Labour of Love: Maynooth Market Incubator for Small-Enterprise Farmers

Story and photos by Sarah Vance

Misty mornings begin before dawn for the many small-enterprise farmers who tend agricultural outposts in and around Hastings County, as dew lingers on the crops at sunrise. For some, morning arrives with the call of a rooster as eggs are collected from nesting hutches and rabbits are penned into the hatch of a pick-up truck for the journey to the Maynooth Farmer’s Market.

 Violinist Liam Kelly practices during the market in Maynooth. Live music is a feature from sunrise until mid-afternoon.

Violinist Liam Kelly practices during the market in Maynooth. Live music is a feature from sunrise until mid-afternoon.

They are professionals, often arriving to set up their booths before sunrise, in preparation for the Saturday market, which draws more than 50 vendors from across East Central Ontario each week. 

“We have people from Palmer Rapids, Combermere, Madoc, Lakefield and Haliburton,” says Christine Hass, who has been organizing the market since its start eight years ago. “There is also a strong network of locals from Carlow-Mayo, Lake St. Peter and in around Bancroft and Maynooth.”

 Market organizer Christine Hass has seen an increase in vendors from eight in the first year to more than 50 this summer.

Market organizer Christine Hass has seen an increase in vendors from eight in the first year to more than 50 this summer.

While they are professionals, they are nonetheless often small-enterprise skilled workers, sometimes with just a handful of people responsible for everything from marketing to crop cultivation, as well as harvest and distribution. 

It is a labour of love for the many farmers who come together despite the odds, making local produce more accessible in their community. 

“Hastings County has a high proportion of employment in agriculture and related activities in contrast to Ontario as a whole,” points out Andrew Redden of the Hastings County Economic Development Office.  “While the 2011 census of agriculture reported 49 fewer total farms than in the 2006 census, there are many smaller scale and artisan-type agricultural operations taking root in Hastings County.”

 Local farmers practice a labour of love as they come together despite the odds, making local produce more accessible in their community.

Local farmers practice a labour of love as they come together despite the odds, making local produce more accessible in their community.

Farming success involves balancing many variables, of which weather is one of the most significant. 

Weather is also unique in the Hastings Highlands due the high altitude of many farms like Hillsview Farm and Studios, which is carved out of the top of Hillsview Road, at a 1400 ft. altitude.

“Because of our high altitude, we have less frost, and many warm-weather herbs flourish in the temperatures at our farm where we enjoy more rain than low lying areas like Bancroft,” explains Carol Russell, a speciality farmer, who delivers value-added products from the farm with her husband Hugh. “There are many naturally occurring wild berries and our farming strategy has been to go with what the land is already producing.” 

And for many it comes down to good time-management and production trouble-shooting, which can make or break these seasonal businesses.

“I made more than 30 pies last night,” says Christine on the eve of the summer market opening day in May. “But I will still be up before dawn on Saturday, tending to everything that will need to be done.”

For some vendors it is an intergenerational affair, like for Joyce Dale, who delivers a full breakfast each Saturday, with children and grandchildren, inside the Old Community Centre where the market booths are set-up in the parking lot outside.

It is a network that continues to grow each year, embedding itself deeper into the fabric of local life, while providing greater choice for consumers as services grow. 

 Lea Kitler, who runs Magnificent Hill Farm, is also author of the book ‘A Magnificent Life.’

Lea Kitler, who runs Magnificent Hill Farm, is also author of the book ‘A Magnificent Life.’

“This year there will also be five or more vendors across the street in the parking lot at the rink,” says Hass, whose biggest problem as a market facilitator is not finding vendors, but obtaining space to put them all. 

While the comprehensive economic value of markets like the one in Maynooth have yet to be calculated locally, some research exists at the provincial level. 

Data collected by Experience Renewal Solutions Inc. has led to estimates that the economic activity associated with farmers’ markets in Ontario is approximately $792 million each year, with $593 million in labour income, and 21,000 jobs sustained annually.  

In fact, $1.27 billion Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been attributed to an up-cropping of small-scale farmers’ markets in Ontario.

In Maynooth, one measurable gain can be found in the fact that the market has grown from between eight to 12 vendors in its first year, to more than 50 regular vendors this summer. 

The market boasts sustainability as it grows, with vendor’s fees covering the annual $800 cost of insurance levied upon occupying the space, which is donated in-kind, by the municipality of Hastings Highlands. 

The social impact of the market is undeniable as it continues to emerge as a meeting space for people who simply want to get-together and enjoy themselves in common. 

Known by the Greek’sas “agora” and translated as an ‘open place of assembly’, thinkers like Socrates once considered market gatheringsto be largely philosophical in nature, providing citizens with opportunities to consider their values, through everyday experiences. 

