October 19, 2011

Fair Grounds perfect for Farmers' Market

As published in The Erin Advocate

It was an excellent Thanksgiving weekend, with plenty of turkey and family visiting, all the sunshine we could handle and a chance to do some late-season garden clean-up and machine maintenance, which I normally put off until it is uncomfortably cold outside.

The autumn colours were near their peak, so I looked about for a new hiking route. From the corner of Ballinafad Road and Rockside Road, just east of Winston Churchill Blvd., you can pick up an offshoot of the Bruce Trail.

Heading downhill towards Terra Cotta on the Rockside Side Trail, on the unopened road allowance of Heritage Road, the walking is easy. On the road, you'll pass Credit Valley Quarries, still producing the landscape and building sandstone that made the area famous in the late 1800s. Coming back along the rocky main trail, completing a 4.8 km loop, was a lot tougher – the whole hike was over two hours.

Then, of course, there was the Erin Fall Fair. I was running low on novelty belt buckles and T-shirts with rude sayings, so it was a chance to stock up.

But seriously, it was a great time – the social event of the year. From the beer at the Lions' tent to the Optimists' peameal on a bun, from the quiet crowd at the cow judging to the huge crowd at the tractor pull, there were plenty of choices and lots of people to recognize.

I particularly enjoyed the Crooner Show, with Erin native Monty Greig doing some energetic numbers in the Frank Sinatra / Dean Martin mode. Not an easy job wearing a black suit under a blazing hot sun. Check him out on Erin Radio, Sundays at 5 p.m., or at www.montygreig.com.

It was a pleasant surprise to see that the Erin Agricultural Society is considering the possibility of starting a Farmers' Market at the Fair Grounds next summer, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Fridays. They had a small survey near their food counter at the fair, where potential customers or vendors could show their interest.

The best option is to visit their nicely-redesigned website (www.erinfair.ca) and take a couple of minutes to complete a brief survey. This will help them decide if the venture is feasible. There is a section for customers, with questions about shopping habits and what products you would like to see offered.

There's also a section for farmers and other merchants, about the cost of renting space and the volume of sales required to make their participation worthwhile.

It seems like a good idea from many points of view. It's both practical and economical to make more use of an excellent facility with lots of space, in the heart of the village.

More and more people are seeing the value in buying locally, directly from farmers, but it needs to be convenient, with reasonable prices and selection. Farmers may be able earn a reasonable profit by selling produce themselves, without having to transport it a long distance.

There has to be sufficient variety for a market to succeed. It does not have to be just food, but there have to be clear criteria in order to maintain the right atmosphere. For example, hand-made local crafts may be appropriate, but mass-produced T-shirts may not.

A Farmers' Market could increase the size of the overall customer base, including both local residents and short-trip tourists, to the benefit of all village businesses. Erin has been building its brand as a destination, but it needs to offer more benefits if it is to take full advantage of the trend. Like it or not, we are in competition with the towns all around us, and they all have Farmers' Markets.

The greatest benefit, however, is not about business. Like the fair, a market can be a gathering place, where you expect to meet people that you know. It could become a valuable part of Erin's identity.

Starting a Farmers' Market is a lot of work. I hope that the Agricultural Society gets plenty of encouragement and tangible help from the community if they decide to proceed.