Don’t Ask to See the Dirt Under a Farmer’s Fingernails…

Years ago I made a big mistake. There were these rumours circulating that the sure way to identify a real farmer is by the dirt under his or her fingernails. (This was during those days when many “farmers” at markets were exposed as “cheaters” and “hucksters” who were getting their produce from the Ontario Food Terminal.) Well, let me tell you that this is not a sure way of assessing who is a farmer and who isn’t, not to mention that it is an offensive request and assumption to make.

Farmers (as do gardeners) know a thing or two about getting their hands dirty. As a matter of fact, they are at it so much day in and day out, from spring through summer, into fall and winter, that their hands and backs never get a rest from the toil, particularly if they have livestock. Their strong hands become permanently etched with stains, cuts and ruts. To be a farmer is to be a Jack of all trades (mechanic, machinist, veterinarian…) and to know and to respect physical labour.

As market managers we are equally deeply respectful of the work that farmers put into bringing food to our communities’ urban tables, and many of us choose vendors and farmers who use ecological food production practices. On Monday May 6 I joined a bunch of market managers (all of them women, wouldn’t you know) on a tour of two farms and an apple orchard. The trip was organized by the Greenbelt Farmers’ Market Network, and the purpose was to meet with farmers to chat about some of the questions and dilemmas we encounter at our respective markets. We talked about Community Shared (or Supported) Agriculture, market rules like vendor priority, organic certification and farming standards, and life on the farm in general.

On a made to order beautiful day, the Toronto managers headed out in carpools at 7:30 a.m. and arrived at our first destination, Highmark Farms in Cookstown, just before 10, where homemade quiche, granola, coffee, tea, and other snacks awaited us for breakfast. Highmark Farms is owned and run by Carmen and Phil, and their 4 grown kids. It’s a mixed farm operation, meaning they grow both veggies and keep livestock like wild boar, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, quail, and even a few beehives. They even have a couple of geese, as well as a dog and several cats.

It is comforting to speak with farmers who talk about crop rotation and who let land sit fallow or in pasture for several years. It is encouraging to see smallholders who cultivate diversity by growing both vegetables and animals. The farm, after all, is a system; if it is in balance it works well, if not, well, you get my drift.

As farmers’ market managers we are knowledgeable, but we don’t know everything, and most of us have never been actively involved with farming. We are often burdened with figuring out logistical issues: how do we make our guidelines and regulations fair, while also being assertive. How can we be firm in enforcing our rules, but flexible to accommodate changing needs or extraneous circumstances (whatever they may be). It’s a dilemma, and our solution is often to use each other as resources and to communicate with our vendors. We certainly used the farm visits to get better acquainted with organic growing practices.

Our second stop was at Fiddle Foot Farm in Mansfield, just north of Orangeville. The farm is run by Amy and Graham who have a CSA program, use biodynamic growing practices, and attend 3 farmers’ markets in their region. Amy and Graham have a couple of farm interns helping them get the work done, as well as occasional help from family. They grow vegetables, but also keep chickens, cows for milk, and are planning to add some pigs this year.

We finished the trip with a stop for lunch, cider and tour of the orchard at Spirit Tree Cidery in Caledon. Here, too, from the pruning of the trees to the pressing of the apples, it seems as thought the work never ends. In all our conversations with the farmers it was very clear that when one task ended another began, creating a never-ending circle of activity. There is no turning off and tuning out. Farming requires presence, knowledge, perseverance and commitment. But another message came clearly across as well: all the folks we spoke with were happy to be farmers.

You can see more photos from the tour on our market facebook page.

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