interview with Cookie Roscoe, manager The Stop Farmers’ Market at Wychwood Barns

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Do you remember what it was that made  farmers markets popular at first?

The revival of farmers markets in the nineties was to connect chefs and consumers and farmers.

That took off with chefs like Jamie Kennedy and Michael Statlander championing local food?

Yes, the foodie chefs were encouraging farmers who wanted to grow organically. They wanted to educate consumers so they thought the best way was to show them farmers, “This is the guy who does the growing; cast your eyes on this produce”.

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When I was trying to start the Wychwood market it seemed like the certified organic guys were well represented at other farmers markets. So I thought to present others as well. The aim was to give farmers an opportunity to sell a minimum of $800 worth of produce per week.  Farmers may not be able to make a living at one market but if they can partner with chefs within the market’s neighbourhood and do CSA boxes and any other inventive thing… there has to be more ways than the ones were looking at presently…maybe they can start making a living farming again.

So, the farmers market was very much a tool for the farmers to create a customer base but was it also a way to avoid” the middle man” and distribute food themselves?

Yes! In the mid-nineties one of the middle men was food packers. There were a couple of guys who had a choke hold, all the food that was reaching Toronto from Holland Marsh went through two packing companies.

Holland Marsh is a major agricultural area?

It’s a region known as “the muck” because of its fertile soil. The vast majority of carrots and onions we eat at this time of year come out of Holland Marsh. It’s marshland that was drained.

City grocers had no interest in negotiating contracts with individual farmers so the distributor guys responded by gathering up all the little contracts.  As a farmer, to get your stuff packed for sale you had to sign a contract with a distributor. Grocery stores were about the only way to get sales, and they only took produce from the packers.

There was much evidence that these two guys were in collusion and setting prices. This was throughout the eighties, early nineties.  Then, farmers markets and the proliferation of organic growers burst open the stranglehold of the distributors.

So there was a new appetite for fresher food and that became equated with direct access to it, avoiding the handling and retailing.

When I entered the dialogue, the concern at the time had everything to do with the loss of farmers.  Farmers were ageing and there was only a tiny number of young people entering farming. That was just pre-Greenbelt so farming land was being gobbled up. Vast tracts for new developments… discouraging young people who wanted to farm. The number of farmers was plunging and it seemed as if in another ten or 12 years there would be no farmers left and then we would have no food grown in the province.   This was around the time 9/11 happened, when we discovered that Toronto had five days’ worth of food. Terms such as “food shed’ and “food security” began to emerge in everyday conversation.

Food became nexus of a whole series of ideas about our future and the connection between us and the environment.

Environmentalists of every stripe found something to rally behind. Maybe we couldn’t agree on what everybody should drive but we could agree on what everybody should eat.

I felt that my work needed to include the building of something in these barns that was going to continue the work that I started with the bake oven. But I didn’t know what it was going to look like…but I knew it had to pay for the building.

But were issues of paying for the building’s upkeep even alive at that point?

Absolutely, that was a huge portion of what I was trying to figure out as I was burning my face in that oven. We were in Artscape meetings struggling with problems like if we build this massive empty space that is Barn 2 how will we keep it public? We looked at the option of taking the roof off and allowing it to remain a public walk-through space, which meant extra heating and cooling costs for the buildings that abutted on both sides so that wasn’t a good option. The need to keep it public with a roof on and heated and cooled, who pays for that? And, when it’s used, who pays to clean the bathrooms? Those were some big considerations. We had no idea that weddings and groups were going to come in and use it ten times more than we had estimated at first.

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From the very beginning you had planned food as part of the infrastructure—economic as well as cultural.

I wanted to see the pizza oven continue as an aspect of something that would always take place there… I was looking for a way to pay for the empty space and I believed that the 250 people who were coming each week to the pizza oven would come to a farmers market. I didn’t want to lose the momentum we had built. So I thought OK, I have to start this farmers market because I have to pay for this building and keep people coming to it.

So my husband, my kids and I, from then on, anywhere that we went, took the long way. We took side roads and back roads and drove all over the province. I don’t know how many farmers doors I knocked on, at least 200. The farmers would  say, “I wish you had come here 10 years ago”. Many had tried coming into Toronto where, in markets like the one still on Weston they had been made to compete with re-sellers, people who don’t produce the food but buy inferior produce at wholesale prices and then pose as farmers. The real farmers gave up on markets, signed with the distributors or figured out some other way to off load their produce. Lots just gave up.

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So the market now has some of the original vendors and you’ve added more every year to increase the diversity. But there’s a ratio that has to be maintained between the farmers and non-farmer type vendors?

