activity when buying parts for the tractor and when taking the kids out for ice cream. They hire local people when they need help in the eld. In short, they spend a large portion of their hard earned dollars in the communities where they live thus creating localized economic activity.


Farmers Market - Commox Valley


We here on the island are not food self-sufficient. We depend on food shipments coming across daily on the ferry system or by barge. If there was to be a major disaster, such as the earthquake seismologists have been promising for decades, and were the shipping terminals to be damaged on the mainland food would be harder and much more expensive to transport. What other stresses would there be in the case of a catastrophe that might affect their ability to get food over the straight to us? Prices would soar for all of our daily needs and there would be shortages of many essentials. What value would we put on local food production in that scenario? Without the local farms we would be solely dependant on help from the mainland. Is it likely to happen? Who knows but if the reasoning is that it’s unlikely, why buy insurance for the house when a house fire is statistically unlikely? It’s because the alternative is unthinkable. We need to support and create a vibrant and sustainable agricultural system right here in our own community. That is our insurance policy against disaster. A viable and local food economy is vital to being self-reliant.


My memories of arriving early at the fairgrounds with waves from some of my fellow vendors already there, dew on the grass making my boots wet and the delicious aroma of tamales steaming away are all an important part of what this valley means to me. A year after I sold my last tamale former customers still refer to me as the “tamale guy” and tell me how much they loved them. That is a great connection for me and was an asset when I started my “bricks and mortar” business. I’ve heard the market referred to as an “incubator” for small business. That may be true but it is also so much more.  It’s just not always apparent and that is why studies such as that done by Vancity and the BCAFM are so important. They remind us of why we need to build a strong, local economy and help to explain what part the farmers market plays in that process. Local jobs where people feel they are contributing in a meaningful way to their community is what will help us keep our valley such a great place to live. So, get on down to the market and help support all those hardworking neighbors and friends and I’ll see you there.

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