Tis the season and Christmas markets are back with all their twinkling lights and wonderful gift ideas, though COVID-19 has changed the way they operate. That’s wonderful news for farmers who want to augment their income by making and selling crafts, or offering homemade sausage, baked goods, pickles or honey for sale.
One of the vendors you’ll see at several markets in southern Alberta is Josee Kirk. She and her husband Dennis own Kirk’s Alpaca Farm 10 minutes west of Three Hills. In the growing season, they also raise vegetables in their 8,000 square foot garden and 400 square foot greenhouse, and laying hens for eggs.
Their alpaca business is less than two years but it has grown like Topsy despite or maybe because of COVID. Their original herd of 38 alpacas has grown to 62, including 15 babies born this spring, and is proof there’s strength in diversity for smaller farms.
Though Dennis grew up on a farm, Josee did not. And alpacas were foreign to both of them. “When I spotted the original herd for sale in a farm publication, I raised the idea with Dennis,” said Josee. “He said ‘no way” but agreed to come with me to see them – and we were hooked.”
Fortunately, the original owners helped them design and build a barn that was alpaca friendly and gave them tips on how to breed, comb and shear. The next step was to find a business that would turn the wool into knitted garments like socks, hats, scarves and more (As Josee said, “I haven’t got a craft bone in me. But I did learn how to make dryer balls!”) and again they lucked out. Exotic Fibres of Canada which makes and ships products all over Canada and beyond was only 40 km away from the Kirk’s farm. “While other farmers have to ship their wool and receive their finished products the same way, I only have to hop in the car and drop it off,” said Josee.
This year, when Dennis was laid off his job in recession-torn Alberta, COVID descended and hail destroyed their vegetable crop, the Kirks decided not to let it get them down. They built a store on their property to sell their vegetables, eggs and alpaca products. They also carry goods from about a dozen other local farms and businesses. “The alpacas are a big draw for people who enjoy coming to the farm to see them and get some fresh air.”
The store is still open three days a week even though the growing season is over, but since Dennis is home to man it, Josee is able to bring their goods to fall and Christmas markets. “That was a learning curve too,” she laughed. “At the first one where I had a table, I tried to bring everything; that didn’t work well. Now I’ve scaled down to bring only a few of our product lines and it’s working.”
I was introduced to the Kirk’s alpaca products at the Chestermere Christmas Market in November. I learned that the longer “work” socks are ideal for people who work or play outdoors: toasty warm in winter, cool and breathable in summer, strong and long-lasting. The thinner executive and ankle sock are perfect for the office or the gym. The hats, scarves and headbands appeal to skiers and others who recreate in the colder months. Best of all, $2 from every sale goes toward providing meals at a children’s home in Guatemala.
Josee participated in a few fall markets and the Christmas markets in Chestermere and Olds County, and will have a table at the Three Hills Dance Celebration (Nov. 27-28), Okotoks Christmas Market (Dec. 4-5) and Cremona Heritage Market (Dec. 11-12). Then she’ll take a well-earned rest to enjoy the holidays with her husband, six children, and a son-in-law. “Markets are a lot of work.”
They are a lot of work for the organizers too, especially since they need to adapt to COVID restrictions. Kendra Kane, an event planner with Opulence Alliance Events, organizes about 20 events a year including the Cochrane Christmas Market on Nov. 28 and Dec. 5. This show leans toward the professional, seasoned artisans and this year will have two dates to ensure the vendors are spaced safely apart. “There are provincial COVID protocols in place that we need to follow,” said Kendra. “They do not restrict capacity, but we will do this anyway by taking a detailed count of visitors coming in and out.” Kendra is unsure how COVID will affect attendance at this annual market but noted that the outdoor markets she organized in summer were busier than ever.
Many other Christmas markets have decided to operate differently this year due to the pandemic. Spruce Meadows in SW Calgary, which held one of the city’s largest, is going entirely online. However, they will be hosting their free annual Christmas Light Drive weekly until Jan. 3, albeit with no on-site activities or amenities open and a strict rule that no one can leave their car.
Millarville held their large Christmas Market in November. It is mainly outdoors, but even so, had to remove attractions like photos with Santa, visits to Santa’s workshop, hay rides and a glass blowing demonstration. Fortunately for families, kids could still get a photograph with Santa’s reindeer.
High River, which normally has a Santa Claus parade and other events in addition to markets, is doing their best to keep people in the holiday mood. While there won’t be a parade in 2020, Santa and his float can be seen in the park, at the museum and driving down neighbourhood streets in a Porch Parade. The town’s Winter Market will be open Dec. 4-5 and Dec. 12-13. Admission is free.
Not so The Saskatoon Farm in Foothills County. A thriving operation that includes a gift store, restaurant and food barn, they were advised by Alberta Health Services to charge a fee and book times to control an influx of visitors to their Christmas market (Nov. 27-29, Dec. 4-6, Dec. 11-13. And, of course, they follow pandemic protocols. “COVID has made a huge difference in how we run our business,” said manager Sydney Falker. “It’s been frustrating but also rewarding. We had lots of traffic this summer and fall – our regulars who feel like friends and new visitors looking for something to do.”
The same picture is happening across the country; check out the Christmas markets near you. Whether they are online, charging admission to control numbers or adding extra measures to keep people safe, they are all doing their best to support local, help their vendors supplement their income and give their visitors some holiday spirit.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.