Farmers’ market customers are looking for more value added and prepared foods, preserves, more variety, and more early spring and late fall produce. This information led us to pilot the New Products Program 2012, a microgrants initiative for farmers to invest in new crops and new products.
The program has been a great success so far, striking a chord with farmers in and around the Greenbelt. The grants offered small amounts of funding which gave farmers the incentive or “added-push” to bring new, innovative products to farmers markets. Feedback from these small-scale farmers has been incredibly positive, as they have expressed their appreciation for the Greenbelt Foundation’s financial and moral support.
Marjo Niemi, of Niemi Family Farm and manager of the East Gwillimbury Farmers’ Market, expressed her excitement over this initiative when we visited the market late August. Mrs. Niemi moved to Canada from Finland in 1988 and saved up to buy her family farm in 2004, where she lives with her husband and children. With much experience farming in Finland, Niemi is constantly looking for new possibilities as a farmer. In the winter months, she spends a lot of her time researching new methods of how to grow our food and looks for new crops to grow. The New Products Program helped her put her research into practice. She explained, “The microgrants make you think more about what you can do…every spring you plant the same plants and rotate the crops but with this program you have to think about new ideas and how to be a better farmer.”
Marjo Niemi Showing off her new crops at the East Gwillimbury Farmers’ Market
With help from the new irrigation system she purchased with the microgrants money, she has been able to grow new crops, including long beans, oriental cucumber and gem squash. When we visited the East Gwillimbury Farmers’ Market, we had never seen a gem squash before. Mrs. Niemi explained that one of her loyal customers from South Africa recommended it to her and gave her seeds to grow this type of squash, popular in her home country. Mrs. Niemi says that gem squash is now sold out at her farmers’ market every week. Assisted by Emily Van Halem’s Eat Local, Taste Global recipe books, Mrs. Niemi is excited to be promoting new crops, attracting new customers and teaching the public that diverse foodscan be grown in Ontario. What’s next? She’s planning on growing lingonberries next year, a famous berry in Scandinavian countries.
Another grant recipient, Daniel Hoffman of The Cutting Veg farm, also expressed his gratitude to the program. “I have been very grateful for the grant money, and the support it has offered...I have found the washing station especially to be a major game-changer. We are now able to promote our greens as pre-washed (eg, salad mix, arugula, Asian greens mix, etc), and this definitely helps sales. The sparkling shine of all our other produce (after it's made its trip through the washing station), has also made a difference in sales. So, yes, I am thrilled by the impact of the grant on our biz. It has been a huge help.”
Daniel Hoffman at the Sorauren Farmers’ Market promoting his New Products.
Along with many success stories, there are many challenges. 2012 has been a tough season for farmers. The unprecedented warm weather in March, followed by freezes in April, left many fruit growers with greatly reduced expectations. The summer drought that followed had a huge impact on some farms as well. Inevitably, farming can be a tough gamble and the reduction or failure of some crops this season means that not all farms will reach their goals for new products as soon as they hoped.
SunRay Orchards Value added pies made with their new stove they bought with their microgrant.
Despite some short-term setbacks, we feel the program will offer long term, positive impacts on the Greenbelt Farmers’ Markets, and we truly admire the determination of the growers. Ontario’s farmers continue to work hard, not only in the field but in finding new and exciting ways to best accommodate all of their shoppers.
For us, we’ve realized that developing new products is an ongoing process and we’ll keep supporting the farmers’ new ideas and visions that will keep loyal customers coming back and will attract new shoppers as well.
With diverse and new products in the markets and extended seasonal availability of produce, the micro-grants are encouraging farmers to continue their hard work in the field and at their market stands, and we hope customers will continue to cheer them on!
- Anne Freeman & Sara Udow, Greenbelt Farmers' Market Network Coordinators