Ah Guelph, how I love you.  You are the vortex of good neighbourly-ness that brings people in and never lets them go, the city that still has actual parks and trails along 2 beautiful rivers (I won’t mention the Cargill plant), and how I love the quiet streets of the old university neighbourhood where I spent many days of my childhood.  Honestly I do feel very connected to you and if I weren’t living rurally 29 km away for farming purposes, I’d still be living in your welcoming arms.

However, there is one thing in particular that drives me crazy about you, Guelph dearest.  And that is your so-called “Farmer’s” Market.  The nice new floors and counter-tops, and other renovations that gave you a face-lift a few years back don’t help me, I can’t get in the doors to sell my produce when people want to buy from me.  Your market is a terrible mess of bureaucracy, non-farmer vendors (who are given priority over actual farmers), a manager who never seems to be having any fun, terribly cramped quarters for customers, and more!  I’m sorry but it’s time I said something…

For the third year in a row I have requested a winter spot to sell my certified organic produce from my farm only 29 km away and have been denied.  “Maybe we can fit you in January”, you told me.  “Definitely not November and December”.  “You can sell outside in winter though!”

Thanks, but no-thanks.  Trying to keep my leafy greens from freezing in sub-zero temperatures with my low-tech farm truck is not my idea of fun, and by winter time I need a little pampering.  Getting up at 4 in market already give me bad digestion.  Sitting outside all morning in a blizzard may appeal to me if I’m winter camping in Algonquin park, but it does not appeal to me at market.  Why isn’t the orange juice guy outside?  Or the person selling warm socks?  Or the re-seller who brings food from the Toronto Food Terminal?  Why isn’t your market manager’s office outside weathering the snow?

This is my third year selling at the Guelph market.  I’ve accepted that as a new farmer it will take some leg-work to get into the market.  I know my allies are on the board who share similar views – and they are being over-powered and bullied by the big guys.  I’ve been persistent as your client.  The first year to get into the market took a lot of hassling you.  Since the beginning to get what I need it has taken various phone calls, emails, and visits to your office.  And that has gotten me somewhere, sometimes, but never far enough and never without struggle.

Right now, in April/May, our farm is thriving with our great little spot by the ramp outdoors- but come summer we won’t do as well.  The market will soon be flooded with produce from the food terminal, and from too many vendors and few ground rules.  I asked upon arrival this year if there was anything I shouldn’t sell and you didn’t outline any rules.  I decided on my own that I didn’t want to put certain fellow local producers out of business.  These were some of the thoughts in my thought process: “Sprouts”- there are other sprout-only vendors so I won’t bring our sprouts to the Guelph market.”  “Seedlings- I’ll try to sell most of our leftover seedlings from our field at an on-farm sale so as not to take away a lot of business from folks doing seedlings-only at market”   “Greens- that is our speciality so I will aim to make half my income at market with our certified organic greens!”

Dear Guelph “Farmer’s” Market,

You are not no-frills.  This should not be a free-for-all that paves the way for huge farms and their resulting problems to take over the world.  For starters you really should be giving guidelines so that your market is not over-saturated with certain products.  And you should be giving local producers priority and space to sell their goods year-round.

Getting into farming these days is a feat enough (the average age of farmer is double my age), being able to sell at the local Farmer’s Market should not be a feat of equal proportions.  And the city could be investing their dollars into simple warehouses where those goods can be sold rather than investing over a million in fancy floors or new toilets.  Once your downtown market is full with amazing local producers you could consider supporting other markets, starting in every corner of the city (South, East, North, West)… to serve the rest of the growing city.

Our city is far bigger than when John Galt started the first market in 1827.  Why the heck is the market supposed to be the same size as it was then?  Please, keep expanding so that farmer’s don’t go out of business and so that the local food movement can actually get somewhere.

Here are some other ideas taken from excellent market case-studies in other cities (i’ll add hyperlinks to example markets in the winter when I have time):

1. How about a producers-only market that only allow local farmers to sell their produce?  Or a market that prioritizes producers before craft, prepared food vendors, and re-sellers.  Even better is a market that makes space for both farmers and other local-business vendors because the families making a living from selling salsas, or pies are important too!  Please tell re-sellers, sorry- your time has come to find a way of making a living that does not compromise the future of our local food system.  Or at least tell re-sellers that you are going to monitor them very closely (see next point)…

3.  How about guidelines that help everyone make a living?:  allow particular vendors to have priority to sell certain goods.  Once they sell out (i.e. the 3 priority vendors with asparagus), other vendors and re-sellers can put that thing out on the table, but not until the first three farmers have sold out.

