Rural Living June 01, 2023
St. Jacobs Farmers' Market gears up for another season.
Summer is here and St. Jacobs Farmers' Market, Ontario's most famous, is gearing up for its 71st year of operation. Some are older, lots have more convenient locations, but the Woolwich, Ontario, market is the only one that's a major tourist attraction. It's not Niagara Falls famous, but the odds are good that anyone visiting family and friends in the region will have it on their itinerary.
An August 2022 survey found that 21,000 people came through the market that day, says Joanna Loebach, general manager of the St. Jacobs Market District. While 48% of these lived within 40 kilometers of the market, 18% came from the Toronto area and 13% from other Canadian provinces. The remaining 10% were visiting from outside of Canada.
The market has come a long way from its humble origins in the 1950s on the property of the livestock exchange for the Waterloo region. It was a gathering place for the wives of the husbands working the livestock exchange, and a place to trade the goods that they grew on their farm.
Today, the Market District has grown to include hotels, an outlet mall, antique malls, handmade furniture stores, the Drayton Theater and the historic Waterloo Central Railway. They're all built around the new, two-story, landmark-red, barn-board farmers' market building that replaced the original building that was destroyed by a fire in 2013. The Ontario Livestock Exchange still operates off the property too.
The scale of the market is the main attraction for visitors and sellers alike. There are 400 indoor vendors open throughout the year plus another 200 outdoor vendors during the peak growing season. There's nothing quite like it anywhere else in Ontario.
First market. "St. Jacobs is the first market my dad Rob ever attended!" says Alex Chesney with Thames River Melons in Innerkip, Ont. "It's not too far from the farm and is convenient for lots of our customers. We attend markets to help bridge the gap between rural and urban communities and help consumers experience a taste of agriculture, and St. Jacob's is a great location for that."
"I think it's a day-long experience," Loebach says. "Visitors have a lot of options they can explore. A family-oriented group coming with kids can start off with shopping in the morning. Then, after lunch, they can have an interactive experience with the farm animals on the property. There's also 75-minute farm tours where you visit an Old Order Mennonite farm and learn more about the Mennonite culture."
The market, open every Thursday and Saturday throughout the year, is a combination of a farmers' market and a flea market. It's a major outlet for hundreds of Ontario fruits and vegetable growers and artisans. It features baked goods, meats, cheeses, fresh in-season fruits and vegetables as well as just about every type of artisan arts and craft imaginable.
"What's available changes constantly; it really follows the growing season in the summer and continues throughout the fall harvest months," Loebach says. September through December is my favorite time at the market, our farmers are still front and center but we also have a lot of special events—like our Harvest Hoedown, a night of country music and dancing under the stars, a craft beer tasting event Thanksgiving weekend, Halloween activities for kids and then we wrap up the year with several holiday sip-and-shop night markets where the whole property is licensed and guests can shop while enjoying a festive cocktail."
The market is also well known for its many quick service food counters. It's similar to a food court in a shopping mall. Visitors can sample Greek and Italian cuisine as well as foods from many other nationalities reflecting Ontario's growing diversity.
The combination has created a strong tourist draw. Sometimes on a Saturday in the peak growing season the market is so crowded, it's chaotic bedlam.
"People love it because there's just so much going on," Loebach says. "Between the vendors, the buskers, and the wonderful smells from the foods, there's something for everyone." ‡
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