While many events have moved online during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Yellowknife Farmers’ Market shows the importance of keeping some in-person interactions, a study found.
In 2020, many farmers’ markets across southern Canada moved partially or fully online to accommodate public health rules. The Yellowknife Farmers’ Market, meanwhile, remained in-person but limited numbers, put sanitization and distancing measures in place, and asked customers to “shop, don’t stop.”
Researchers at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, studying how markets across the country adapted, said the trust, transparency, and connections between consumers and growers that are fostered in person can’t be replicated online.
“It’s not just food, it’s also that social space,” said Kelly Skinner, a University of Waterloo professor, who co-authored the study.
“While the Northwest Territories did have specific rules for the market – like the shop, don’t stop messaging – I think it was still really important to have that opportunity for people to gather in a safe way at the market. People really see that as a very special event every week that they go to.”
Research conducted in 2019 suggests the Yellowknife Farmers’ Market is unique compared southern counterparts. Many southern markets focus on offering a wide variety of produce, but only two tables of nearly 20 at Yellowknife’s market sold fresh fruit and vegetables.
Commercial produce farming is a relatively new industry in the Northwest Territories, where much of the land can’t support many forms of agriculture.
When deciding whether to move online, the Yellowknife market considered attendees’ preferences. A questionnaire of 31 patrons at the market in 2019, indicates that the atmosphere, supporting local business, and buying dinner were their top reasons for attending.
The Yellowknife market also considered the NWT’s comparatively poor internet connectivity, seniors’ ability to use online platforms, and the ability of small vendors to meet the demand of online sales.
Kyle Thomas, a longtime vendor at the Yellowknife Farmers’ Market and co-owner of market garden and bakery Bush Order Provisions, said the market was vital to starting his small business.
“Without it, I don’t think we would have even started years and years ago,” he said. “It definitely has played a key role for us in terms of being the first step to getting in front of potential customers and a consumer base.”
Thomas said while sales can easily move online, it’s harder to translate face-to-face interactions with customers, including education about products. The in-person market allowed him to sell individual, ready-made pizzas that customers could eat for dinner, something he said would have been difficult online.
“There is a component that is great to be able to just connect with the customers, to get to know them week after week, and that is always a good feeling,” he said. “You get feedback almost instantly about what people like.”
Thomas, who has a background in marketing, said online spaces have also been important for his business. He connected with customers by email to let them know what products he was selling at the farmers’ market and, throughout the winter, sold fresh bread online for curbside pickup.
“Building that infrastructure has been very crucial to us to be able to manage things efficiently,” he said.
What to expect at this year’s market
Nia Reid, manager of the Yellowknife Farmers’ Market, said this year’s market will take place every Tuesday night at Somba K’e Civic Plaza from June 8 to August 31. The market will have similar restrictions to last year and has a full slate of 32 vendors.
“I think it’s wonderful that we’re able to do this,” Reid said of hosting an in-person market. “Even if we have to space out a little bit more and hand-sanitize, that’s an easy trade-off for me.
“Last year, especially, we had a lot of positive remarks from our patrons saying how great it was to even be able to come to something outside and feel like they were part of the community again.”
For this year’s market, Reid hopes to bring back programs like the harvesters’ table – where growers can donate their extra harvest or the market will sell it on their behalf – and the nutrition table, which educates people about how they can use seasonal produce.
The market is also planning the return of live music at a bigger scale this year, with musicians playing in the amphitheatre.
Pending approval, Reid said some indoor markets may take place in September as the weather cools.