3. Consider a separate market for Organic/Ecological farmers or a designated space for these vendors so as to reduce confusion.  People don’t know what is what at the Guelph market and various times I have walked around with friends giving a “Sustainability Tour”.  My tours go somewhat like, “this gal is awesome and actually grows these things 20 km away, I’ve seen it. – this person buys at the food terminal — this person markets their meat as sustainable since they get some outdoor time but just so you know they are still eating conventional GMO feed  — this bakery is actually a chain — this person’s fruit is the closest to organic of any of the offerings here — this person says organic but that does not mean certified organic so you should verify the methods used to grow the food… etc.”  Host workshops that help consumers become aware of the whole spectrum of food options available to them so that every citizen knows what the word “Ruminant” means, and so that people stop thinking that “no spray” is the same as organic.  I sprayed yesterday on my farm- I was spraying compost tea.  Conventional farmers don’t own spraying you know…

4.  Follow up and verify that what your vendors are saying is true.  Market managers should go to the farms to ensure that they are doing and growing what they say. If you tried to follow that sweet pepper you bought back to the bucolic farmer you thought grew it, you might be sadly shocked to find yourself at a huge farm in Mexico with terrible labour conditions, or that turkey might be grown in a giant warehouse where you have to wear a has-mat suit and shower 3 times before entering.  As a buyer myself at the Guelph market I have literally asked if something was local (a butternut squash sold in fall), been told it was, and then found a sticker that says product of mexico on the back.  The Market should have a system for customers to report this, and should kick these vendors out after 3 strikes.

And my idea that might exist somewhere but I haven’t heard about…

5. My biased idea: Give farmers/business owners that are under 30 years of age some incentive and help getting into farming.  We are in a CRISIS, that the average age of farmer is above 50 and we don’t have enough new farmers taking up farming in a country with some of the best farmland in the world.  You know what this means?  It means eating cardboard-flavoured strawberries from mexico, or just straight cardboard! Yum!

So please: recognize the efforts of new farmers!

So what is our farm doing about this mess, my dear Guelph?

Well for one, writing this letter (on a morning when I have many other things to do on the farm) because it matters to me.

It has always been a part of our goal to sell mainly in Guelph (Our “Holistic Management Plan” will be a future blog post!).  We always made it our goal to stay out of Toronto as long as possible and serve our most local market.  And don’t get me wrong, we are beginning to do quite well with our business.

We decided last minute to join the spring market at Guelph because we knew there weren’t many local vendors, and that they weather wouldn’t be too bad for being an outdoor vendor.  But we are leaving the week of June 17 (temporarily, we hope).  We have decided not to sell at the Guelph farmer’s market for most of the season.  Instead we are distributing our vegetables via a CSA (Community Share Agriculture) Program.  The CSA is a model that WE have ownership and power in.  If it rains we don’t have to go home with piles of extra produce since people are committed to throwing on their rain coats and getting their produce every Wed evening (for Guelph members).  With CSA we can provide prices that are a bit more affordable for people than our market prices because there is much less waste.  We can keep our members up to date about the joys and challenges of our farm-life and they are truly invested in local agriculture.  We are advocating for CSA because our local market is failing us (We also like the CSA model for other reasons.)

Producing for CSA is the most challenging and fulfilling thing we do- it is a lot of variety and volume on a weekly basis for a span of 23 weeks.  CSA pick-ups are an absolute joy and soul-filling time of the week.  People are thankful and kind, and understanding, and patient, and invested in what we do.  It is as fun as market, and for now, more important.  By the end of the season we will need to sleep for about a month.  But to meet our financial goals, after much brainstorming, it is what works best.  It is what will help us get our farm on it’s feet.

Our CSA will end mid November and then we are stuck, needing a farmer’s market.  Last year we ran a winter CSA but we feel we weren’t quite ready for it.  Our storage on-farm is not adequate and our propane bill for the Greenhouse was too high and inefficient.  However, we do need to keep selling whatever we can produce to help us make it through the winter.  (We will have some storage crops, some greens, and a few processed vegetables like frozen rhubarb, etc.)

So recently, when trying to plan our winter I got an email from Guelph Market that said “no” to Nov-Dec and “maybe” to January.  Yikes!  I can’t plan my mortgage payments on a maybe.  I responded asking how many seasons I might have to be there before they would consider me for the indoor winter market.  I haven’t gotten a response.

And how can you help us?

1. We’d love for our market to be Guelph, to stick it out, and patiently try to change the market for the better.  But that would require each and every one of you to visit the market office and let them know you want us there and you want to see changes.  They might not like me for asking you to do this, but we can’t wait forever for a change…  (* as of Saturday May 16 I had a great conversation with a brand new market manager – they may be soon asking the public for comments on the market, for the first time ever!  Even before they open the floor to publicly do so the new manager was receptive and grateful for my letter, and I think with the shift in management it is a pertinent time to get in touch with them!)

2. A second thing you can do is to help us find an alternative high-traffic producers-only winter market in the area.  Something within 20-50 km of our farm would be ideal.  Something about the same size as Guelph or bigger.  FYI: we can’t make our mortgage payments at those lovely, but too-small village/town markets.  

3. Donations to our Farm Fund are always accepted.  See our Farm Fund Page for more details. It will soon be updated to add the details of our 2014 Farm-Fundraiser.

4.   A last resort: Organize together with friends and neighbours to start an ecological local-producer only market in downtown Guelph. Our CSA drop is a bit like one!  We, and other local producers will join you if you can promote and organize it well.

5. LAST AND MOST IMPORTANT FOR OUR FARM!  Join our CSA and promote our CSA.  And other CSAs!  

Thank you for your continued support and your work to change the local food system to a food system that is just and possible for all!

Bethany

* I acknowledge that not everyone has access to equal opportunities to pursue farming despite wanting to.  I appreciate any concerns, discussion, or questions about this privilege, as well as discussions pertaining to colonization and the historical and present First Nations communities whose land many of us are farming on.   We are chipping away at a huge thing here, please pick up the chisel and do the same!