The Western Fair Farmer’s Market is a year-round market for fresh food and crafts that operates on weekend hours out of the old Confederation Building on the Western Fair grounds. Located in the heart of London, Ontario’s Old East Village neighbourhood, the Western Fair Farmer’s Market provides London with a central source of farm-fresh food and unique craft items that cannot be found anywhere else. With two floors of vendors (over a hundred in total), it has become a weekly destination for local chefs sourcing out the highest quality ingredients for their restaurants, as well as families looking to get a food experience that they can’t get at their local chain grocery store.
The year 1887 marked the foundation of the Western Fair Association as a corporation, and thus of the modern Western Fair as we know it. In that year the Western Fair Association began building permanent exhibition buildings on their acquired grounds, on what was then more popularly known as Queen’s Park. One of the designs for these buildings was chosen by contest, and it became the main exhibition building for the Western Fair. This was George Durand’s design for London, Ontario’s Crystal Palace, which was modeled after a similar building in London, England. The Crystal Palace was a tourist draw for the city and for the Western Fair specifically, but tragically it burnt to the ground in 1927.
The Crystal Palace’s replacement, known as the Confederation Building, was quite a bit more down-to-earth than the original. The Crystal Palace featured unusually large windows and high circular arches. The Confederation Building, in contrast, is more staid and workmanlike, and made of red brick; the major advantage the Confederation Building had over the Crystal Palace, however, is that the ceilings are much loftier and the windows, although smaller, let in quite a bit much more natural light. The effect of this is that the Western Fair Farmer’s Market is housed in an airy, spacious facility that lets natural sunlight do the heavy lifting when it comes to framing the market’s delights of touch and taste.
The Ongoing Importance of the Farmer’s Market
The building was available, but what was the need? Farmer’s markets have been shown scientifically to improve key metrics in neighbourhood calculations of health, happiness, and satisfaction. The key factor behind the success of farmer’s markets lies in notions of economic insecurity, both on the part of producers, and consumers.
Agricultural producers, especially traditionally-based producers, have felt more than a pinch in the past few decades. The entirety of industry in the Western world has become part of the global trade network since 1980, and agriculture has been a massive part of this integration. Southwestern Ontario has not been spared in this regard. The day of the small farmhold have long since passed. In order to compete on a global basis (and, in a purely local sense, in order to defray the costs of the downturn in the tobacco industry), farmers have needed to buy in to large-scale agricultural-business conglomerates. While this makes sense from a competition standpoint, and solves short-term marketing needs for produce, it also creates a number of long-term problems. One of these is that farmers buying into this system get less of every sales dollar over the long run. Another – more important in terms of farmer’s markets – is that the crops that farmers produce in the globalized agriculture business become geared toward export-ready crops. These are meant for quick, mass sale and are often higher in sugar and fat than they otherwise would be. While this keeps local agriculture (and all of the small towns that depend on it) going, it leads to a dearth of diverse food options and a downfall in traditional farm products.
Farmer’s markets, then, provide a much-needed outlet for small business farms who operate independently, and a place to display both traditional and innovative products that would otherwise become subsumed into more streamlined global agricultural production outcomes. They allow small business farmers to meet together and spread the risk of marketing while also allowing an exchange of ideas and product knowledge. The end result is that farmer’s markets are a huge positive for these independent farmers; a study by J. Kaufman of American farmer’s markets in 2004 found that the presence of such markets doubled the gross income of local small business farmers.
Consumers also benefit greatly from the presence of a farmer’s market in their community. Recent studies on poverty in urban settings have identified the particular problem of the “food desert” in core areas of cities across North America. Food deserts are areas in cities that lack easy access to grocery stores. Typically this means that grocery stores are placed in areas that, for certain neighbourhoods, require either ongoing access to a car (and the fuelling and maintenance costs involved in that) or a long trip via public transportation. Normally these neighbourhoods are close to the city core and are lower-income than other neighbourhoods in the city. The low-income nature of these areas precludes the likelihood of owning a car, and trips to grocery stores on public transportation are difficult to schedule around the needs of employment and family, and also limit the amount of goods that can be brought back to the home. People living in food deserts typically do the largest portion of their food shopping at local convenience stores, which lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables; most of what can be found there is high in sugar and fat, which makes for easy and convenient storage but contributes to ongoing health problems in the community. Such diets have been scientifically linked to health issues including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer.
Rather than relying on chain grocery stores to fill the gap that they created in the first place, farmer’s markets have become something of an ad hoc way to give an outlet for fresh produce and other farm goods in urban settings where they would not otherwise exist. There is a tendency at times to see farmer’s markets as being boutique destination shopping experiences for the upper middle class; the truth is that they provide a much-needed alternative to the typical grocery shopping experience that grew out of the innovation of the supermarket in the 1930s. The stereotypical view of farmer’s markets likely stems out of the studied fact that fresh fruits and vegetables are across the board more expensive at smaller-scale retailers than they are in supermarkets. What Kristian Larsen and Jason Gilliland found in a 2009 study, however, was that the presence of the Western Fair Farmer’s Market caused the price of a “healthy food basket” in the Old East Village to fall by over 12% in the three years between 2005 (before the market had opened) and 2008 (two years after the market had opened). The Old East Village – which had been identified as an urban food desert in a 2008 study by the same authors – had been paying an average of $54 more than supermarket shoppers in other parts of London. By 2008, however, that amount had dropped to $11 more, and it is probable that the numbers have achieved parity in the decade since then. The diversity of food increased greatly as well; the authors specifically note that “green grapes, celery, and broccoli were not available at any of the retailers in Old East” in 2005, while all of those items, and every item on the list of their “healthy food basket,” was available in the neighbourhood by 2008, courtesy of the Western Fair Farmer’s Market.
Building A Market
The East Village neighbourhood had, in the last few decades of the 20th Century, attempted a number of revitalization efforts, which had some successes but a great deal more in terms of failures. The area had been tagged for a long time as a low-income neighbourhood in an otherwise quite affluent city, filled with the kind of challenges that typify low-income urban core neighbourhoods across North America. It was in this environment that a business investor first put in $250,000 to open up a farmer’s market in the old Confederation Building in the Western Fair District in December of 2006. The market was a success right away, bringing a sorely-needed source of farm-fresh products to a neighbourhood where getting such goods had previously been both expensive and time-consuming.
One of the early adopters of the Western Fair Farmer’s Market was David Cook, a Sobeys executive who had taken up roasting coffee beans as a hobby. With the advent of the farmer’s market he decided to turn that hobby into a side business, and the Fire Roasted Coffee Co. was born. Fire Roasted was a big success (try a cup of their Grand Bend Biker blend and you’ll figure out why) and Cook quit his day job to do his coffee business full-time. This led to an ongoing working relationship with the original owners of the market; by November of 2008 Cook took over the operation of the Western Fair Farmer’s Market entirely.
Cook’s idea, identified through a series of interviews, was that the Western Fair Farmer’s Market was more than just a typical farmer’s market. Given that the market was formed from permanent or semi-permanent vendors who kept tables or booths in a permanent structure, Cook realized that it was more akin to being an incubator of innovative small businesses, like one typically finds in more tech-oriented sectors of the economy. Many vendors at the Western Fair Farmer’s Market are in fact testing new products, or new ways of presenting or combining products; the market provides a low-risk way for these part-time innovators to develop their products and business practices before expanding their operations into a full-time scale.
Table fees at the Western Fair Farmer’s Market run to $50 per day for a 100 square foot booth on the main floor of the market; the rate is a reduced $30 for a somewhat similar booth on the second floor. While this is a higher rate than is charged at many other farmer’s markets, this is a function of both the increased opportunities offered to vendors through the market, and of the cost of doing business for the market; ten years ago the rent for the building was $15,000 per month and rising at regular intervals. The payoff is worth it, though; after five years of operation, the Western Fair Farmer’s Market was outdoing most of the other city food markets in terms of traffic. Vendors at the market have the advantage of setting up their business in a place where they can be seen on a regular basis, as well as the advantage of having permanent booth placement so that their areas can be both entrenched and highly decorated.
Cook’s reign as the operator of the Western Fair Farmer’s Market saw a period of extensive expansion. In 2009 he partnered with Masonville Mall to open up a second market there; a third market was added in Southdale in 2011. In October of 2017 Cook sold the Western Fair Farmer’s Market to the Western Fair Association, the corporation that runs the annual Western Fair as well as maintains the grounds that comprise the Western Fair District. Recognizing that the market had become a hot destination for London shoppers, the Western Fair is looking to grow the market’s association with Fanshawe College, London’s leading trades institution and a college that features a strong practical, applied agricultural program. A key feature of the Association’s plans for the market were unveiled in June of 2018, when they announced that the market’s hours would be expanded to Sunday; previously, the market had only been open on Saturdays. In addition, the Association announced over $400,000 worth of upgrades and repairs to the facilities, including basement washrooms and more cold storage areas.
All of this is well and good, of course, but what if you want to go? The Western Fair Farmer’s Market is open Saturdays from 8 AM to 3 PM and Sundays from 10 AM to 2 PM. The exact address for the market is 900 King Street, London, Ontario. Parking is available at the Western Fair District, with over 4000 spots available during Market hours. For those taking public transportation, the City of London operates four routes that will get you to the Market: the 2 Dundas, 7 Wavell, 20 Cherryhill, and 22 Trafalgar. With all of the various farm goods vendors available, hitting up the Western Fair Farmer’s Market on the weekend is well worth it.