Published in the Toronto Star October 8, 2016
“Did you ever stop to taste a carrot? Not just eat it, but taste it? You can’t taste the beauty and energy of the earth in a Twinkie.” ~Terri Guillemets
Where do you buy groceries? A growing number of us are visiting our local farmers market to pick up locally grown produce, meat, cheese and even preserves.
At least, we think they are locally grown. Presented on a well worn wooden skid, featuring hand written signs for prices, with a person standing behind the stall with real dirt under their finger nails and dressed in overalls, what else would you think?
It is entirely possible for most any one to drive to a wholesale food terminal early in the morning and show up at a retail farmers market the same day loaded with produce that originated from who-knows-where. Sprayed with who-knows-what. Possibly strip mined in a southern climate.
It was a case purely of ‘buyer beware’, until My Pick, an innovation of Agriculture Ontario and private farmers in association with Farmers Markets Ontario.
Why My Pick?
I discovered My Pick while perusing my new copy of Harvest Ontario ‘The Source for Local’. This is the handiest guide of its’ kind if you are looking for farmers markets, pick your own farms, country fairs and craft wine and beer producers. The guide is free at Home Hardware stores.
Farmers apply to become My Pick Verified. They pledge that they represent unprocessed, locally grown fruit, vegetables, cut flowers, plants and nuts, honey and maple syrup, eggs, fresh or frozen meat and fish, herbs and mushrooms.
Farmers who are verified My Pick can trade produce. You may see a farmer at a market with their own sweet corn plus herbs, cut flowers or what have you, from another My Pick producer. This provides opportunities for all farmers to offer their product for sale without necessarily attending a market themselves or to attend a market in one location personally while being represented by another farmer at a different market on the same day. It is a ‘farmers’ buddy system’ designed to help small to medium sized producers.
In his landmark book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan says, “Shake hands with the farmer who feeds you.” I think that he would be in favour of a system where one farmer scratches the back of another.
How Many Farmers Markets?
There are 18 farmers markets in the GTA listed in the Harvest Ontario Guide, of which 12 have been started within the last 10 years. Say what? Two thirds of all existing farmers markets are less than 10 years old.
This is not to suggest that the idea of farmers markets is new. The oldest is St Lawrence Market, which was started in 1803. Central Toronto was a primary distribution point for local farmer’s to sell their wares for a long time. A little over a century ago at Hogs Hollow on Yonge St. (just south of York Mills) there was a gate where farmers were charged a toll according to the livestock or produce that they were carrying into the city. In 1875 you could move up to 28 pigs through the toll house for 3 cents, which is hardly worth paying a toll-keeper to collect, you would think.
Today, farmers come and go in the city without paying tolls, unless they travel on the 407.
Not Your Typical Farmers
In Toronto there are some innovative sources of food, including FoodShare’s School Grown program which employs students in running urban market gardens, providing hands-on learning opportunities for students both in the classroom and in the field.
I think that this is brilliant. Students are hired for the summer to care for veggie gardens at Bendale and Eastdale Schools (earning an income), they work alongside the farm manager and learn valuable skills about planting, growing and harvesting. Then they participate in the distribution and sales of the food that they had a hand in growing. You will find their produce at East Lynn Park, Fairview farmers markets and restaurants/deli’s like Hogtown Cure, Table 17, Ascari Enoteca, Chef’s House and other FoodShare programs.
And what is FoodShare (now that I have mentioned it)? In short, it is a non-profit organisation that works with communities and schools to deliver healthy food and food education. Now, that is indeed a mouthful.
The Good Food Box, which started in 1985, is an innovative program that provides affordable produce delivered to your door. Boxes are packed by volunteers that arrive weekly with a different variety of food, depending on what is available. Not all of it is locally produced, but they try. I urge you to check it out at www.foodshare.net
We began this discussion with farmers markets, then locally produced food, student experiences with food and fresh-food delivery. And this is the tip of the ‘local food’ iceberg.
I plan on writing more about the fresh-food phenomenon. In the meantime, I suggest that you check out my new book The New Canadian Garden for information about community gardens, growing your own food and food-gardening with kids. THIS is the new Canadian garden.