The Stop’s Farmers’ Market at Wychwood Barns supports local agriculture by encouraging farmers to grow as sustainably as possible; many of the farms are certified organic. What you’ll find there year-round is honest, good food, the production of which causes as little environmental damage as possible, and where everyone involved in its growing and distribution makes a living wage.
Cookie Roscoe is the manager of the market. Here’s how and why she started up and runs the farmers’ market.
How we started
When the old TTC Barns between Wychwood and Christie became a source of community interest, I was one of the neighbours who rallied to see if we could save these historic buildings. After only about a decade of work, we won! (See POWER TO THE PEOPLE: Saving Wychwood Barns in our POWER issue.) Then we had to figure out how to help pay for all our great ideas. One of the ways we had brought attention to the Barns and encouraged people to see their potential was to build a bake oven on the site by using paving bricks that we had scavenged from there. We began lighting the fire in the oven once a week and invited people to make pizza. Two years later there were 200 people a week coming together to enjoy food, show off their pesto and watch kids play – a community had formed.
As I stood there, week after week, lighting the fire in the bake oven for pizza nights, I pondered how we could fund one of the Barns to keep it a public space. The idea of a farmers’ market began to take root in my mind. It could pay enough rent every week to heat and cool the Barn and to pay someone to clean the washrooms. So I decided to start one. Since we had built momentum in saving the Barns, I felt it was important to act quickly and establish a market that would operate as a non-profit venture. The Stop, the food community centre that would be occupying one of the Barns, was also very interested in having a market there. So I agreed to manage it for them (they pay me for 18 of the 30 hours that it takes to manage it) and we worked out a set of guidelines that maintains the principles we had used to save the Barns – that of creating community.
Searching for farmers
Then I began to look for farmers who wanted to participate. For two years I drove around the province knocking on farmhouse doors, hoping to find farmers who were not already exhausted from working at other markets. Everyone I talked to was either tired of farming and looking to get out, had no interest whatsoever in going to a market, or was already at too many markets and had no encouraging words for me in wanting to start yet another one. Nevertheless, I kept at it.
During the summer that the Barns’ site was fenced off and the renovations began, I wanted to get a head start so I decided to set up a market on the lawn of a nearby church as a pilot program with The Stop. On the first day we opened with only three farmers, but they sold out in 20 minutes. Because of this success, the next week we had seven, and now, seven years later, our market has as many as 40 farms represented and at least 20 non-farmer artisan food vendors, depending on the season.
The farmers’ market runs every Saturday morning throughout the year. In the summer we put up tents outside and in the winter we move indoors.
This is how a typical week goes.
Chalk it up
Friday is when vendors let me know if they will be there or not. Sometimes things can happen on their drive in, so I have to be open to change all the time. If no rain is predicted, I chalk names on the walkways to show vendors where they will be and how much space they have. If it looks like rain or there’s a Friday night event at the Barns, I may go to bed earlier and get up around 3 or 4 instead of 5 a.m. on Saturday to chalk the walkways or put masking tape on the floor for the indoor market. In winter, I shovel snow and put out de-icer on the walks. The Barns are very quiet early in the morning, just sleepy pigeon sounds in the summer, as I stroll along checking where the garbage cans have been left, chalking names and shifting magnets on the ‘master’ board that I use to try keeping track of it all.
In before the sun
The first vendor in is always Wendy. She arrives at precisely 5:30 a.m. in her SUV fully loaded with coolers of meat. This week, Wendy tells me about an escaped piglet that was tearing around between the house and barn, squealing so much it hurt her ears. She had noticed that some of the piglets have figured out how to get from one pen to another and visit each other. Some days I learn about the difference in temperament of a Jersey cow (Jersey calves go limp and lose hope quickly if they fall and sometimes Wendy has to go into a pen and help one stand up again) or about Wendy’s dear cats. Though she does not enjoy the part about taking a cow to the butcher, Wendy loves raising animals. I understand that for Wendy, farming without them is not at all appealing. She feels very lucky to be doing what she loves and that includes teaching her customers about animals.
Click on any photo to enlarge
By the time Wendy’s coolers are all out of her car and her tent and tables are up, George, the coffee guy, is there helping get tents out and setting up the coffee stand. Then comes Sweet Potato Bob and some teasing ensues, followed quickly by Milan our apple guy. Wendy arranges her table and goes about getting in visits with other vendors before the crowds arrive. And then it’s full-out set-up time. Every vehicle must be accompanied by someone walking alongside it and everyone is saying good morning and then the sun comes up.
Meg manages the volunteers at the market. By 7 a.m. when she gets in it’s a flurry of set-up in every direction and I’m usually running around figuring out where more tables might be hidden, explaining why I’ve moved someone four feet back, fetching table cloths, helping set up tents and unload vans and keeping up on all the friendly gossip. There’s always something that must be told or it’s time to discuss the impending change in seasons. The weather is actually an important topic fraught with meaning and there are endless discussions going on while we all get set up.
