CBCM working on pandemic options

CONSTANCE BAY – What would have been the fifth season of the Constance Bay Community Market (CBCM) never got off the ground due to COVID-19 – a new challenge for a farmers’ market still in the early stages of establishing itself in the West Carleton community.

In the shadow of the well-established, long-running Carp Farmers’ Market, the CBCM has worked hard to build up a loyal group of customers and a consistent group of truly local vendors. The CBCM has engaged in out-of-the-box thinking, promoting hyper-local and youth vendors and building a community between their customers, their volunteers and their vendors.

It was working well and season five was something the CBCM was eagerly looking forward to. Then the pandemic arrived. The CBCM was forced to cancel the twice-monthly market as well as some of its special events.

Meanwhile the small market was still responsible for insurance and Farmers’ Market Ontario fees to pay. So, the board, as is the nomenclature of the day, pivoted. The CBCM board came up with the idea of cheer boxes. They were to-go packages of some of the CBCM’s vendors’ best stuff. They were topical as the first cheer boxes went on sale for Mothers’ Day in May and the second for Fathers’ Day in June. Last Saturday, the CBCM was selling a summer-themed cheer box.

They were also popular. The CBCM sold out of their 30 boxes in May and June and when West Carleton Online dropped by St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church last Saturday (July 25), the CBCM had only one cheer box left to sell.

“It’s an awesome way to keep our customers aware of our vendors,” market manager Cindy Pratt told West Carleton Online.

Pratt says the board and volunteers looked to select items that might not be on a visitors’ shopping list, but items they should certainly check out none the less. In these challenging times, the boxes served other purposes as well. The CBCM charged the vendors 10 per cent per item which goes towards the aforementioned association and insurance costs as well as PayPal administration fees and packaging costs but comes with something the vendors aren’t guaranteed during a regular market.

“Our vendors are guaranteed a sale,” Pratt said. “With any luck, we make a tiny but that will go to paying our fees.”

The CBCM received some funding from the City of Ottawa’s Agriculture and Rural Affairs committee which subsidized some of the costs of the first round of cheer boxes. It helped the CBCM put together a knockout package and give them an opportunity to gauge the interest of the community without losing their shirts.

They were a hit. The CBCM would buy the products from their vendors and then sell take responsibility for selling the cheer boxes to customers.

“We were taking all the risk for the vendors,” Pratt said. “The vendors seem to be pleased and so far, we’ve had a great variety.”

For the summer cheer box, the CBCM modified the plan again. This time they had the basic box, but customers had the option to purchase a select group of add-ons. It allowed the CBCM to keep the cheer boxes at a reasonable $60 for July, but still give customers a good variety.

“We need to have items in the $5 range to have a variety, but keep it affordable,” Pratt said. “Also, with produce, we don’t know in advance if it will be available and how much.”

The CBCM plans on offering the monthly cheer boxes until the end of the year.

“If this continues to be successful, we’ll look at adding cheer boxes to our ongoing market next year,” Pratt said.

The board is working on finding funding for an e-store on the CBCM website. The cost is associated with upgrading the website and making it safe for commerce transactions.

“It’s a ton of work and we’re all volunteer,” Pratt said. “So, we’re hoping for September. We’re figuring it out as we go. We keep coming up with ideas that are great but do add to the workload.”

Last Saturday, the CBCM also tested another idea – the Grab and Go Market.

“As we get more comfortable with the minis we hope to expand on the Grab and Go,” Pratt said.

Regular vendor Limestone Acres’ Amanada Gillespie, for the first time this season, set up a stall with farm-fresh produce, some of her honey products and some of her preserves.

Limestone Acres has produced some award-winning products, winning two first places at last year’s Carp Fair in the largest zucchini and best chunk honey categories.

“I’m so sad I can’t enter my veggies in the Carp Fair this year,” Gillespie said.

But with the debut of the Grab and Go Market in Constance Bay Saturday, she was able to sell her products at a market for the first time this year. Gillespie is also a regular at the Arnprior Market which was also cancelled this year. She has also attended one-shot markets like The Night Market on Fox in Nepean and the Calabogie Summer Market in the past.

By the end of the day, Gillespie had almost completely sold out of her stock.

With the ongoing pandemic completely changing the rulebook, the CBCM is throwing things out there and seeing what sticks.

“Everything is on the table,” Pratt said. “Ultimately our goal with the market, no matter the circumstances, is to be self-sustaining.”