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Farmers market turns 30

When the St. Albert Farmers' Market opened for business in 1983, there were just 40 vendors standing along Perron Street selling their wares.

When the St. Albert Farmers' Market opened for business in 1983, there were just 40 vendors standing along Perron Street selling their wares.

By 1985, that number had doubled and this Saturday, as the chamber of commerce celebrates the 30th anniversary of the market, there will be 250 vendors spread out along St. Anne and St. Thomas streets.

Now, on a typical sunny Saturday morning, 10,000 to 15,000 people stroll along taking in the sights: watching the balloon artists making poodles; throwing a toonie or two in the buskers' open guitar cases; nibbling the fresh peas or carrots.

Above all, those folks are meeting neighbours, and that summertime experience is the key to the market's popularity.

"For me, even before I worked as the manager of the farmers' market, I liked to go to the market with my daughter to see the balloon artists, the rock painting, the hair braiding and the buskers. It's a community gathering and you always run in to people you know," said Debbie Grant, St. Albert Chamber of Commerce Farmers' Market manager.

According to the Alberta Agriculture website, the first farmers' markets started in urban areas in the early 1900s but gradually interaction became less common between rural producers and city consumers.

In the early 1970s, Alberta Agriculture offered grants to start rural farmers' markets but the first St. Albert market in 1983 was a direct push by the chamber of commerce to get more people shopping and walking in the downtown core.

"The market was started for the same reason that it still exists: To bring people downtown. We were trying to kick-start and make something happen downtown," recalled Anita Ratchinsky, who served as president of the St. Albert Chamber of Commerce at the time.

Dancing and singing

In the early days the market was organized by the chamber and run by volunteers.

Elaine Meachem, who then worked as the manager at the chamber of commerce, dragged her husband Neil into volunteering at the weekly summer market. Every Saturday morning the couple would be out early setting up tables for the vendors.

"It was fun. We used to set up this sound system and while we were setting up we'd be walking down the street singing or dancing in the street, getting people happy about the market," Elaine Meachem said.

For the first few years there was a first-come, first-served policy for stalls at the market.

"You showed up early and took the spot you wanted. We used to set up the camper and make breakfast in the camper while we set up the stall," said vendor Dixie Farrell, who has been making and selling doll clothes at the market for 29 years.

Camaraderie developed among vendors as they worked side by side in their stalls.

"It's like family," said Bill Veldhuis, who with his wife Ruth began selling table linens at the market 24 years ago.

"Everybody knows Ruth at the market. Sometimes I've been called Mr. Ruth," Veldhuis joked, adding that his wife quit attending the market a half-dozen years ago but he still attends every market by himself because of the friendships he's developed there.

"My best story concerns a customer who I was joking with. I started laughing and we laughed together for maybe three or four minutes. Then the vendors on either side of me started laughing. Then everyone was laughing for at least five minutes and finally a boy about three stalls down asked, 'Bill! What were we laughing at again?' That's what it's like at the market," Veldhuis said.

The marketplace served as a business incubator and helped the couple develop their family business. Ruth and Bill sold the linens she made at various craft shows and markets throughout the province. Later Bill, a retired military pilot started making table runners and oven mitts too.

"A lot of tourists come to the St. Albert Farmers' Market. I'd say about 25 per cent of our business is now to foreign countries and at least 10 per cent is to tourists," Veldhuis said.

The best selling years for him were from 1992 to 1995 and, though Veldhuis still attends each market, he would prefer that the vendors still be local farmers or craftsmen selling their own home-made produce.

"That's the original farmers' market concept – buy locally made or grown good food or good stuff. There used to be some markets, such as Fort McMurray's, where you couldn't get in if you didn't live there," he said.

He worries about farmers who grow food locally but must compete with growers from other regions.

"The farmer brings his load of produce in and he has to sell it all, or it's not worth it. It's tough for the little guys who have to compete against big growers," Veldhuis said, adding that he believes he is the longest-working market vendor who actually lives in St. Albert.

The Make it! Bake it! Grow it! philosophy of the Alberta Farmers' Market Association remains the theme for the St. Albert market, but consumers' demands have changed over time. They began to ask for other produce such as B.C. fruit and Taber corn. In addition, the local supermarkets began selling fresher produce as well. The changing market puts pressure on local producers.

"The market has evolved and we sellers have to evolve too. We have to expand to a commercial level if we're going to stay at the farmers' market," said vendor Frank Klassen, who began selling vegetables at the market 27 years ago but recently started selling jams and fruit preserves as well.

"There is a reduced profit margin, so we have to be more competitive and we have to deal with changing demographics and changing habits of shoppers who may go to the big stores. We have to work harder," Klassen said.

Park and ride

Downtown parking availability on a Saturday has been an issue since the market first opened, said chamber of commerce president Lynda Moffat, but the four-year-old park and ride system has been found to be a workable solution.

"The park and ride is excellent and it's sponsored by St. Albert Centre. Now hundreds use the park and ride system every week," Moffat said.

The parking issue is one that Grapevine Deli owner J Wagner has little patience for.

Wagner, a Perron Street business owner, believes the market is a huge plus for the city of St. Albert.

"The market doesn't hurt me and it doesn't help me but it's a feather in St. Albert's cap. People get mad at the storeowners because of the parking, but if I go to Old Strathcona, I don't expect parking. Walk a little. Bag it," she said.

Wagner said she has had some new customers come to her store and believes they walked from the market and then remembered to come back later. She shops at the market herself.

"It's a social event. People come and have a nice time at the market and shop without hurry. They meet their neighbours and they browse and they shop some more," she said.

Dixie Farrell said that market ambience is what has kept her making doll clothes for three decades.

"I've seen three generations of little girls come to the market to get their doll clothes. Sometimes Grandma will come with her daughter and now a granddaughter. They come back year after year and so do I. I used to work at the Sherwood Park market, but there, people wouldn't linger and visit. In St. Albert, they linger and I like that atmosphere," Farrell said.

The 30th anniversary celebrations begin at 9:30 a.m. when bagpiper Ted Soltys leads the dignitaries from Perron and St. Anne streets to the corner of St. Anne and St. Thomas streets.

Previous chamber of commerce presidents and former mayors will be introduced at 9:40 a.m. in front of St. Albert Place. The long-serving vendors will be introduced at 9:45 a.m. and the market will open at 10 a.m. and continue until 3 p.m.