Why Farmers Markets?

This is truly a story of legacies, passing food knowledge from generation to generation, and from country to city to country again.

Digging In

Digging In: Facilitating Dialogue and Action
Key Theme and Terms
  • farmers market
  • connections
  • community
  • organic food
  • organics certification
  • local food movement
  • self-sufficiency
  • canning
  • pickling
  • agroforestry farm
  • ecosystem management
  • francophone
  • anglophone
Catalyzing Connections

  • Description: What do you see/hear/feel while watching the video?

  • Personal Connection: How does this story connect to your personal experience with markets?
  • Common Themes: What are the social issues/themes that emerge from our personal stories? Is there a common issue that is shared among us?
  • Social Analysis: How did this come to be? What are the historical and social processes that created this situation?
  • Planning for Action: What can be done? What can we do?

Values of farmers markets

Dianne’s suggests that “connections” is what farmers markets are about. What different kinds of connections are nurtured in markets?

In your discussion, consider these quotes:

Dianne: “For me, it’s not so much a way to make money. It’s your community. The last two years a lot of people have said “thank you so much for doing this!” That kind of appreciation just fuels you, keeps you going.”

Anna: “When I think back to Riverdale market, definitely that community feeling. That’s what I wanted to recreate here and I think we’ve succeeded with that.”

Marc (francophone farmer): “Farmers markets are important: there’s a great exchange between farmers and customers. If they want to ask questions about the way we grow, they get a glimpse of what it is to be a farmer, our daily life.”

If there is a farmers market in your area, what would they say are the most important connections?

Accessibility

The farmers and the consumers in the farmers markets shown in the video represent a primarily white population, raising the question of access and affordability. In Toronto, for example, there are farmers markets that engage racialized communities, but many markets remain a privileged site.

 
The Organic Debate

Certified organic or not

Anna: “It’s more kind of expected that it’s organic here. It’s not a big deal because we’re selling to local people. For the older people, when you say ‘organic’ they say ‘oh, the way we’ve always grown it.”

For some farmers and consumers, it is not important if their organic produce is certified. It may be assumed, or it may also be too expensive a procedure. However, some markets require certification and consumers will often look for that as well. Investigate a market near you: what does the market management require? What are farmers doing? What do consumers look for?

Urban vs. rural markets

Consider these comments:

Anna: “Definitely the debate is how accessible is organic food. In the city it can be extremely expensive and before you know it your pockets are empty and you don’t have that much to show for it.”

Anna also says: “Here I find the prices are a little more reasonable. We don’t have city prices here, and…we have a lot of local people coming to buy their beans or potatoes, food for the community. We don’t make a big deal out of being organic. It’s just that we’re selling real food.”

What can we learn from the bartering practices that are being revived in Indigenous communities and in other communities who are facing limited food access? See also in commentary by Mexican collaborators.

Spending priorities

Anna: “It seems like organic food is only accessible to people who either have a lot of money or put a lot of importance on what they’re eating. So maybe you’re not buying a lot of things, but you’re spending money on food because you want to eat good food, and maybe not spending it elsewhere.”

Look at your monthly budget and calculate how much you or your family spends on food. Next calculate how much is spent on other necessities (housing, etc) and on telecommunications and entertainment (cell phone, internet, TV, etc).

In “The High Cost of Cheap Food”, Wayne Roberts, suggests that we have become accustomed to cheap food, prices that don’t take into account the full costs (labour and workers’ health, environmental degradation from industrial agricultural practices, fossil fuels for transport, etc). How do your other needs and priorities affect your food spending?


Reconnecting growing, buying, cooking and sharing food

Dianne: “I think that’s the whole secret to good health, really, to connect people with their food. Elizabeth always said that I was her farmer, not only me but all kinds of other people. When you sat down to dinner at Elizabeth’s table, she knew individually the person who produced everything on the table. So what a great thing to start the meal: so and so grew this, Kirt grew that, and this comes from Prince Edward County and so forth. So it forms a community really.”

In what ways have we become disconnected from the food cycle? What do you know about the people who have grown the food that you eat?

Hands-On Activities

Visit a local farmers market: have a conversation with the farmers about their production practices and their produce. Compare the prices of vegetables there with the prices of the same vegetables in a local supermarket. Observe the other community-building activities in the market.

Better yet, arrange to visit one of the farms represented at the market. Some farms have CSAs, or Community Shared Agriculture programs, which can provide you with weekly boxes of seasonal produce, and sometimes offer an opportunity to volunteer.

Organize a pot luck dinner with friends each bringing a dish for which they have researched the origins (who grew it, how was it produced and distributed, etc). Share those stories before eating.

Intergenerational & Intercultural Dialogue
Passing on knowledge from generation to generation

Anna is the living legacy for three people who have taught her over the years about food: her father John who sparked her interest in growing  food as well as composting, her mentor Dianne who taught her to raise animals and do market gardening, and her mother Elizabeth who taught her to organize markets, cook large meals, and gather family and community around the table to enjoy food.

