After 31 years of providing fresh produce to Quesnel Farmers Market customers, Cathy Allen and Rob Borsato are retiring.
“It’s the right time for us,” Borsato said. “Seeing the young farmers coming to the market, we’re confident they will keep the market one of the best in the province.”
The couple have not always been farmers. Rob came to the Cariboo in 1973 and Cathy in 1979, both with a clear back-to-the-land vision.
It was all about getting some acreage with friends and learning the skills they needed to survive on the land authentically.
As their expertise expanded, they realized they had marketable produce and the idea of a local farmers market was a good, simple way to accomplish that, Rob said.
With a strong contingent of like-minded people, they formed Harvest, a governing body that would make decisions for the market and any other endeavours by the group.
At the first Farmers Market in 1989, five booths set up, Rob and Cathy, Maggie and Paul Dumais, Shirley and |Les Gardner, Murray Boal and Janet Allen and their business partner Paddy Doherty, and Penny and Laurie Curry.
There was only one market that year, but it grew to eight markets the following year and eventually to the May-October schedule.
“That first market, we set up on grass, among the trees, where the Senior Centre is now,” Rob said.
He added no one, including City Hall had any idea if the market would be viable but the community proved receptive.
“We were in that location for about four years, then shuffled all over the place, mostly in dusty parking lots.”
Despite these growing pains, the market thrived and the founding members expanded to include other entrepreneurs looking to test their products. The location finally settled into its current location and the Quesnel Farmers Market is a community institution.
Both Cathy and Rob spoke of the tremendous help provided by the then Ministry of Agriculture office in Quesnel in those early years.
“They offered lots of resources, and helped the members of the Farmers Market to explore options for growing produce and marketing. They were a tremendous help.”
Rob and Cathy’s farm Mackin Creek and Murray and Janet’s Dragon Mountain Farm, both certified organic farms, launched a secondary initiative Box a Week, where the two farms supplied fresh produce in locally-crafted wooden crates to local households. The demand exploded and there was always a waiting list.
“The food guild was a fun experiment in community-supported agriculture,” Rob said.
“We’d developed our skills and were producing faster than the market could handle. Box a Week started somewhat small but it grew very fast.”
Both farms grew bigger as the demand increased and each was able to specialize development.
At the zenith of Box a Week and their market operation, Rob said both farms were working about five and half acres.
“We never wanted to lose our connection to the land, we kept our hands in the soil,” Cathy said.
What was important from the beginning remained important in everything they did.
“We stayed true to the back-to-the-land ideals.”
Box a Week operated for 20 years, from the 1994 to 2014.
Rob remained an active member of the Harvest board adding he always wanted to participate in the direction of the market.
“The market was an opportunity for local producers to sell their food. I wanted to keep that principle alive.”
Over the years, their family run business has been a source of enjoyment and the market a fountain of great memories.
“Our son Joe grew up in the market, many will remember his duck,” Cathy said. “We still have one of the duck descendants on the farm. We’ve met customers who came to the market with their babies and now those babies come with babies of their own.”
Rob added their operation has always been a family business including his sister Elena who has helped throughout the years and this year his granddaughters are helping.
As for the endurance of the market, Rob believes people support farmers they get to know every week who provide fresh local produce
“We were always happy to provide good food that people enjoy and over the years the customers developed a strong connection to fresh local food and local producers,” Rob said.
Both Cathy and Rob admit they probably won’t stay away from the fields as they both confessed a love of gardening but are looking forward to pursuing other interests. Cathy is an accomplished artist and Rob is learning Italian.
They look forward to exploring the beautiful, windswept Mackin Creek area and Rob plans to finally finish their family home.
Their last market is July 25, so drop by, and say goodbye.