The Withrow Park Farmers’ Market (WPFM) is a project of the Centre for Local Food Initiatives, a registered non-profit group, and is run by a volunteer market committee consisting of neighbours, park and area users, and a seasonal market manager.
The Withrow market was created out of community concern over the declining control over the food we eat, and the need to create more opportunities for Ontario farmers and food entrepreneurs. The majority of fruits and veggies stacked on grocery shelves at supermarkets and greengrocers travel thousands of kilometres; a process that hides the social and environmental costs bringing food from the farm to the plate.
All produce, food items and other goods sold at the market have to be certified organic or ecologically and sustainably produced. No Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) of any kind are allowed for sale at the market, including as ingredients in prepared foods.
The market is a place where Ontario farmers using organic and ecological cultivation methods, as well as food entrepreneurs using sustainably and equitably produced ingredients (whenever possible), can directly connect with eaters.
Withrow started with a pilot special market day event in September 2006, and was received with overwhelming enthusiasm by the public and vendors. Since then, the market has gone through some changes, and there has been great interest by various community leaders across Toronto to start markets in their own neighbourhoods, but with the local food boom comes a number of challenges.
Some of these challenges are easier to work out than others, but one that is very slow to solve is the small number of organic or ecological farmers who are willing or able to bring their produce to the city. One of the challenges cited mostly by those farmers is the distance they would have to travel and the cost of gas. Another challenge is also that the number of farms in Ontario is still decreasing, and programs for growing new farmers are still very young.
Toronto is fortunate to have its own little microclimate, which is great for growing vegetables and fruit, but because of its magnificent sprawl the nearest farms are approximately 1-2 hours travel from our urban plates. This travel time has to be absorbed by farmers, and we are very grateful to those who are getting up before the crack of dawn to bring their produce to Withrow.
Over the last decade Toronto eaters have been educated about food miles, the association between CO2 and global climate change in relation to long distance produce, and the importance of organic food production. We have learned to associate organic food sources with environmental and personal health, and locally grown produce with less CO2 in the atmosphere, and we are learning that farmers’ markets can offer the best of both worlds, and that a choice between organic or local does not always need to be made, because we can have both. We rarely speak about freshness of locally produced foods, but the reality is that buying fresh produce from an organic farmers’ market is the next best thing to growing your own.
What does organic agriculture mean?
On the smaller production scale that most of our farmers operate on, organic cultivation doesn’t mean only no pesticides and herbicides used on the plants and in the soil, but it means the building of a healthy growing environment for plants from the ground up, and the use of policultures. The main principle of organic agriculture is that if the soil is healthy and nutrient rich, the plants will be healthy and nutrient rich as well. The nutrients absorbed by the plants from the soil make it into the “fruit”, and by extension into our tummies, especially if the food travels short distances. Growing policultures (multiple varieties of plants mixed in a field) as opposed to monocultures (acres and acres of the same crop that offers no barriers to insects or diseases), supports biodiversity and avoids potential pest or disease problems.
We don’t often hear that shopping at farmers’ markets ensures fair trade relationships between producers and eaters. The money spent at the market is being reinvested in the local economy, and the bucks spent on local produce ensures a fair wage for the producers, although it is often mind-boggling how little farmers sometimes charge for the fruits of their labour. In North America we are used to fairly cheap foods, which is very unrealistic, and if you are a gardener, you will understand. Spending hours or days on preparing the soil for planting, starting seeds, or even just transplanting seedlings into the field is a huge amount of backbreaking labour. Add to that the cultivation (like weeding, irrigation, organic pest controls), harvesting, cleaning, transportation, marketing, selling, preparing of the harvest, and you are looking at much more than an 8 hour work day. So for those still wondering about the price of food, ask yourself how much your body and time and skills are worth to you, and translate that to (organic) farming (which is a skill intensive occupation).
Supporting your community farmers’ market
We are just starting to speak about the importance of supporting your community farmers’ market. If you have seen “Field of Dreams”, the baseball movie starring Kevin Costner, you may remember the phrase “if you build it, they will come.” Of course, that may work for a baseball field full of ghosts, but when it comes to small farmers’ markets that have sprung out of a local grassroots movement, it’s a bit trickier. Many young markets experience a chicken and egg phenomenon. It consists of the following: shoppers want a diversity of product, but vendors won’t come unless they are guaranteed a large enough customer base. What we’ve figured out is that the best remedy to this conundrum is time: small and new community supported markets need the patience and the faith of both market patrons and vendors to make a neighbourhood market a special place that delivers a unique food experience.
The Withrow Park Farmers’ Market operates mainly as a non-profit community venture. Our biggest interest is to give farmers an opportunity to secure a livelihood, and for eaters to get access to some real food. We are slowly building relationships that will help anchor the market in its community, and we thank all our partners, farmers, vendors, and of course market patrons who share in our vision for a strong local food system and vibrant communities. Click here to volunteer with us.