These little farmers go to market

Everybody loves a farmer’s market — the stalls brimming with vegetables, the artisans selling handcrafted goods, the smell of grilling food, the sound of kids running and shrieking through the stalls.

Everybody loves a farmer’s market — the stalls brimming with vegetables, the artisans selling handcrafted goods, the smell of grilling food, the sound of kids running and shrieking through the stalls and the sight of our friends and neighbours chatting in small groups with baskets of greenery over their arms. In cities and towns across the country the farmer’s market has become a gathering place, a fairground, a festival and a shop where farmers meet customers and delicious, fresh local food changes hands.

In the Yukon, despite our small population and relatively small agricultural industry, it’s no different — farmer’s markets in communities around the territory provide producers and consumers with a congenial venue to sell, shop and learn.

Outdoor markets have a solid history in the Yukon. From Gold Rush days in Dawson to the late 1930s, communities held open-air markets at harvest time. The Whitehorse chapter of the Yukon Agricultural Association (YAA) held the first “Six Carrots Farmer’s Market” on Third Avenue in 1985 — the joke was that the agricultural community was so small there would be just six carrots for sale. Smaller communities held harvest fairs throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, often with the help of co-operative federal-territorial funding programs.

In 2005 the Fireweed Community Market Society held the first Fireweed Market in Shipyards Park in Whitehorse and now weekly markets take place in several Yukon communities, including Haines Junction, Dawson and Mayo.

According to Yukon agrologist Randy Lamb, those markets can be a lifeline for small producers. “The markets play a key role growing Yukon’s agriculture industry, because for many farmers, a community-based market is the stepping stone to developing a broader customer base for their locally grown products,” he says.

Bart Bounds, co-owner with Kate Mechan of Elemental Farm in the Takhini River Valley, would agree. Bounds and Mechan have had a stall at the Fireweed Market for several years. Their business is booming now — but without the Fireweed Market, Elemental Farm may never have gotten off the ground. “When we first started, nobody would have known who we are, and we wouldn’t have had any place to sell our stuff,” Bounds says. Even now, he adds, “[The market] is probably our biggest way of promoting our business, and educating our customers about what our food is, why it’s different, and why it’s important to support local farmers.”

For chef Mary-El Kerr, owner of Mary-El Fine Food and Catering, that camaraderie means that if she needs to find a product, someone at the market will know where to direct her. For Kerr the market is the best way of connecting with the farmer. “I love it, because I can go myself, I can see the product. I order all my stuff from the farmers at the market, and that way I can be sure to have things ready when I need them,” she says. And if need be, she will change a menu at the last minute in order to showcase a beautiful vegetable. For Kerr, this is a boon. “Ten years ago, it was very difficult to find fresh vegetables in the Yukon.”

If farmer’s markets grow connections between farmers, consumers and chefs, they also strengthen community bonds, says John Lenart, owner of Klondike Valley Nursery and Market Garden, and one of the founders of the Dawson City Farmer’s Market. He says the farmer’s market is “a good economic union with the community, but also a social connection, to keep us united.”

Joella Hogan, president of the Stewart Valley Farmer’s Market, has watched the market in her community of Mayo become a Saturday gathering place. The market was the brainchild of Mayo resident Sandy Washburn, who recruited Hogan and others to help five years ago. Originally, the market “was really about setting up the farmers with the shoppers.” But the unexpected happened. “What we didn’t realize is that [the market] would become this huge social thing. People come, they buy their stuff, but they also want to have their coffee and visit. Right now we don’t have a restaurant or a coffee shop so we kind of provide that.”

In Haines Junction, market gardener Jolene Billwiller and farmer Kari Johnston started the Junction Community Market because they needed a venue to sell their produce and products. Since then other retail venues have opened up, but the market continues because the community loves it. “It’s different every week,” says Billwiller. “Sometimes [there are] kids selling lemonade and baking, other times more professional artisans selling arts and crafts. Local musicians come and play. Nothing’s official. It’s very grassroots.” In 2017 the market will move to the Da Kų Cultural Centre just off the Alaska Highway.

Across the territory householders rely on markets for fresh, local vegetables. Karen DuBois lives in downtown Dawson and is a faithful shopper at the Dawson City Farmer’s Market, where she shows up on the dot of 11 every Saturday morning to gather a week’s worth of groceries. “It’s so wonderful that in Dawson we can do that,” she says. “You can get fennel, all kinds of peppers, all sorts of greens, sometimes even corn. And we’re so lucky to have John Lenart for his fresh apples and strawberries.”

In the fall DuBois does a bulk shop for potatoes, beets, carrots, and cabbages for her winter’s supply. Nearly 500 kilometres to the south, Mount Lorne Community Centre has started up a harvest market in September, allowing consumers to stock up on fall produce.

The abundance of vegetable stalls can wax and wane at the Fireweed Market in Whitehorse. When farmers retire they definitely leave a gap. But new suppliers are coming on, like Patricia Bort, a former schoolteacher who took up small-scale farming as her retirement plan. Bort started off last year at Fireweed’s Saturday market, a good way to test the waters, she said. This year she’ll be at the Thursday market (Saturday markets won’t be held in 2017), selling jams, jellies and pickles made from wild or cultivated ingredients, and an array of greens and root vegetables from her garden plots on the Dusty Trail road just north of Whitehorse.

Whether they are farmers, producers, chefs or consumers, Yukoners are on the same page—the local market provides a great venue for selling, buying and learning about local food. And that leads to the ultimate satisfaction, as Bart Bounds says, of “feeling connected to the landscape every time you sit down to a meal.”

Miche Genest is a chef and writer based in Whitehorse. This piece was commissioned by the Yukon Agricultural Association.