Today it’s called urban sprawl but even a century ago it was understood to be a major problem. “Toronto is flinging out her frontier of homes in every direction. The task of housing a city growing at a rate of 50,000 people per year is taxing the city’s improvement facilities and transforming vast areas of farm and market garden land into city streets.” The Globe Saturday Magazine Oct. 25, 1913
This “frontier”was a place where one kind of food production, the mixed farm with some livestock, grain fields, an orchard and a kitchen garden was being replaced by another–the market garden, an often short-term and improvisational growing operation. In the city’s north west John R. Bull had surveyed and divided a large property into market garden plots of five acres each which he sold at from $390 to $590 in the 1890s to the workers attracted by the new industries near West Toronto and its railway junction. Earlscourt, as this area became known, and to its north Fairbank would become, along with Lambton and Todmorden Mills, the city’s leading market gardening districts. Bull, Spadunk, p. 312
The selling point of the suburban garden market lot was that its value would escalate quickly when the city annexed the area. The buyer was assured that this was a safe investment that also held the possibility of turning an immediate profit if one farmed the land.
On a recent Saturday at the Wychwood Farmers’ Market Mark Fram pointed out that across the street, on the other side of Christie, several market gardens with greenhouses had been active in 1915. By studying Fire Insurance maps and City Directories he had traced the changing fate of these businesses throughout Toronto. They went into decline as a result of increased land prices along with more efficient transportation and refrigeration that made a longer distance from producer to consumer possible. Thus, as Mark writes in the article “Greenhouse Toronto Once Upon a Time”, began the demise of the “…pre-modern suburbia, inner and outer, that mostly fed itself and the Toronto it surrounded.” , The Edible City, Toronto’s Food from Farm to Fork
Supply and Demand
In March of 1913 before a concerned Toronto audience Mr. C.C. James of the Dominion Department of Agriculture pointed to the imbalance between supply and demand as the root cause of a decade-long increase in food prices. There were more mouths for farmers to feed not only in the expanding city, he explained, but also in the new northern settlements as well as in the West where grain was exclusively grown. (The Star March 3, 1913 p.3)
For most, these were abstract problems that paled in comparison with the less than buyer-friendly practices of both local grocers and the administrators of St. Lawrence market. The latter, which handled the bulk of fresh produce, was set up largely for the convenience of dealers rather than individual buyers. Farmers shared in the frustration with the way the market set up barriers for direct trade with consumers. It was time for consumers to take matters into their own hands. On several Atlas Avenue lots donated for the purpose, (later Graham Park) Toronto Housewives League representatives in conjunction with the British Imperial Association made plans to set up a curbside farmers’ market in the spring of 1914.
Whither the Farmer?
Low supply was also related to the scarcity of farm labour. The average age of the farmer was rising as steadily as the food prices.
“Foreigners” didn’t seem to want to leave the city for work in the countryside. Young men were drawn to the West or the North by the promise of quick profits and adventure. Others flocked to the new service jobs in the city, a phenomenon that scandalized at least one writer who felt that this trend compromised the dignity of the Canadian male.
While some Torontonians lamented the disappearance of farm land in the city outskirts others were filled with admiration for the industry and self-sufficiency of the largely English immigrant settlers of Earlscourt and Fairbank. These settlers’ interest in farming was sentimentally linked to a British love of the land and gift with horticulture.
With the war’s outbreak, unused land within the city was cultivated by volunteers organized through leagues and clubs. The decline in city market gardens was temporarily halted and Torontonians of all ages and class took up the rakes, hoes and trowels.
William James, City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1244 it 44.23
Market Square August 9, 2014
Join me for conversation on Toronto’s urban sprawl and “green belt” a century ago and today.
View an interactive map showing the geographical sources of the food sold at The Stop’s Farmers’ Market at Wychwood Barns on this site’s sidebar menu under “Maps”.