Fifty percent plus one of the vendors has to be farmers for it to be seen as a legitimate market by the Toronto Public Health Department. A farmer is someone who grows their own produce. The next vendor category I would count as important as we’re heading out of this equation would be the coffee guys. You cannot hold a Saturday morning market without coffee. So this has to be off-set by a beef person or a fruit person, it has to be farm produce.

Then there are the wild crafters. We have Jonathan Forbes. He harvests, for instance, wild leeks. He invented the idea of wild leeks as a market crop. In the spring it’s the first tender thing that appears and it’s what everybody hangs their hopes on.

We get so-called wild crafters who come to market thinking they can make a lot of money. Jonathan taught me to ask, “Where did you harvest these?”  There’s produce that is being harvested from public land, where you can’t know if someone harvested before you or will after you. If you’re getting wild leeks from a patch of ground, you as a wild crafter must know that you can harvest that patch at five percent. If a patch is harvested more than five percent it won’t survive.

Jonathan only harvests what he has contracted with farmers to take from their wild leek patch. The agreement with the farmer is that the patch remains untouched except for what Jonathan takes. The danger is that in a very short while there wouldn’t be any more wild leeks. So Jonathan brings ethical amounts of wild food to market.

What is the wild aspect of the wild leeks—can’t you plant them?

They don’t grow anywhere but in boggy peaty places in the woods, so no. You can’t plant morel mushrooms either. You can try to encourage where they’re going to grow but that doesn’t mean they will grow there.

So he fits into the diverse ecology of the market vendors that encompasses farmers to artisanal producers to wild crafters.

Jonathan goes farm to farm taking an inventory of what the farmer is growing and teaching them about the little wild bits of their farm that they didn’t even know existed as saleable crops.  Jonathan is further taking these little wild crops and things from the market that he’s trading with farmers out to, for instance, Ojibwa Six Nations people who are trading with him wild rice and maple syrup that he brings to market.

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So your vision of the market is linked to story-telling about food production and harvesting and preparation.  

But it’s more than that—look these are heart nuts. They are one of the crops that Jonathan brings to the market.  They’re very buttery and delicious and the inside of the shell is shaped like a heart. They’re indigenous to Ontario. This is a crop that farmers could be growing.

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The big industrial scale farms got rid of all the tree wind breaks between fields. Trees and hedges are the habitat of creatures like birds and voles, where the nuts and berries grew. Heart nuts are part of that picture. Nobody uses heart nuts any more yet they’re absolutely delicious. We need the hedges and windbreaks because they hold the top soil down. This is a part of farming that Jonathan is encouraging people to bring back.

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How do you harvest these?

You pick them. Jonathan and his devotees….

He has followers that roam and forage with him?

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They tuck their pants into their socks and go into the woods with him. They know where stuff is at different times of year… where the mushrooms are. They can tell what’s safe to eat and what isn’t.

So the market promotes sustainability and rural heritage through these new-old foods. It’s not a place where you go geared to bringing home groceries to feed the family for the entire week. That requires a different kind of mind-set and calculations. It’s a place to explore new options—you taste, you chat, you learn about the sources of local food.

 On a very practical level it’s about “eating Ontario”.  It’s March now and we’ve been through, it seems like three years of minus twenty degree weather and yet we’re still in the cornucopia. We have heart nuts, plenty of apples, dried cranberries and peaches. Now is the time for meat, the pork at the market is winter-fattened pigs that taste completely different from the ones slaughtered in the summer.

There’s this notion that you can’t eat well in Ontario in March. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you store or preserve even just a little produce or rely on food artisans (whose work is valuable and deserves to be well-paid), even in the depths of winter you can still eat like a king.

Who do you tell the stories to besides me and the people who come to the market?

 More and more I’m putting on events. I’m trying to get people to listen to the stories of the food.

A good slogan I’m thinking of, besides “there is no cheap food” is “What story does this food tell you?”

When farmers first agreed to join me at the market I was so grateful and to this day I keenly feel that trust. Harry and Sylvia Stoddart changed how they farmed after the first year of being at the market. They had been shifting already but decisions were made because I had entered their lives and because of their belief in what we were doing together.

They changed their farming practices based on their market experience?

Yes, and they’re not alone in that.

And, then Harry Stoddart wrote a book about it. I guess you could say his voice as much as his farming was developed through the market. He needed the contact with the public to see his farming as part of an important and evolving story.

Yes, suddenly the need to find a funding source for bathroom cleaning shifted to another terrifying yet humbling thing, the need to provide a livelihood for these people who have trusted me to do that.

“Real Dirt” post-industrial farming by Harry Stoddart. http://realdirt.ca/

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