SURF AND TURF – Ontario’s Farmers’ Markets

25 May 2004

Culinary diversity equals food security! Period. Without our farming community, our reliance on foreign food sources will escalate to the point where Canada is no longer in control of its economic destiny. A country that starves at the feet of its suppliers cannot be a considered sovereign nation.

Politics pervades the culinary world to its very roots, but while this is a very serious business, it can also be pure pleasure. The task of setting our provincial tables is one of joy…in fact, in the farmers’ markets in Ontario, it can be downright sexy. The foods in this province rival any on earth. But our farming community needs our help if it is to flourish as it should. What really is going on here?

Let’s take a different approach to the understanding of our food supply. Just for a minute let’s look at it as though it was a garment made by a Canadian designer, crafted with carefully selected fabrics, sometimes woven and dyed specifically for the job, stitched on machines that cost thousands and finished by hand, with great love and attentiveness to detail. Would we expect it to be cheaper than, say, the shirt or dress we buy at, say, Zellers? No! We would expect to pay a premium and because it was made locally, that would be an even greater bonus. We’d have bragging rights that this person, this incredible artist, was our friend or neighbour and, by gum, even though it cost us the price of our first born, we’re wearing it.

The challenge is we here in Canada don’t view food in this way. Local food is way too cheap!We consumers expect that, if it’s in season, if it’s local and fresh beyond belief, it should be at rock-bottom prices. Think of the $3 winter cauliflower that is available at our supermarkets – tiny and imported from halfway around the globe with all its attendant fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Then think of the large snowy head from perhaps a dozen miles away that we insist should sell for about a dollar. It just doesn’t make sense. This bizarre point of view is one of the root causes for our farm community’s current crisis. Food in season is healthier, tastes better and keeps the cash flow happening for our farmers to try to new varieties. Our farmers are agricultural artists of the field.

We must begin to eat locally, regionally, nationally and only then internationally. Such a philosophy takes work and creativity and courage. It is very difficult to achieve. From our home and commercial kitchens we must learn to blast free and explore our local production, fitting it into our own ethnicity, encouraging our gardeners and farmers to grow what they can, sharing our knowledge and our tastes. This is the foundation of what Ontario can become. It’s our collective future.

There is no better way to do this than by shopping at Ontario’s farm markets. They have been the repository for regional foods since long before Confederation. The first one in this province, in Kingston, dates from 1780, and while they declined in numbers in the mid part of the last century, they have experienced a marvellous renaissance over the past three decades. Scattered across this vast province, they are the gateways into the developing culinary regions of our nation. From the far north in places like New Liskeard and Thunder Bay to southwestern and eastern Ontario shoppers can taste the land from its history, climate and ethnic food traditions. For travelers, they are invaluable source of information but for we who shop them, they are edible paradise.

The great chefs of Ontario write their menus from many of these same producers. Here you can buy a box of shiitake mushrooms grown in an oak forest or a pail full of wild blueberries picked off the Canadian Shield, a filleted rainbow trout or rare, perfectly-aged 10 year old cheddar. And if you’re wary of cooking your purchases, the vendor will tell you how.

My friend Jo Marie Powers and I wrote an entire book on their recipes and market tips. We learned how to cook an old-fashioned ham and make all sorts of relishes; how to fry rosettes, the crisp sugary confections sold at Mennonite markets and how to make our own apple butter. No supermarket can ever compete!

Ontario’s farmers markets are the incubators for small and sometimes large businesses. The late Ramelle Harkins, the founder of Woolwich Dairies, told me years ago that if she wanted to test a new product the very best place was at her stall in the St. Lawrence Market. Woolwich Dairies, under the guidance of its new owners, Olga and Tony Dutra, has become the largest goats’ milk cheese producer in Canada. In Perth, near Ottawa the nation’s capital, another success story has happened for vendor Judy Dempsey. From her stall in that market she opened her own restaurant The Hungry Planet and is now listed in Where To Eat In Canada’s 2003 edition with the cautionary word, ‘The only trouble with the place is that all of Perth seems to come in every day. Or so it seems’.

That farmers markets are very real revenue generators for the local community is simply common sense. Lots of international studies have confirmed it by following the money trail through various communities. In large part-seasonal operations, Ontario’s 120+ farmers markets had 2002 sales figures of $596 million; their economic impact has been estimated at $1.8 billion. Scattered across the length and breadth of the province, they employ over 27,000 people either at the markets or in their attendant farm businesses. Farmers’ markets also point the way to the ultimate in modern business practices – collaborative enterprise where all win, from the grower right through to the consumer. When polled over the summer in 2002, 79% of consumers felt that it was ‘very important that the products they buy are grown locally’, and a whopping 98% stated that they were ‘satisfied or very satisfied with the quality of the produce’.

From the fabulous flavours to the stories of the vendors themselves, farmers markets provide a profound sense of community that connects us with the land in which we live and allows us direct access to those who will husband it for future generations.

Anita Stewart has been writing on farmers markets since 1984. She is the author of the award winning Flavours of Canada (Raincoast 2000), holds the only Masters of Arts in Gastronomy in Canada and was recently awarded an honorary designation of Professional Agrologist (P.Ag.Hon) by the Ontario Institute of Agrologists for her ‘outstanding work in the support of Ontario agriculture’. Her first book was The Farmers Market Cookbook (Stoddart, 1984) which she co-authored with Jo Marie Powers.

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