Farmers markets could be the perfect entrepreneurial lab for small business, say industry advocates

B.C. farmers markets are key economic drivers of small businesses and an indispensable part of the provincial food supply.

Credit: Stasia Garraway/BCAFM

Salt Spring Market

The BC Association of Farmers’ Markets is launching an accelerator program in August

When you think of farmers markets, you might not see them as key economic drivers of small businesses and an indispensable part of food supply in B.C. But that’s what they are.

“I think COVID really blew the lid off [farmers markets] being cute,” says Heather O’ Hara, executive director at the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets (BCAFM). “They’re also essential.”

O’Hara says farmers markets were deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic and allowed to operate in a reduced capacity, providing food to their communities when supply chains got disrupted in 2020.

People also often overlook the business side of farmers markets as well as their entrepreneurial capabilities, O’Hara maintains. She estimates the sector generates a revenue of nearly $150 million a year in B.C. and provides incredible opportunities for small businesses, especially in the food sector.

“It’s not easy to find an accessible, local place where you can launch new businesses like you can in a farmers market,” O’Hara says, adding that the 145 farmers markets in B.C. often host more than 4,000 small businesses at the height of summer.

That’s why the BCAFM is launching a pilot program, Hatch and Hype, in August in the Kootenay region, which aims to promote and support a new product, farmer or business through farmers markets.

“It’s all about really owning our role as an incubator and accelerator,” O’Hara says, “because we have a low barrier to launch and showcase products.”

Some popular B.C. brands that originated from local markets include Earnest Ice Cream, Holy Crap cereal and Tree Island Yogurt.

But even for small vendors, farmers markets are necessary.

Credit: Jasmine Noble/BCAFM

Trout Lake Farmers Market in Vancouver

Home on the range

Wylie Bystedt, 57, didn’t consult her family when she moved them up to Quesnel from Vancouver to start a ranch 21 years ago.

“Generationally speaking, we didn’t really ask our kids what they wanted to do,” she says laughing, “I decided, and then I informed them.”

Bystedt now owns the Coyote Acres Ranch in Alexandria, an unincorporated area in the Cariboo where she sells lamb, chicken and eggs. Her primary sales are through farmers’ markets.

“The market is what gets you the customers, and it’s what gets your name to be known,” Bystedt says, adding that thanks to the relationships she makes at these markets, she’s able to set up other retail sales. “The market is the foundation, and through its support, follows other sales activities.”

This has been true since she launched her business. Bystedt says farmers markets were instrumental in its success.

“When I started out, I had no clue,” she recalls. “I wasn’t even sure of what I was doing.” Bystedt goes on to say that the supportive atmosphere made finding answers to the hard questions of starting up easier. “Where did he get that? What’s the best price? What’s your sales pitch?”

Bystedt agrees with O’Hara’s assessment that farmers markets have a low barrier to entry and allow for the testing and fine tuning of a business plan.

“It makes a real difference in terms of giving vendors that time and space to figure it out. Is this actually a product that that the public wants to buy?”

Bystedt is also happy with the way the BCAFM supports farmers markets in B.C. as well as individual vendors, saying that the training they provide to market managers—like with social media promotion—in turn helps her business.

Credit: Aaron Whitfield/BC Farmers’ Market Trail

Skeena Valley Farmers Market

Trail of goodies

Then there’s the bigger advantage of having a cohesive marketing platform like the BC Farmers’ Markets Trail.

Supported by Destination BC, Sunshine Coast Tourism, Tourism Vancouver Island and a host of other regional tourism boards, the website is a directory, discovery tool and trip planner for anyone who is even remotely interested in farmers markets.

Started in 2018 by the BCAFM, it aims to be a one-stop shop for people who want to buy local or experience local delights on their travels.

Bystedt says the Trail has played a key role in driving traffic to farmers markets across the province.

With more than 140 farmers markets in its directory, all in one handy map, the trail is the perfect tool to allow tourists of all kinds to use it as a trip planner, which Bystedt says is an overlooked benefit.

“If you’re stuck somewhere, and you don’t know what’s going on, you use the Trail and go to your local market, and you are going to have a pretty good picture of what’s available in that community.”

That’s exactly the kind of purpose the BCAFM envisioned for the Trail, according to O’Hara. who wanted to develop a tool that made it exciting to discover all the local food the province has to offer. But her organization is also determined to make it useful for their member markets themselves.

The BCAFM is in the midst of building out cohesive stories around local produce for all of B.C.’s regions as well as commissioning 10,000 photographs that vendors, markets and participating towns can all use for marketing activities.

And that’s not all. “We’re also producing 10 videos this summer,” O’Hara says, “which will profile a regional B.C. farmer and their story from every part of the province.”

The videos are set to launch next year.

For a country that is a net exporter of food, the success of local produce may not seem like a big deal. The Canadian agricultural industry is in good shape: Net farm income rose 84.2 percent to $9.9 billion in 2020, with the largest increase in farm cash receipts (income from sales plus subsidies) since 2012.

But as Bystedt says, a farmers market can’t just be seen through the lens of business or even food. “It’s really a conversation about community culture.”