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Ode to the winter farmer’s market

The rain falls down in cold, cascading sheets against a slate-coloured sky, dousing everything and everyone beneath it.
Van Shake 0204
Vancouver Winter Farmers Market employees Laura Gibson and Ron Braunagel with volunteer Ken Kwok.

The rain falls down in cold, cascading sheets against a slate-coloured sky, dousing everything and everyone beneath it. And yet, they’re here, week in, week out, selling the food and drink they make, they bake, they grow, for you, and they’re here all winter long. Behold, the rain-soaked beauty of the Vancouver Winter Farmer’s Market.

It was my wife who forcibly turned me onto this open-air world of tents and collapsible tables. Attending Queens University in Kingston, her apartment overlooked the historic Springer Market Square, a continuous outdoor market since 1801 (what?!). Later, living in Halifax, she never missed the Saturday morning market, where the entire community would shop, chat, and chew. You can imagine my wife’s excitement when a winter farmers market sprouted up right around the corner from our new home here on the Best Coast.

The Vancouver Farmers Market non-profit society (VFM) celebrated its 20th year in 2015. You’re likely familiar with their bustling summer markets under those easy, breezy sunny skies, boasting kiosks filled with colourful and delicious fruits and veggies, in ‘hoods like the West End, Trout Lake, Kitsilano, Main Street Station, Mount Pleasant and Yaletown. What you may not be as aware of, and what I desire to draw your taste buds to, is the much tougher gig that is our winter farmers markets.

It all started back in 2006 with a monthly indoor winter market in the WISE Hall on Adanac Street. Since then, a regular Saturday winter market has been ongoing for years at Nat Bailey Stadium. According to Roberta LaQuaglia, operations manager for the VFM, “the Nat Bailey winter market has the most vendors at any location in the summer or winter, and has a very loyal following.”

The newest winter farmers market is at Hastings Park, every Sunday until May on the PNE grounds, offering what has to be the healthiest food ever sold in that park. There is not a mini donut, chilli dog, or churro in sight. But it’s not all dusky root vegetables, either. “You can find pretty much anything – meat, seafood, baking, crafts, beer, wine, spirits, and food trucks”, says Roberta. “Fresh crops are already starting to show up: sprouts, mushrooms, and wild greens.”

When I was recently searching for a cookie at the market, I realized to my surprise that I knew the burly man in the apron behind the baked goods table. It was Laurie Mercer, a former kingpin of the Vancouver alternative music scene, responsible for guiding the careers of such BC punk rock staples as DOA and NoMeansNo through their glory years. Sweet Thea is now the booming baking business of Laurie and his partner and baker Thea Willgress.

“I left the music business because of a deepening disconnect between my love of music and the snake pit that is the music industry,” says Laurie. “What I immediately felt at the markets was a connection with real people. At its best, our music scene had a great sense of community, of shared values, and I found that same spirit and sensibility in many of the market customers, vendors, and organizers. And I love that we can share in the amazing bounty that others bring to us. We eat better than anyone I know!”

Thanks to my wife, slowly, over time, I too have come to appreciate these village square-like gathering places of artisan culture and commerce. The market has not only deepened my appreciation for the people who grow, make, and harvest our food (meeting and chatting with them face to face is a great bonus), but it has also given me a chance to reconnect with neighbours and friends. I think that’s called community.

See you at the market.