By Dale Woodard on May 11, 2021.
The Lethbridge & District Exhibition annual Farmers’ Market is revving for another year.
As the first market of the season filed into the Lethbridge Exhibition Park South Pavilion on the weekend, Lethbridge & District Exhibition Chief Executive Officer Mike Warkentin is ready to put the pedal down for another summer of helping local businesses thrive in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as the market runs from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday until Oct. 9.
“I speak about the economic engine that is the farmers market, a lot of people see it as just that,” said Warkentin Saturday morning as patrons started filing in for the second day of shopping. “It’s a place to come and get your vegetables on Saturday, but this is a key cog in the ecosystem of economic development in the agricultural food chain in southern Alberta. All the people here, especially as we get further into the summer and some of the produce begins to show up, have already taken the steps to be entrepreneurs. So we’ve actually partnered with Economic Development Lethbridge this year to provide resources to these entrepreneurs to establish their business on a grander scale, provide some market access and provide investment opportunities. So there will be a static booth providing resources to these vendors all year long.”
This year, the Saturday Farmers’ Market has partnered with UFA Co-operative Limited.
“They came on as the partners of the farmers market because they saw the value in what the farmers market is as an economic engine,” said Warkentin. “It is a way to promote what their producers are doing here in southern Alberta and it is a way for them to give back to those members for the significant agricultural region that is southern Alberta.”
Of course, with the pandemic still going, Warkentin said precautions for this year’s market are even more ramped up than they were last year.
“Based on the new (COVID-19) orders that came out last week, we have lowered the capacity to 10 per cent of the fire occupancy in the building, which is 150 people,” he said. “That has changed from the 250 people that we allowed in the market at any given time last year. Will continue to monitor that situation as we go through the season and ensure that when we are bringing people together, we are doing so in a safe and responsible way.”
In addition to the Lethbridge & District Exhibition Farmers’ Market, the Saturday market, the downtown market and any handmade markets that happen at Exhibition Park are approved through the Alberta’s Farmers Market Program and are allowed with the current restrictions,” said Warkentin.
“That is something we have been asked a lot about this week.”
The Downtown Lethbridge BRZ 15th annual Farmers’ Market returns to downtown at 2 Ave South between 4 Street and 5 Street South each Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. from July 7 to Sept. 15.
As a result of the Alberta Health vaccine clinic taking place in the West Pavilion, the farmer’s market has been shifted to the South Pavilion.
“We wanted to allow people who are coming for their shot and people who are coming to the farmers market a little bit of separation so there wasn’t any major congestion in the parking lot,” said Warkentin. “One of the things we have noticed with the volume of people who are coming to get their vaccines is there is a significant amount of traffic to the site and we wanted to alleviate that congestion the best we could. Specifically, when horse racing starts up as well. It will be a busy place as it has been in the past.”
Despite the pandemic, the farmer’s market still brought in solid numbers from around southern Alberta.
“We had nearly 40,000 people who came to our two farmers markets last year all in a safe and responsible way,” said Warkentin. “It was a safe environment and we encourage people to come in and get their stuff. It’s not the same social gathering it would’ve been in the past. But it is a key piece of people’s weekends here in southern Alberta and our role is to bring people together.”
Warkentin said they’ll continue to encourage everyone to come down this year as well, but suggested shoppers feeling a bit under the weather stay away until they’re feeling better and then hit up the next market.
Those who come to scope out the deals must be masked and there will be plenty of hand sanitizer onsite as well.
The number of vendors are lower than previous years and significantly more spread out as per pandemic protocol.
“Our role is to bring people together and obviously that is limited in what we can do right now,” said Warkentin. “The health and safety of our patrons, our staff and our volunteers is number one. So you will see dividers between every booth and significantly more floor space. You will see pre-sanitization and sanitization. We encourage social distancing and obviously the mask mandate is in place here in the city of Lethbridge.”
Still, Warkentin encouraged shoppers to come down, check out the facility and see what they think.
Thus far, the majority of the vendors are local, said Warkentin.
“As we get further into the summer and as we start to establish some of the producers, they start to expand a little bit out further into southern Alberta. There is a small number that comes from the High River and Calgary region. That will continue to grow as we move forward. We will continue to monitor the health regulations and what we can do to see what is allowable.”
In the meantime, Warkentin said the farmers market being open is crucial for businesses that have taken that step to becoming entrepreneurs.
“Our role as an economic driver in this community and the greater communities of southern Alberta is to provide opportunity for these people to go to the market. This, the big Christmas market and any of the other markets that happen at Exhibition Park are economic drivers for these businesses to provide that market access.”
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