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Exploring Connections Between People, Places and Food in Three Nova Scotia Farmers’ Markets

  • Kristen Lowitt

Corps de l’article


Recent years have seen a greater recognition of the problems associated with the global industrial food system, as well as the emergence of alternative food networks (AFNs) as part of a trend towards a less industrialized agriculture. AFNs exist in a variety of forms—such as farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture projects, and community gardens—that are distinct from industrial modes of food supply in that they resocialize and respatialize food by allowing closer producer-consumer relationships. This enables consumers to make value judgments about the foods they choose to purchase. Such foods are often defined by the locality of their production, and draw upon and enhance an image of the local region as providing “quality” foods. [1]

Farmers’ markets are one type of AFN experiencing rapid growth across North America and Europe. Although experiencing a modern revival, they represent a traditional form of retail that predominated before the advent of modern supermarkets. [2] The reasons for the recent growth of farmers’ markets are complex, but all emphasize the benefits for consumers and small-scale producers, including social interaction, access to local food, and economic opportunities for local growers. [3]

This study explores the story of how people, places and food interact to form markets through the first comparative case study of three farmers’ markets in Nova Scotia, Canada. It deconstructs the notions of “local” and “quality” food, exploring these understandings from the perspective of market producers and consumers.

Case Study Markets

Three case study markets were selected for their potential to explore connections among people, places, and food under contrasting external conditions, what Robert K. Yin calls “theoretical replications.” [4] Selected case study markets are the Halifax, Hubbards, and Wolfville Farmers’ Markets.

Figure 1

Map of farmers’ markets in Nova Scotia

Map of farmers’ markets in Nova ScotiaCourtesy of Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia. Cooperative Ltd. Media

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Halifax Farmers’ Market

Founded in 1750, the Halifax Farmers’ Market is the oldest continuously operating farmers’ market in North America. A bustling market that has become a Saturday morning tradition for local residents, it is also the largest farmers’ market in the province, with approximately 155 vendors and up to 10 thousand customers each week. Farmers travel from across the province to attend the market. At the time of this study, the market was located in the historic Keith’s Brewery; a new, larger facility for the market is currently being built on the waterfront.

Figure 2

Customers shopping in the main market square at the Halifax Farmers’ Market

Customers shopping in the main market square at the Halifax Farmers’ MarketPhoto courtesy of Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia Cooperative Ltd. Media

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Wolfville Farmers’ Market

The Wolfville Farmers’ Market is located in the Town of Wolfville in the heart of the fertile Annapolis Valley. Many small farmers from the Valley sell at the market. Established in 1993 with three vendors, the market has grown to over 55 vendors during the summer. From May to October the market takes place in a park outside, where farmers and shoppers are accompanied by music from local musicians. In the winter the market operates indoors on the Acadia University campus.

Figure 3

Producers and customers gather outside at the Wolfville Farmers’ Market

Producers and customers gather outside at the Wolfville Farmers’ MarketPhoto courtesy of Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia Cooperative Ltd. Media

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Hubbards Farmers’ Market

The Hubbards Farmers’ Market takes place in an historic barn in the small town of Hubbards on the southern shore of Nova Scotia. Adults can be seen gathering outside at picnic tables while children play in the sandbox and dance around the barn to performances by local musicians. The market started 12 years ago and has since grown to include 35 vendors. It is the smallest of the case study markets and operates seasonally.

Figure 4

Customers cycling to the Hubbards Farmers’ Market

Customers cycling to the Hubbards Farmers’ MarketPhoto courtesy of Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia Cooperative Ltd. Media

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This study used participant observation and interviewing in a qualitative framework. The main method of data collection was structured participant observation, involving close observation of producer-consumer interactions, and short informal interviews with producers and consumers at each of the markets. Altogether, informal interviews were conducted with 20 producers (including eight producers at the Halifax Farmers’ Market, seven at the Wolfville Farmers’ Market, and five at the Hubbards Farmers’ Market) and 37 consumers (including 17 at the Halifax Farmers’ Market, 12 at the Wolfville Farmers’ Market, and eight at the Hubbards Farmers’ Market). 11 in-depth interviews were also conducted with managers, producers, and consumers from each market.