Market for farmers
After seven years on the job, I’m finally starting to grasp some of the subtleties of vegetable production and fruits seasons but I’ve begun to see that my knowledge of grain production is woefully inadequate and I am mostly ignorant of meat production beyond piglet stories. It’s also become clear to me that this must be a farmers’ market for farmers first, and everything else should come second to that. This is because once, markets were how we all got groceries, when most of us were farmers (in the 1880s, 80% of us were farmers). Now, only 1.2% of us farm, though clearly without farmers there is no food. Yet grocery stores, where most of us get food, are set up for the convenience of consumers, not farmers. Until we get things straightened out again, farmers’ markets have to be set up for the convenience of farmers. For example, when it comes to choosing the non-farm vendors, I found that I had to have people at the market selling really good ready-made foods for the farmers to eat when they get here, or I wouldn’t get good farmers to come. By telling those people who cook the food to buy it from the farmers, I’m keeping out all the people who don’t care about the quality of food and only want to make money. The farm people don’t mind paying top dollar for good food, they are happy to have the same food in the city as they would eat at home. I have hundreds of applications on file from people who want to make stuff and sell it at the market, but only a few who understand that the food has to be seasonal, local and from our farms. By putting the farmers and their stomachs first, I’m making my job of choosing who can get in easier.
Three hours’ sleep in two days
All of the market farms are busy harvesting at least the entire day before a market day. Farmers sometimes harvest into the night wearing headlamps. From May through November they put together loads, take turns driving, nap sitting up, and work crazy hard all year to bring fresh food into the city. They arrive at the market tired and hungry but still have to do set-up and even then the day’s work has just begun. There’s hours of selling and keeping the table stocked and fresh-looking before it’s time to pack up and load out and make the long drive home again, to then unload the truck and clean everything and maybe get ready for yet another market the next day.
Choosing cheap food means taking money away from someone
In a system that forces farmers to work too much, where cheap food is the only consideration, farmers can do only one thing – find cheaper labour. When we force farmers to work inhumane hours and demand cheap prices at the cash register, we force them to find people who will work for less. The farmers at markets are not willing to do this, they want to work hard for your dollars and charge you what it costs them to produce. Think about the food at a grocery store and how it gets there, and all the places where costs can be added and hidden. How it’s grown and the workers involved, how the soil is mistreated and the costs to the environment, how it’s stored and transported. The farmers at the market grow it, harvest it, and drive it in to sell it to you. I try to take care of them, and we should pay them for the excellent food they produce.
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Bringing up the manager
I still make mistakes that make vendors work harder, whereas if I understood their work better, I would be able to make decisions and connections so we could work smarter. I’ve allowed in vendors who aren’t good. Then I have to figure out how to get them out. While everyone is very slow and mighty careful to point out these errors as kindly as possible, they are wildly generous with praise when I get things right. I think that I have been tended and weeded in my job by experts.
Crowds of people
By 9 a.m. on Saturday, customers are everywhere, and it’s busier at 10 and even more so by 11. About 4000 people come to shop, listen to music, have a coffee, or just see the place by 1 p.m.
Everyone is happy when there are lots of customers and there’s fair competition and something interesting going on each week. Good music makes the place happy and we are blessed with musicians who just show up and take a seat and start playing. We are also blessed with some not so great acts, and it’s my job to ask them to up their game or leave. Though it makes me very uncomfortable, being utterly unmusical myself, I do have to line up musical acts and choose some and reject others.
There’s no farmers’ market commercials
Toronto Public Health considers it a ‘farmers’ market’ if 51% of the vendors are farmers on any given day, so I have to make sure that balance is maintained every week, despite rain or shine, wind and snap freezes, the coming and going of fruit season and then veg season.
I try to keep to a minimum the people wanting to get a booth at the market to champion a cause, unless it is directly related to this neighbourhood or to Ontario agriculture. Finally, I defend the market from the ‘marketers’ who would try to use the ethos of our lovely, hard-working people to sell things that are only remotely connected with ethical food but are not themselves ethical, like big name breakfast cereals or commercial breads and soups wishing to bask in the honest umbra cast by our market. One of the things I like about the market so much is how free it is from any form of convincing, except for, “Here, try this”. Though much energy is spent in popular media deriding our good food movement by those who enjoy being skeptical, you will never be told you could be more beautiful or more loved or envied if you only bought this or that market food. Here, it’s simply about eating your values and meeting your neighbours.
By noon I’m finished checking in with each vendor and I focus a little on getting my groceries. I laugh when I think about how, when I used to try something new each week, I actually thought that soon I would have tried everything. There is no way to do that. Black sweet corn, brown cucumbers, mustard beans, sweet radishes, mouse melons, skirt steak, salsify, double smoked bacon, Lankaaster cheese – there have been so many revelations. I fill my little bundle buggy with a few days’ food and by 12:30 p.m. it’s time to help close everything down.
Vehicles have to be walked, tents and tables have to be put away, floors swept and paper work filed. Everything has to be wiped down, all the dishes washed and put away again. Stragglers want to be consoled that they missed out. There’s always something lost or found at the end of the day and exhausted vendors to help on their way.
After one final pick-up of debris around the site I lock the gates and head home around 2 or 3 p.m. to cook and feast and sleep. All week long I answer calls, try to get out to farms where I always learn the most, read up on food policy and farm issues – and everything leads to Friday again. In the fall, we all talk about the move indoors to Barn 2; in the winter, we cook up great foods and rest up a little; in the spring, we joyfully crow over the first tender greens; all summer, we fuss over the rain and celebrate each peach and apple as they come into season until fall’s bounty amazes us again and again. I can’t believe how much I appreciate about these hard working friends of mine now and how much they’ve inspired me to work hard in return.
– Cookie Roscoe
Photos by Schuster Gindin, Suzanne Long and courtesy Cookie Roscoe
This article is part of our issue FEEDING TORONTO.