Paul Stewart and Shira Katzberg are a young Toronto couple who farm just outside the city and bring their produce to sell at various farmers’ markets in town. Paul tells how they began their farming journey, how market gardening works and what life is like for them.
When Shira and I were first living together in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood we decided to have a garden and a couple of chickens in the backyard which we really enjoyed. When we both finished our post-secondary education neither of us had jobs that we liked so we decided to go live on a farm for a year, arranged through an organization called CRAFT. We weren’t necessarily intending to start our own farm enterprise but we wanted to see what it was like and to spend a year out of the city.
We stayed at Saugeen River CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and had an amazing experience. We learned a ton and decided we would try our hand at having our own market garden. We applied to Farm Start – a non-profit that supports new ecological entrepreneurial farmers – and started farming with just a quarter acre. We then moved up to the two acres we call Footstep Organics and which we lease from the McVean farm on the Claireville Conservation area in Brampton.
Although we are now both passionate about organic farming, at first I was more skeptical. Shira has always eaten and supported organic foods and she had to train me to reach for the organic options at the grocery store and farmers’ markets. But once we went to Saugeen River CSA and started to see the real differences in the types of farming, I was sold.
Market gardening is fresher
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Market gardening is different from generic conventional or organic farm in that our produce is always brought to the consumer at the peak of freshness. Any fresh produce we sell at market is always harvested either the day before or the morning of market. This means our customers are getting food that’s healthier and that will last longer in their fridge so they can enjoy it throughout the week. Customers often tell us how they enjoyed our lettuce, spinach and spicy salad mixes a week after purchase and still tasted very fresh. Whereas the plastic boxes of greens they may get from the grocery store start to go slimy within a couple of days. This is because those greens purchased at the grocery store may already be a week old while ours are harvested a matter of hours before.
I don’t think that we market gardeners can definitively state that we have better quality vegetables or that our produce is more organic or that we leave a smaller carbon footprint than producers who grow vegetables for the grocery store, but there is no arguing that our vegetables are always fresher.
Markets in the city
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Currently, Shira and I participate in three markets including The Stop at Wychwood Barns. I was actually the first volunteer for The Stop Farmers’ Market when it started on St.Clair in front of St. Michael of All Angels Church (read about it in this issue: ALL IN A DAY’S WORK). So several years later when we started to farm I contacted Cookie Roscoe the market manager and she was excited to provide us with a table and tell our story of how The Stop market is inspiring new farmers.
Other markets in the city have been more of a challenge to get into; getting in the queue with other farmers who are looking to get a table. Some markets that we’ve tried out haven’t worked, either they have been too slow, or they didn’t have enough of a focus on organic or didn’t ensure that the vendors were actually growing their own produce and not just reselling.
This year we’ve settled in at two other markets. The West End Food Coops market at Sorauren Park has been great, very busy with lots of well-informed customers excited for fresh and organic veggies. Sick Kids Farmers’ Market has also been really good this year. There is tons of foot traffic and we have a handful of loyal customers who do their grocery shopping for the week at our stall.
Will work long hours for good food
We are really enjoying the work even through it’s hard and the hours long. Between May and September (the busiest months) I work between 80 and 90 hours a week. Shira joins me on the weekends and in July and August when she has two months away from her job as a pre-school teacher. Then she’s at the farm for about 70 to 80 hours a week. In March and April we’re just gearing up for the season and I work between 40 and 60 hours a week depending on whether we have any construction projects. October typically slows down a bit but it still means some large root vegetable harvests. With the addition of two greenhouses for season extension this year we will have to see what kind of hours I’ll work. From November to January we are just preparing for and attending our two indoor winter markets so I work around 25 hours a week. Our plans are to be at our current property for the next several years as we save money to purchase some of our own land not too far from Toronto. We will expand on the land that we are currently on, probably in 2016 to incorporate a food box program.
Although it’s tough when you have to harvest in the rain and cold it’s great harvesting on a nice day. It’s also pretty special to bring loads of veggies to market and see people scoop them up enthusiastically.
It’s ironic though that we produce all this great food but it’s hard to find the time to cook. We usually do big pots of simple soups, stews or chili to last us through out the week. Lately we’ve been eating a lot of eggplant while we’ve still got some, we grill it and put it in salads or sandwiches or bake it and make Indian curries with it.
Toronto’s obsession with food or with just eating out?
We really appreciate Toronto’s obsession with food although an obsession with restaurants might be more accurate. I think those who attend markets to do all their grocery shopping are still a small group. At certain markets we do get people who come and load up their buggies with market goodies and that’s their shopping for the week. And they are there every week throughout the summer. Those are our best customers and we always love their excitement as our offerings grow when more and more produce comes into season. But if you look at the size, capacity and regularity of markets in New York, London, and especially Paris, ours are pretty meager. I think markets have a lot of room for growth over the coming years and as global food prices continue to rise, our offerings will be more in tune with peoples’ food budgets (although I believe they already are). Hopefully, then we will be able say that Toronto has an obsession with food and market gardeners can take a bigger bite out of Loblaws and Metro.
– Paul Stewart
Photos by Miria Ioannou
More: read Paul and Shira’s blog about their year on the farm.
This article is part of our issue FEEDING TORONTO.