Results and Discussion

Producer-Consumer Relations: Making (re)Connections

This study finds that markets exist and develop in the space between the producer and consumer. Producer-consumer relations were repeatedly described by market managers as “paramount” and “the heart” of the market. Consistent with other research, one of the main reasons producers and consumers attended the markets was to connect or reconnect with the people buying and growing their food. [5] Consumers referred to producers as “very kind” and described their interactions as “more personal than a grocery store.” [6] Likewise, one producer said, “[w]e get to know our customers and put a face to the people.” [7] Producers recognized that the industrialization of agriculture has created a generation of consumers who want contact with local producers. Ted Hutton is a vegetable grower who sells at the Halifax Farmers’ Market. He said:

They [consumers] want to know where the food comes from, who grew it, who produced it, how it was produced, they want that relationship. I think they want that because we as a society are so far removed from food production. [8]

Figure 5

Customer buying directly from the producer at a market in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

Customer buying directly from the producer at a market in Lunenburg, Nova ScotiaPhoto courtesy of Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia Cooperative Ltd. Media

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By bringing producers and consumers together, the economic transactions in the markets were based upon and mediated by social ties. Economic sociology captures this in the concept of social embeddedness, conveying principles of trust, reciprocity, and social connectivity. [9] The socially-embedded nature of these transactions distinguishes them from the neo-classical model of exchange by emphasizing a process benefit, usually in the form of a personal relationship. [10] Kelly Marie Redcliffe, manager of the Wolfville Farmers’ Market, spoke to this process benefit in terms of “consumers getting not just a product but a relationship, an experience, an education.” [11]

The direct nature of these interactions enhances the capacity for commitment and trust. [12] Meeting the producer and forming a relationship based on trust extended beyond an experience of pleasure for the consumer to one that had important implications for their perceptions of food. One consumer said that meeting the producer provided a “sense of confidence that it’s the real thing.” [13] Fred Kilcup manages the Halifax Farmers’ Markets. He similarly explained:

…the “certified organic” movement and the food safety and security issues…all that is reduced to the space between the customer and the vendor again. And a trust relationship that’s built between them on all those issues. It’s reduced to a direct conversation with the producer. And people either trust it or they don’t. And if they to do trust it, then they have confidence in the food. [14]

Face-to-face interactions also provided important opportunities for learning. Larry Steele, a long-time customer of the Halifax Farmers’ Market, described the market as “an encyclopedia of learning.” [15] At the same time, producers received direct feedback about their food products.

The interconnected aspects of trust, commitment, and knowledge that characterized relations among producers and consumers are conceptualized in Figure 6.

Figure 6

Producer-consumer relations in markets

Producer-consumer relations in markets

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Producer Relations: Expressions of Reciprocity and Social Connectivity

Embeddedness, in the sense of social connection between producers and consumers, is often seen as the “hallmark” of direct agricultural markets. [16] This study supports this consensus while attempting to further conceptualize the various aspects comprising such relationships (see Figure 6), and also suggests that we may extend our discussions about embeddedness to consider relations among producers, which similarly exhibited qualities of reciprocity and social connectivity. Producers expressed an understanding of reciprocal relationships as a crucial aspect of social embeddedness in part through the desire to support other producers by purchasing products from them. Jeanita Rand helps operate the family-run Fox Hill Cheese House. She observed:

[w]e’re all going to the same place to try and earn extra dollars. Then you build on those relationships and you feel like you want to support this vendor or try to support them all in one way, shape, or form… now I spend a lot of money at the market just from other vendors and they come and buy our cheese and our products as well. [17]

Producers also expressed a sense of social connection with other producers, often using the word “family.” Randy Hiltz, who operates a small goat dairy, noted:

[w]e chit-chat, how’s it goin’. And there again it’s all oh ‘Hi Annie, hi Beth, hi Steve’ and everybody just seems to know names. Again, that makes you feel special. Again, that makes you feel that you are somebody. Again you’re part of a larger family. [18]

Markets as Place-based Community Spaces

Collectively, these relations between producers and consumers interact with food and places to compose market communities. At Halifax, Hubbards, and Wolfville, a sense of community was central to the market experience. [19] Producers and consumers used words such as “atmosphere,” “social ambience,” and “network” to describe the markets. The most significant connection to place in the markets involved information about the food’s local sourcing. Consumers described the food as “local.” Signage displaying the names of farms, foods for sale, and words such as “local” or “fresh” linked food to particular localities with particular quality attributes. Similarly, Farmers’ Markets Nova Scotia, the provincial cooperative of which each of the study markets is a member, engages in marketing campaigns with the slogan “fresh local food and so much more.” These contextual factors of imaging and messaging, combined with the direct experience of meeting the producers, likely informed consumers’ perceptions of the food as being locally sourced. A cautionary question: is all of the food at these markets always local? Farmers’ Markets Ontario, for example, has responded to the potential concern of imported foods at markets by creating a new “My Market” brand to assure consumers that all food sold at its markets is of local origin. [20] In the Nova Scotia markets studied, the guiding principles of the provincial cooperative, including local production and personal representation by producers, help prevent the selling of imported foods. This doesn’t mean that one never sees imported foods, particularly in the winter months. One consumer indicated that one “must ask” in order to be certain that the food being sold is local. However, as Marilyn Cameron, a regular customer at the Wolfville Farmers’ Market pointed out, “[i]n that kind of an intimate atmosphere you can ask… and they’re very happy to tell you.” [21] Many producers reflected a desire to communicate to consumers where the food they were purchasing came from. Jeanita Rand said, “[w]e tell them that first of all we’re dairy farmers. We plant the seed, we grow the crop, we milk the cow, we make the cheese and sell to them, the customer.” [22]