  • Who has taught you about these different aspects of food, from earth to table?
  • What factors have made it less common for this knowledge to be shared across generations?

In the historical TV footage in the video, you see a young Anna learning how to make bread. She continues to make bread, but has also taught her kids to bake with her.

Intercultural Differences
  • Christian Besnier is one of the Francophone farmers in the farmers market in the Gaspé. His approach to farming, ecosystem management, involves stewardship of the habitats of all living things and the interrelation of forest and field.
  • You may have noticed a Mexican visitor to the Bracebridge market. Fernando Garcia is another collaborator in the Legacies Project, who also learned organic farming from Dianne, when he came from Mexico for a season in the early 2000s. Organic certification processes vary from country to country; standards in Mexico are shaped by North American demand for the agroexport of Mexican produce.
  • There is quite a difference between the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables in Canada and Mexico, given the differences in climate and growing seasons. Discuss the idea of eating seasonally, and the difference in taste between vegetables and fruit imported from Mexico and those grown locally.
Individual & Collective Action

Marina concludes:

“There’s still a disconnect between the idea of local food and really committing to local food.” What are the structural obstacles that keep people from committing to local food?”

– Marina

Seek out associations or groups that are organizing around farmers’ markets and or organic eating. What are their positions? What models can you find that make organic food more accessible to people with low income?

Continuing the Conversation

Continuing the Conversation
Mexican Legacies partners

On viewing the market video, four of our Legacies collaborators compared it to their own contexts in Mexico, especially to the ancient tradition of tianguis, or markets, which for centuries have been major gathering places.

Valiana Aguilar: “It sounds like farmers markets are new to Toronto, but in Oaxaca and the Yucatan, it’s been forever… there have always been farmers markets.”

Fulvio Giaonetto: “The Paracho market near us in rural Michoacán state brings together many P’urepecha communities and so includes the kinds of products we need for traditional ceremonies, weddings and fiestas.”

Maria Blas: “People bring what they have grown in their patios or backyards and, if they don’t sell everything, they trade with each other.”

Valiana Aguilar: “In the rural Mixe markets in Oaxaca, they also exchange artisan work for fruits and vegetables. For example, they exchange pottery for potatoes. It’s based on a personal relation with the person making them. It isn’t an unequal exchange.”

Lauren Baker: “Well, Toronto has a long history of markets, too, but that connection with food and farmers had become lost with the rise of industrial food and supermarkets.”

Urbanization in Mexico has also had an impact on market relations.

Valiana Aguilar: In Oaxaca city, the growers from Puebla state (Poblanos) control the market. Local agricultural producers wanted to sell in the urban market, but the Poblanos kept them out. They’re a mafia, they have guns and can kill you, it’s not a joke.

Ángel Kú: In cities today, there often aren’t relations between growers and consumers like before, so this is a strong message of this video. To grow a squash, chile, or tomato is a revolutionary act. And, like Chandra said, to sit down and share food at a table, is also a revolutionary act.

Anan Lololi and Selam Teclu

Anan Lololi, Guyanese-born founder of the AfriCan Food Basket in Toronto, and Selam Teclu, Eritrean-born nutritionist, gardener and breadmaker, discuss key barriers for newcomers and people of colour to participation in farmers markets – as producers or consumers.

Anan: Most of the farmers markets we have participated in are in high end areas, where the customers have disposable incomes. When we tried to start a farmers market in Regent Park (a low-income racialized community in downtown Toronto), it didn’t work because the white farmers wouldn’t go. It’s a class and race thing, and they couldn’t compete with the cheaper prices of No Frills and FreshCo (low-priced supermarkets).

Selam: When I applied to one market to sell injera (an Eritrean bread), made from teff (an African grain), they told me I could not participate because my teff was not local. It’s our family teff that my brother grows on small organic farms in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, and Ghana. He tried growing it here, but the season is not long enough and there’s too much humidity, you get lower fibre, lower protein, and inconsistent germination.

Selam is an urban gardener, a nutritionist, and a facilitator of newcomer food projects.

It made me think about race. Today many people have access to land which historically was taken through European colonization. Now 200 years later, some privileged settlers have access to that land, while Indigenous people or newcomers don’t.

It’s really a question of accessibility, whether it’s the farmer or the bread maker, if a vendor can afford land, a kitchen, or transport to bring his wares to market. People of colour, low-income people have to rely on community kitchens. The farmers market structure is often not very open, flexible, or equitable.

Both Anan and Selam have suggestions for changes that could redress the class and racial barriers.

Anan: Most imports (from the Caribbean or Africa) travel by air, and that’s not sustainable. With the issue of peak oil, we have to find ways to grow our traditional crops here. The government should subsidize immigrants to develop a whole new market that is more equitable, sustainable and culturally appropriate. There are many newcomers who are hungry to farm; there could be incentives that would help them develop their own agricultural practice.

