I am a night owl, so I have often had a hard time mustering up the motivation to do menial but necessary life tasks like grocery shopping until about midnight. There are at least two enormous 24-hour grocery stores less than a five-minute drive from my house, so it is a bad habit that I have had an easy time maintaining.
It’s easy to be selfish like that in a big city. With produce shipped in from around the world (laced with all kinds of science-y preservation stuff so it stays “fresh” en route from an enormous farm somewhere south of here to the city food terminal and then eventually to my grocery store) and few other customers to bother me while I squeeze every avocado before picking the one that would come home with me, I had gotten quite comfortable with my late-night shopping strategy.
Honestly, I probably would have been ordering groceries online direct to my door if I wasn’t so annoyingly picky about my produce.
The disconnect between city dwellers and our food is nothing new. Neither is the trendy diatribe about why we should care more about what we eat.
Food is the fuel we give our bodies. Something about hormones, antibiotics, and carcinogenic chemicals. Carbon footprints and local eating. This kind of language has become so mainstream it is no longer interesting. For that reason, I wasn’t exactly excited to be writing about farmers’ markets.
Then I spoke to the farmers. Then it clicked.
As food consumers or human beings or cookie monsters or whatever you want to call us, we have the power and responsibility to shape the food culture and economy in which we live.
I recently heard a radio advertisement for the fresh Ontario eggs sold at the grocery store. The “farmer” (voice actor?) proudly said, “When people ask me how long it takes for eggs to get from my farm to the grocery store they are often surprised when I say as little as one week.”
I was surprised. I was surprised that anyone would think a week was a short length of time for eggs to travel.
A potato farmer I spoke to from Godelie Family Farm at the Bloor-Borden farmers’ market also seemed to define fresh differently.
“The 3:00 pm start [at the Farmers' Market] allows us to pick in the morning, load the truck, and bring it here fresh.”
Compared to the eggs on the radio, that actually sounds fresh.
Lots of us have come to expect a level of convenience to acquiring our food. We expect to be able to get almost anything (meat, veggies, Doritos, etc.) at anytime and for a certain price. Shopping at a farmers’ market doesn’t necessarily meet those measures of convenience.
Ethical and sustainable farming often incurs high costs to the farmers and it would be difficult or impossible to match the prices we see in a grocery store set by the factory farming standard.
Henricus Verhoeven, a Deutsch farmer who has been raising 100% grass fed cattle in Ontario for over 20 years, explained it to me simply.
“Modern corn-fed beef grows fast and requires a lot of energy input. It requires as much as it puts out. My beef is grass-fed and it grows slow, but I could farm this way for 1000 years. It’s very peaceful.”
His beef is also, according to his many fans at the market, very tasty.
Shopping at a market and purchasing directly from the farmers can reconnect us with our food. Many of the farmers I met spoke fondly of the relationships they had built with their regular customers. They see these people every week and freely exchange recipes and advice about food.
One of my favourite moments at the markets was a conversation I overheard between a woman and a beef farmer at the Trinity Bellwoods Farmers’ Market. It was about 6:00 pm on a Tuesday and she was raptly engaged with the farmer planning her dinner for that night based on which cuts of meat he was recommending that she could cook quickly but would still taste good.
Somehow that moment felt more natural than my late night perusals of the frozen dinner aisle.
Even at a farmers’ market though, you need to make sure you keep yourself educated. Many markets provide space for food vendors who are not actually farmers. They may sell produce, prepared foods, or other products. That doesn’t necessarily mean that what you are getting is no good; it might be that they have sourced all of their ingredients from local farmers.
Or, as Tara from Monckton Organic Farms and Bakery explained to me, they could have just picked up produce at the food terminal and be selling it at the marked up prices they can get away with at a farmers’ market.
The best way to know for sure what you are getting is to engage with the vendors. My experience has been that the people who are the real deal will always stand out. All the farmers I met were excited about what they were doing on their farms and they were all eager to share it with me.
Creating a relationship with the farmers at your local market is the best way to gain confidence that the food you are bringing home is of the quality you want.
The MyMarket and MyPick program have already done some of the research for you, and those markets are a good place to start. Every vendor at a MyMarket farmers’ market has to have met the verification standards of the program and everything they sell is guaranteed to have come directly from their farms.
Bigger markets like the Wychwood Barns Market or Evergreen Brick Works tend to be more complex. You will definitely need to do a little bit of background research to figure out exactly what you are buying. After getting my feet wet at mostly smaller community markets, I was surprised at the diversity of products available at the Brick Works Market.
I knew we couldn’t grow olives in Ontario.
Even community markets like the Sorauren Farmers’ Market (the most beautiful and traditionally farmers-market-y of all the markets I visited) have a wide mix of vendors. If you want to be purchasing only from local and organic farmers, make sure you are asking lots of questions.
Lastly, remember that farmers markets are not only for the trendy and the very healthy eaters among us. I had one of my best days of research at the Bacon Festival at Leslieville Farmer’s Market this past weekend.
It would be just plain wrong to ask a pre-menstrual woman to say no to chocolate bacon.
For more information on all the markets in the city visit the Toronto Farmers’ Market Network website.