“Not everyone who comes to the market is here to buy fresh produce,” says Hass. “We have many customers who attend to meet with their neighbors and talk about things, sitting on the park benches and drinking coffee.”

This social capital is leveraged with an economy of greetings and conversations that are emerging as confectioners and jewelry designers set-up shop alongside farmers’ fresh produce.

“The market is not just about taking products with the hope of selling everything that I can load in my SUV,” says Lea Kitler, who runs Magnificent Hill, a small-enterprise farm staffed by summer interns and woofers, on the international circuit. “It is about connecting with friends and meeting new people.” 

 For some a trip to the Maynooth Market is nothing more than a social occasion – a chance to catch up with neighbours and fellow community members.

For some a trip to the Maynooth Market is nothing more than a social occasion – a chance to catch up with neighbours and fellow community members.

There are accompanying benefits to consumers, many of whom are cottagers who venture off the lakes to obtain tax-free produce with the grocery store middle-man cut out.

Markets tighten up the supply-chain by providing a venue for farmers who do not have store-fronts for distributing their goods. This makes local food more accessible, while providing positive outcomes in places like Maynooth, where food insecurities exist. 

Money is not always the currency of exchange in the market.

Bartering and product exchanges are common practice, as are service-exchanges like stacking wood, plowing driveways or tilling a garden in exchange for products like a side of lamb.  

There is diversity at the market which has led to its becoming an economic multiplier for neighboring businesses, who see more customers on market day. 

Hass attributes the success of the market to the fact that approaches are relaxed, with minimal by-laws governing participation.

While some markets place restrictions on what can and cannot be sold, Hass seeks to reduce obstacles for vendors. 

“I have one vendor who brought 50 beautiful bundles of asparagus in early May; she didn’t grow it herself, but her brother did in Lindsay,” says Hass. “Some markets would restrict this sale, but the way I look at it is we need these products locally, and we aren’t always able to purchase these in the grocery store anyways.”

There are also artisan products, like those supplied by Hee-Bee-Gee-Bees, a family owned and operated business in Bancroft, which provides apiary and honeybee products. 

Beeswax candles, scrubs lotions and hand-poured soaps, along with natural honey from local hives are in abundance at this booth.

“We really have something for everyone - speciality honey, exotic blue and shiitake mushrooms, wooden furniture, stone-baked breads and infused vinegars,” says Hass describing some of the available products, which also include custom-made clothing and visual arts.  

 Poet Peter Jones is a market regular signing copies of his books and sharing selections with patrons.

Poet Peter Jones is a market regular signing copies of his books and sharing selections with patrons.

As vendors from all walks of life continue to gravitate to the market, relationships are developed between farmers and prospective clients who are invested in knowing where their food comes from. 

“Over the past few years I’ve witnessed a demand for locally produced, fresh and healthy food,” says Redden. “This pushes interest in farmers’ markets and events providing an opportunity for producers and consumers to connect.”

This comes down to relationships, like those developed by Hillsview’s Carol Russell.

“The market has really allowed us to get to know who our customers are we have learned that they are people who might equally love or hate cooking,” explains Russell, who is also the provincial government liaison for the Maynooth and Hastings Highlands Business Association in her spare time. “Our customers are often seeking highly specialized products, which can reduce or enhance what they are already having to do in their kitchen.” 

The success of the market in Maynooth has something to do with the mindset of its members who give back to the community, who are known for donating funds to events like the annual Maynooth Madness children’s activities that occur at Hastings Highlands Centre over the August long weekend. 

 Carol and Hugh Russell of Hillsview Farm and Studios identify the market as a great place for getting to know their customers.

Carol and Hugh Russell of Hillsview Farm and Studios identify the market as a great place for getting to know their customers.

“It’s nice to establish a relationship with the person producing the food we eat and we feel better knowing that we’re supporting a local producer as opposed to sending our money off somewhere else,” says Redden, underscoring the ways in which the market supports local business. 

There are shared marketing strategies developing as a result of the market community, which describes itself as a family.

But it is the abundance of high quality, innovative products that are driving market successes.

Imagine a living salad -- combined in potted soil --  a collection of garlic scape, baby green onion sprouts, spinach leaves, arugula and sprigs of cilantro all sprouting together in a planter, with their roots intact. 

That’s about as natural as it gets. 

And that, along with slow-BBQ caribbean pulled-pork sandwich, could be your lunch on any given Saturday in Maynooth, on market day. 

Live music plays from sunrise until the mid-afternoon and dogs on-leash are welcomed and encouraged, for vendors and patrons alike. 

“We welcome pups who line up for sausage rolls at my booth and where there is fresh-water on site,” says Hass with a smile.  

The outdoor market comes to life every Saturday until Thanksgiving at the Old Community Centre, with winter and spring events happening all year-round, on the second weekend of each month, indoor, at the Hastings Highlands Centre. 

It’s worth the trip to Maynooth.