We are also introducing special cooked foods into the high end markets; I hired a black vegan chef who cooks dishes with quinoa, callaloo, okra and other vegetables we grow at Black Creek Community Farm. He understands the culture of the market, is environmentally conscious and uses recycled utensils, etc. They love him at the market!

Anan facilitating a food mapping workshop.

We need to do thorough food assessments, to look at why farmers markets are so white.
Many people look first and foremost in terms of income – poor people will go to No Frills because it has cheap food. It’s culture, too – there’s a clash of culture. There are no go zones for white farmers. You have to engage people. It’s about navigating in different cultures.

The Sorauren Farmers Market in Toronto.

Selam: The steering committees or advisory boards of farmers markets need to do an assessment that asks people of colour about the barriers they experience in the markets. Job descriptions for farmers’ markets could include issues of education, accessibility, and culture. They could offer workshops to vendors on better ways of doing things, farming or processing.

Digging Deeper

Digging Deeper: Resources for Further Research and Action
Videos

Michael Pollan on Farmers Markets

Books and Articles
  • Kato, Yuki and Laura McKinney. “Bringing Food Desert Residents to an Alternative Food Network: A Semi-Experimental Study of Impediments to Food Access.” Agriculture and Human Values, June 2015, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp 215–227.
  • Meffe, Gary; Larry Nielsen, Richard L. Knight, Dennis Schenborn. Ecosystem Management: Adaptive, Community-Based Conservation. Washington: Island Press, 2002.
  • Mie, Alex et al. “Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review” Environ Health. 2017; 16: 111. Published online 2017 Oct 27. doi: 10.1186/s12940-017-0315-4
  • Roberts, Wayne. “The High Cost of Cheap Food.” The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food – New Edition. Toronto: The New Internationalist/BTL, 2013, pages ??.
  • Robinson, Jennifer and Jeff A Hartenfeld. The Farmers’ Market Book: Growing food, Cultivating Community. Beverly, MA: Quarry Books, 2007.
Organizations

There are many organizations promoting farmers markets. Here are a few. What organizations can you find in your area?

We follow Anna Murtaugh’s 20-year journey from downtown Toronto where she learned to prepare food and create markets with her mother Elizabeth Harris to Ontario’s rocky Muskoka region where she learned to grow food with Dianne Kretschmar.

Anna met her husband Adam on Dianne’s farm, and in 2012, they headed east to New Carlisle, Quebec, and to the homestead of his grandmother. As teachers and part-time farmers, they are raising three children as well as various farm animals and tending a voluptuous garden that makes them almost self-sufficient in food.

Drawing on the legacies of Dianne’s farm and of Elizabeth’s markets, they were co-founders of a farmers market that brings anglophone and francophone farmers and vendors into a local park in the summer.

Farmers markets have been proliferating in urban centres like Toronto, reconnecting consumers to producers, in response to the distancing and alienation of a population that has little sense of where their food comes from. They become gathering places both for farmers to connect with other producers and for local residents to recreate a sense of community.

But there are many obstacles to farmers markets becoming truly accessible to all communities. As Anna concludes “It seems like organic food is only accessible to people who either have a lot of money or put a lot of importance on what they’re eating.” This also means that large markets like Toronto’s Brickworks appear awfully white, not reflecting the multi-racial population of the city. An anti-racist critique of urban agriculture has led to initiatives such as another Legacies partner, Leticia Deawuo, building Black Creek Community Farm to serve the racialized Jane-Finch neighbourhood. An onsite Harvest Share market is open to local residents on an honour system. New immigrants to the neighbourhood bring their agricultural knowledge from their countries of origin, creating a unique fusion of food practices on the farm.

Anna and customer at the Gaspé Farmers Market in 2018.

“Ontario still imports around $20 billion dollars of food, and 50% of that could be produced locally,” notes current Brickworks manager Marina Queirolo. But structural constraints abound, including government’s prioritizing large-scale industrial agriculture while offering few supports to small organic farmers. The process of organic certification is an expensive and bureaucratic undertaking that many organic producers cannot afford or navigate.

Plaque at Brickworks Farmers Market

This video serves as a catalyst for critical discussion about the history of farmers markets, and their potential and limits in the current food system. The Digging In guide raises questions, suggests field visits, and offers links to other videos, websites, and readings. See also the contributions of our Mexican collaborators and of anti-racist food activists in Toronto, who raise critical questions about who is served in farmers markets.

Elizabeth Harris hosts a dinner in her backyard in Toronto in 2007.

This video is dedicated to the memory of Elizabeth Harris, Anna’s mother, who is honoured with a plaque in the Brickworks market that she founded. Dianne Kretschmar remembers Elizabeth when she says: “It’s about connections. I think that’s the whole secret to good health, really, to connect people with their food. Elizabeth always said that I was her farmer, not only me but all kinds of other people. When you sat down to dinner at Elizabeth’s table, she knew individually the person who produced everything on the table.”