A year in the life of the Sackville farmers’ market manager

Michael Freeman was hired three years ago by the Sackville Farmers’ Market as the organization’s first manager. At the time, the market had been newly incorporated as a non-profit, having previously been run by the former owner of the Bridge Street Café.

After three years, Freeman is leaving the job, and Paul Merrigan, a Sackville resident and Mount Allison alum, is taking over. Over the past few years, Merrigan has been a stay-at-home parent for his two now teenaged sons. He has also been responsible for coordinating Midnight Madness for several years now. Merrigan moved to Sackville in 2004 with his partner Stacy and their sons Caleb and Tolkien. Merrigan and his partner met in 1995, when they were both Mt. A students.

The Argosy sat down with Freeman and Merrigan to talk about the challenges and favourite parts of the job.

The farmers’ market has grown over the years. Izzy Francolini/Argosy

Naomi Goldberg: What are some of the challenges the market has faced over the past few years?

Michael Freeman: The biggest issue is: How do we create more opportunities for small businesses, for agriculture, but other food businesses as well? How do you make food accessible to people, make it affordable, but also give producers a fair price? This is something that farmers’ markets can do because we’re direct marketing.

One of the things the market has been working on for the whole three years that I’ve been here is finding venues that work. We have a really great summer venue now. Our winter venue is really functional, with Bridge Street Café, Ducky’s and the lot behind the Painted Pony, but people don’t like that it’s so spread out. We keep hearing, when we do surveys, that people want it to be in one place, because it will feel better and it will be more accessible. You can’t get a stroller or a wheelchair in [Bridge Street Café during market hours], because it’s too crowded.

One of the hot things now is the new public health regulations that came into effect back in April of last year, although the enforcement is starting now for us. Challenges there have been getting the information to people, because the regulations are complicated. For a lot of our vendors, the official languages of Canada – French or English – are not their mother tongue. So understanding what they mean by, you know, quaternary ammonium testing strips – what the hell is that? That kind of stuff has been a bit of a challenge, but we’ve been working through it. I think things are going to go pretty well once inspections start in April.

The tricky thing is that the health department has an enforcement role, and our job is to provide a platform for vendors. At this point the relationship between us and public health is really new. We haven’t really defined whose role it is to do the capacity building, do the training for vendors. Fortunately, I’ve had hours, so I can sit down with people and, where needed, find a third party who can translate into Mandarin or Italian so we can work through those documents. A lot of markets our size and smaller are really struggling to find the time and energy to do that.

We still don’t understand what the criteria are for producing certain products, or the criteria are very complicated. Things like canning or thermic processing are going from a situation where there were no regulations to a situation where the regulations are quite rigorous. It’s going to take time and energy from the coordinator, the vendors and hopefully public health to get information, as well as financial resources, such as kitchen upgrades and lab processing fees for those vendors to adapt.

NG: What are some of your favourite parts about the job?

MF: It feels like it has been my home for the past three years. And it’s funny to say this, because I didn’t care about this at all when I first started, but the way we develop businesses. Essentially, this is the easiest place to start a business in Sackville. The kind of cliché that I use is, “all it takes is an idea and a hot plate.” Once I leave my job, I want to start a taco stand at the market, and I don’t have that much capital, and most people in Sackville [don’t]. It’s a way that you can get in there, try new things, do direct market research. You’re encountering people and seeing what they like, what they don’t like, and I think that that’s really important.

When I moved to town four years ago, Bay of Fungi started growing mushrooms in their basement, and now they’re selling to a couple of different grocery stores; they tried the Dieppe market for a while, now they came back here. They started growing from donated coffee grounds from the Black Duck, and now they’re a full-scale farm. And there are other people doing that too. That’s the best thing about the market.

Aside from being the biggest weekly event in Sackville – aside from maybe elementary school – it’s also the most diverse thing that happens in Sackville. If you spend as much time as the market manager spends here every Saturday, you will hear five different languages spoken here at least, which in a town the size of Sackville in New Brunswick is incredible. That’s really important to me, and to Sackville.”

NG: As the new market manager, what are some projects you would like to take on?

Paul Merrigan: “One of the things that I’ve always loved about the market in Sackville is that it’s dynamic, it’s constantly changing. It’s a matter of harnessing that change and making it a constant. If you only come here every few weeks, it’ll be a completely different experience and you’ll run into different people.”

MF: One of the reasons we hired [Merrigan] is because we asked a question about marketing, and what [he] would do to market the farmers’ market, and [his] answer was that Sackville is in this great place, two hours from Halifax, two hours from Charlottetown. When people like you or me travel, one of the things we’re thinking is, ‘let’s check out another farmers’ market.’

PM: I’ve been going to the market since I was a Mount Allison student in the mid-’90s, back when it was in the basement of [what is now the Jean Coutu]. It’s gotten much, much bigger now. We’ve continued, when we travel, to look for markets. It makes sense, then, that if you’re a regular market-goer in Fredericton, if you’re here for a weekend, and you know that there’s a market, then why wouldn’t you come here? Market-goers are a huge percentage of our overall population and we do travel – we’re not always in our hometown. The market-goers who are in Charlottetown or Halifax, if they’re passing through on a Saturday morning, even if they’re en route [to] somewhere, [I want to] work on making sure that those people come to the Sackville farmers’ market.

With files from Cecilia Stuart

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