SJFM says its policy focuses on ensuring small-production farmers have a space in the broader St. John’s market
Lester’s Farm started out as a kitchen table on the side of the road and built up to its Brookfield Road operation, but has gotten an unwelcome vibe at the St. John’s Farmers' Market’s busiest day because of its size.
Second-generation Lester’s farmer Chris Lester said the farm expanded its acreage in 2018 and got a new mobile truck to accommodate anticipated sales at the St. John’s Farmers' Market, but when some other vendors objected, Lester’s wasn’t welcome on Saturdays.
This year, Lester said, his truck is allowed at the market only on Sundays, a much less busy day.
Lester’s has been searching for an east-end location and recently parked itself at Churchill Square’s open-air market.
From that side-of-the-road table in 1994, Lester’s eventually expanded to a full-size store on Brookfield Road where customers buy everything from locally grown root vegetables to strawberries and corn, as well as baked goods, ice cream and other products.
"I didn’t really get the idea that our brand is too big or too successful.” — Chris Lester
But the Lesters say their east-end customers have been craving a closer spot to buy their vegetables.
Lester’s said it was welcome at the St. John’s Farmers' Market when it was at the old location — the Lions Chalet off Allandale Road — until that venue became overcrowded and Lester’s moved out to accommodate other farm vendors.
Lester said Lester’s Farm was assured there was a spot for them at the roomy new permanent location on Freshwater Road, and the first day for them there was a great day.
But since then, Lester said, his operation has got the cold shoulder because some others think Lester’s is too big.
“Really (the farmers' market) kept stringing us along and we were starting to get a little bit worried, actually, because we planted an extra four or five acres of crop for that purpose. We bought a van to go down there and sell out of,” Lester said of the situation in 2018.
Eventually, Lester’s Farm was told that due to its size, variety and price, the other vendors thought they were being negatively affected.
"The thing about any farmers' market is it’s the ultimate equalizer,” Lester said. “If we all get the same size table and you grow a quarter acre or a thousand acres, you can fill that table equally as well. The other thing is it’s the ultimate display of a person’s individuality. … I didn’t really get the idea that our brand is too big or too successful.”
He said he even understands if the market was at full capacity for vegetable vendors, or if Lester’s was asked to stay away during peak vegetable season to give others a break.
Lester said Lester’s isn’t trying to compete with the smaller growers and had offered to limit mostly to produce others aren’t selling. Lester’s has products that are sometimes available earlier or are different than what others are growing.
“They wouldn’t let us go if there were two or three farmers or no farmers,” he said of the Saturday market.
The more variety, Lester says, the bigger draw the market is for everyone.
But he said some vendors even threatened to walk away from the farmers' market if Lester’s was allowed in on Saturdays.
“We’re kind of looked at as big, bad Lester’s,” he said.
“For those vendors to go, ‘I’m leaving if they show up, even if I am not there,’ that’s wrong.
“Consumers are screaming for more local product. The government is pushing this like you wouldn’t believe and here we are trying to expand a little bit and we are getting pushback.”
When his mother, Mary, and father, John, first started selling vegetables a couple of decades ago, she started with a table on the side of the road and then they built a small shack and, with add-ons, now there’s the full-size store.
“Thanks to those guys,” said Mary, referring to her children building the business. “I never thought it would get to where it is to today.”
“Cheap labour,” quipped Chris Lester.
Over the years, they’ve finessed growing times, and added unique-to-St. John’s products like the corn, as well as family friendly attractions like a petting zoo, hay rides and a fall corn maze.
Staff were added to the family operation and Lester’s is now an almost year-round store, closing only for two or three weeks.
On a weekday morning, people were lined up outside the door at Brookfield Road looking for strawberries and corn.
Customers who came in for a head of lettuce walked out with an armload of vegetables and berries.
But farming remains hard work and with small profit margins, said Lester, who runs the business with siblings Susan and Brad.
He said the prices for vegetable farmers in Newfoundland and Labrador — unlike dairy and chickens, which reflect the cost of their production — is more of a reflection of lower costs of production in California or Mexico.
“For any vegetable farmer here on the island, it is a challenge. A great year means you pay your bills. Whether you are organic, or us, or bigger farms on the west coast, it’s a challenge.” Lester said.
“For any vegetable farmer here on the island, it is a challenge. A great year means you pay your bills. Whether you are organic, or us, or bigger farms on the west coast, it’s a challenge.” — Chris Lester
Some products like root vegetables have a long shelf life and others like lettuce have a short window in which to be sold.
Lester’s also sells some product to grocery stores — Colemans, some Sobeys and Foodland locations in Carbonear, Old Perlican and Placentia.
Lester’s also attended the St. John’s night market this year, which largely caters to a different demographic than its usual customer base, Lester noted.
“We were very happy to be included in that,” he said.
With the farmers' market limitations, Lester’s decided to go back to Churchill Square — a popular market in the early 1990s (Lester’s had a booth there as well as at another location, but because of being busy with Brookfield Road with a much smaller staff, had moved on from both). Churchill Square is now home to just a few vendors, including steadfast vegetable vendor Fagan’s Farm, which has never left the square and counts on its sales there for its income.
Lester said Lester’s isn’t trying to cut in on Fagan’s customer base.
“We were kind of scrambling for a spot. We didn’t cut back completely on that five acres,” Lester said. “We really had hoped that with the 12 months down there (the St. John’s Farmers' Market) would say, ‘You know what, we really do need a stable presence of produce there.’ We provide produce 50 weeks of the year.
“We’re out Churchill Square now and we’re starting to draw customers there. I guess we’re happy and wish the best to the farmers' market.”
St. John’s Farmers' Market executive director Pam Anstey said the non-profit Freshwater Road market strives to make sure it has a diverse mix of people selling their goods, and the policy focuses on ensuring small-production farmers have a space in the broader St. John’s market.
“Lester’s is quite a large operation,” Anstey said in a phone interview.
The market didn’t want to exclude Lester’s altogether, so that’s why it offered Sunday as an option.
“We have to balance a whole lot of different things all at the same time,” Anstey said.
She said the balance involves providing the space for smaller operators to get a foothold in the broader market in St. John’s while still respecting larger farmers.
The Sunday market, which is less busy, is to continue into Thanksgiving and then will be reviewed.
Anstey said the market hopes Sundays will grow in popularity. Some vendors can’t do both days due to their limited stock.
For now, though, some people like the quieter, less crowded shopping Sundays as opposed to crowded Saturdays, which has been at capacity for vendors all summer, she said.
“A lot of people don’t like the noise and chaos,” she said.