St. John's Farmers' Market cites 'political pressure' and lets in Lester's Farm

More than a year after being booted from the St. John's Farmers' Market due to its size, Lester's Farm Market will be back this Sunday — but not without what the board chairman calls "political pressure."

Lester's says it was told it couldn't take part because it was too big and its prices were too low.

In an email obtained by CBC News on Thursday, SJFM chairman Evan Murray told other market members to expect their return, but explained some of the backstory.

"The board recognized that there has been a unmet consumer demand for produce during the Sunday markets and that there has been political pressure applied to see the Lesters attend," he wrote. "At one point, an ADM contacted the board."

John Pike/CBC

ADM is a common acronym for assistant deputy minister — a civil servant within the provincial government who sits two steps below the minister.

Murray did not say who the ADM was. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.

"I realize that some of you will still have concerns about this and I encourage you to pass them along to me so that I can transmit [them] at the next board meeting," Murray wrote to the vendors.

"But I also hope you can understand that the board is seeking to find a compromise here with the Lesters that will satisfy them and their political supporters, while also hopefully contributing to the success of the Sunday summer markets."

Lester happy to be back

Lester's Farm Market is a separate business with different owners than Lester's Farm Chalet on Pearltown Road, which is owned by politician Jim Lester.

Chris Lester, a partner with Lester's Farm Market, said all they did was contact their city councillor last year and ask if they could do anything to help get back to the market.

They were a member at the former location off Mayor Avenue, and only set up shop at the new location on Freshwater Road once before they were told to leave.

CBC

"We were scrambling. We were losing our produce," he said. "We needed a place to sell. They were throwing different reasons at us, we were not overly satisfied with it."

Lester said he's grateful to be back.

"We're very fortunate they've accepted us to take part in the Sunday market."

While he acknowledged the St. John's market is tailored more toward new farmers, he hopes their presence can help everyone.

"There's no reason why all these new farmers can't end up carrying the selection we do and having the season we do. Until then, why would they not ask us to go down there and fill the gaps there?"

Never 'banned'

In an emailed statement late Thursday night, Pamela Anstey, the executive director of the St. John's Farmers' Market Co-operative, said it's a volunteer-led organization focused on being a small business incubator, aiming to help small businesses grow.

"In accordance with our policies, and out of support for small business, we have historically not accepted larger enterprises at the SJFM," the statement read.

"This would include larger production farmers such as Lester's Farm Market who already have a significant place as a produce supplier in this city, as well as a large retail location."

The smaller businesses "who have few opportunities to sell their products would be negatively affected by larger enterprises" that have more produce, and can therefore offer lower prices, the statement added.

Anstey said in the statement that the co-operative, in an effort to balance the need of customers to have fresh, local produce as well as offer a space for smaller vendors to sell their wares, it offered Lester's a spot at the Sunday markets.

"At no point was Lester's 'banned' from the SJFM," the statement said, adding that Lester's has been at the Sunday markets since the beginning of August.

"We have been happy to have them here and believed that we had reached an agreement that was a win for both the vendor and market customers."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador