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Struggling Orillia Farmers' Market looking at ways to grow

Revenues at market fell for fourth straight year; City asked to provide grant to cover shortfall while strategies for improvement are put in place
USED 2019-09-22 GM 4
The Orillia Farmers' Market is a popular attraction Saturday mornings at Market Square outside the Orillia Public Library. Dave Dawson/OrilliaMatters

Like many of its traditional vendors, the Orillia Farmers’ Market has been experiencing a difficult growing season.

For the fourth straight year, revenues have declined at the iconic local market that has roots dating back to 1842.

In 2016, the market, located at the Orillia Public Library, earned revenues of $39,911. Those numbers declined slightly in 2017 and fell to just under $24,000 in 2018. This year, despite some austerity measures, revenue is projected to be just $21,627.

The decline in revenue “is directly correlated with a decline in the number of vendors attending the market,” said Shawna Ballik, the chair of the Farmers’ Market Management Committee (FMMC), in a presentation to city councillors this week.

She noted the market, in 2017, operated at 85-90 percent vendor capacity.

“At the end of 2017, there was a steep decline of market vendors which consisted primarily of growers and producers and other such popular vendors,” said Ballik, noting the reasons behind the departures varied. “Some retired, some moved, some outgrew the market and have moved on to permanent businesses.”

In 2018, the vendor capacity fell to between 60-75 percent. However, in 2019, “we have begun to see a slight incline in new vendor attendance drawing in new and returning customers.”

That increase was, primarily, due to the efforts of market manager Amy Mangan, Ballik said. 

“She has been working directly with existing vendors who have historically been prepared-food vendors and working with them to encourage them to grow their own ingredients, thereby filling our ratio need for growers and producers,” said Ballik, noting plans are to continue that “strategic process” in the future.

Ballik said the issue is not just happening in Orillia.

“It is also important to note farmers’ markets across Ontario are facing very similar challenges,” said Ballik. “It’s largely driven by changing retail trends, decreased number of growers and an increased number of competing markets” among other factors.  

As a result, she said, “many markets have chosen to abandon their ‘true farmer market status’ whereas the Orillia Farmers’ Market, despite challenges, has succeeded in maintaining that 51% grower ratio thereby retaining our true market status.”

Ballik asked council committee to allow the FMMC to dip into their reserves to help offset their deficit and also requested the city provide a one-time grant of $6,230 (from its operating contingency fund) to cover this year’s revenue shortfall.

But Ballik also stressed the committee is committed to working hard to turn things around.

“Working to encourage market growth, our management committee has developed a proactive strategy to improve market attendance and increase revenue by developing working groups that focus on three key areas: marketing, parking and location, and events/market management development,” she told city councillors.

Each working group will be made up of market committee members as well as vendors and will target short-term goals and long-term strategies with a focus on the “ongoing success and longevity” of the market.

Coun. David Campbell lauded the group’s efforts. He also garnered support from his colleagues to not only agree to the one-time grant, but to also provide marketing and communications support from City Hall.  

“I think one of the challenges the market is facing … (is) also the fact it’s difficult to have people even on the committee have all the skills that are necessary to not only run the market - set up tear down - but promotions etc. etc.,” said Campbell.

As a result, councillors agreed to have staff from the communications and tourism departments work with the committee to help improve the market.

“I believe there is expertise here that could really help the market to be successful moving forward,” said Campbell.

Coun. Rob Kloostra wondered about the potential commitment to the proposed working groups.

“We have commitment from management committee members to put in the legwork, so to speak, that’s needed and the extra time to develop these strategies,” Ballik assured council.

She said buy-in from the vendors is also critical.

“We do think the key to the market success lies in renewing our vendors’ investment in the market’s success,” said Ballik. “Historically, the ... ownership has been on the vendors to encourage people to come out. We would like to see that passion return.”

Coun. Jay Fallis applauded the committee’s efforts.

“I’m glad to hear the committee is taking on the initiative to improve the fortunes” of the market, he said, noting the market supports tourism, the community, history and the environment.

Council committee’s decision is subject to ratification at Monday night’s regular council meeting.

What’s a ‘true market’

The Orillia Farmers’ Market is a ‘true’ farmers’ market and is registered with Farmers’ Markets of Ontario (FMO).

As a ‘true’ member of FMO, the market receives a reduced insurance premium, market advice and promotion through FMO. In addition, maintaining FMO member status allows vendors who prepare food for sale at the market to do so without requiring the use of a commercial/certified kitchen. Most small, start-up producers do not have access or do not have the operating funds to rent or create such a facility.  

In order to obtain ‘true’ farmers’ market status, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit requires the market to maintain a vendor ratio where 51% of vendors grow their own products and are primarily selling or offering their own products. 

This requirement allows the market to be eligible for exemption from certain rules and restrictions under the Health Protection and Promotion Act.  

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Dave Dawson

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