Deconstructing the “Local”

Consumers expressed a desire to buy local foods, while producers likewise marketed their foods as local. It is necessary, however, to more precisely define the term “local” and its implications for these actors. Research has shown that what constitutes the “local” in local food and food systems is often unclear: [23] The following excerpts from in-depth interviews with producers and consumers further explore this question.

Informants expressed a spatial understanding of “local,” variously defining localness as coming from a specific farm, the province, or the Maritimes. A more fluid interaction among scales was also expressed in phrases such as “as close to home as possible” and “concentric circles.” For example, vegetable grower Ted Hutton says:

I know there are people who feel like if you live in Nova Scotia and you sell like potatoes from PEI that’s local potatoes. I say, for me maybe not so much. I think it’s much better to sell potatoes from PEI in Nova Scotia than to sell potatoes from Iowa. You know, as close to home as possible. [24]

Such expressions reflect the continual tension and negotiation in the development of local food systems between protecting or reifying the local and recognizing it as embedded within a larger, global community. [25]

Among producers, local food was also described in terms of personal involvement in the growing process. Jeanita Rand describes local as:

[p]lanting that seed, growing that crop of alfalfa or hay, it’s feeding it to an animal that you milk twice a day, and it’s using that fresh milk to make your product. That’s pretty local—it’s not being flown across the country, it doesn’t have to cross borders, all those things. It’s done right here in Port Williams. [26]

Similarly Richard Hennigar, an organic apple farmer, says, “Local means I grow it myself to start with.” [27] These findings suggest that the unique position of the consumer and producer in the food system influences what local means to them as well as how it is experienced, issues which have been explored in previous studies. [28]

Conceptualizing “Quality” Food

The (re)emergence of farmers’ markets can be seen as part of a wider “quality turn,” that is, a shift among a growing number of consumers away from industrial food to what they perceive to be higher quality food. [29] Consumers at the markets studied did tend to describe food in terms of “quality.” While inspiring considerable academic discussion, however, the increased interest in quality associated with AFNs is still operating largely at the “margins of mainstream industrial food circuits.” [30] Direct marketing still only accounts for a very small percentage of food sales in Canada, although these outlets play a critical role in supporting individual small farm businesses. [31] To further explore this perceived quality turn, this study analyzes the characteristics producers and consumers associated with quality food, shown in Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1

Characteristics of food quality expressed by consumers (n=37)

Characteristics of food quality expressed by consumers (n=37)

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Table 2

Characteristics of food quality expressed by producers (n=21)

Characteristics of food quality expressed by producers (n=21)

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Figure 7

Fresh vegetables for sale

Fresh vegetables for salePhoto courtesy of Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia Cooperative Ltd. Media

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“Fresh” and “organic” emerged as important characteristics of food quality among both producers and consumers. However, some key differences became apparent. [32] Producers cited “local” as a measure of food quality less often than consumers, likely due to their role in growing the food and hence more granular understanding of its “localness.” [33] They also listed a much larger number of food quality characteristics, indicative of their more sophisticated understanding of the processes involved in producing and marketing food. These reflected a broader range of concerns, such as environmental sustainability, presentation of its production, and compliance with health standards, as well as various social benefits associated with quality food, such as “benefit[ing] local people,” “coming from a small family farm,” and being “a product you are proud to sell.” [34]


This study offers some new insights into the social relations in three farmers’ markets in Nova Scotia as well as perceptions of “local” and “quality” food among market actors. Some interesting areas for future research arise from this study. First, most previous research has focused on how farmers’ markets foster relationships of connectedness among producers and consumers. Little research has examined ways in which these market spaces may also be important opportunities for bringing together communities of producers, or the role of relations among producers in shaping the larger market community. Second, there are indications from this research that the context of the market itself may inform how consumers perceive food, including its ostensible localness and quality. Further research should explore in greater depth ways in which various food and nonfood contextual factors interact to influence consumers’ perceptions of food in farmers’ markets. [35] Lastly, this study suggests an actor’s position in the food system informs his or her understandings of food quality and locality, ideas that have been observed in some previous studies [36] but require further investigation and theoretical attention.

Parties annexes