Friday, 18 December 2015

Winding down the Blog

There have been some long gaps between posts and that is usually a sign that I've started to run out of ideas.  Now that two growing seasons have more or less been had, there is only going to be more repetition.  A different pest, a different gaffe in marketing, but I feel like I know at this point what our farm is about and the general direction it is going (as outlined in the blog to this point).

The idea was that I was going from being an urban kid, whose contact with rural life was limited to an annual day trip to an aunt and uncle's farm and the odd whimsical stop on a trip to another city, to a country dweller.  Well, it would be a stretch to say that I have become a rural person to the core and that the city with its bright lights, freeways, and long list of cultural events in the alternative newspaper's listings is overwhelming to me now.  But I have come to live a mostly rural life.  I spend an evening a week in the city doing errands and maybe staying at the library for a few hours (we still do not have high speed internet access at home).  But most days are on the farm or at my part-time job, which is also rural, agricultural, physical.

We have a couple of sheep now, along with a doe and a buck, who are together with the intent of the doe being bred.  But they are buddies more than awkward breeding companions.  We have a pig and a bunch of chickens that are still laying even as we approach the shortest day of the year.  We have a couple of geese and a drake, they are an odd crew, wandering together, the geese tearing into the grass, which is still sort of growing, the drake digging under it, looking for something with a bit more meat.  It has been an easy start to winter, after two really long and harsh ones.

We began this life thrown into a winter of major snow storms and a long ice mess - challenging circumstances when you have animals in a barn a couple hundred feet from the house.  We have good pictures from that time.  Carrying feed pails as the dog walks alongside, deep snow.

The start was hard - there was a lot of money going out and hobby wages coming in.  There was a lot of shovelling and digging, the effects of which were satisfying, while the effects on my body will probably present in the coming years, unpleasant surprises in my joints and gait.

I've settled into the reality of local food.  I have gone from being wide-eyed, to being outraged at how little seems to be seized in the revolution we are supposed to be having, to being more aware but also more tempered in my frustrations.

I recently attended a lecture entitled "Urban Food Revolution."  It was about the myriad successes of rooftops, hydroponics, SPIN, food hubs, and about the unfortunate realities of food miles, food deserts, food waste.  It was an array of issues I've learned all about.  It was not new, though it would be to some people.

I made myself give the presenter credit for the fact that his portrayal of local food was mostly valid.  It is bound to be a slow, spotty shift to people being more involved in their food and caring more about how it is grown and shipped.  But I would want to add to the discussion that in spite of the many interesting things happening (apparently Telus and Sheraton are mandating that their towers have rooftop gardens - I think I have that right) much of it is cosmetic.  They mostly just feel good.  And look good.  They ruffle few feathers and break few budgets.  Granted, they do provide some meals and maybe even contribute to the needy who still mostly have to rely on processed foods like canned beans and sugar cereals.  The true value of a small sunned space and some soil is hard to appreciate in the world we live in.

Most of the small businesses I know around local food are struggling to make a living, trying everything they can think of - a new farmers market, a storefront, a great new product that no one else has thought of, and it's an uphill battle.

But we are at an alright place:  we now have a year-round weekly market that is working reasonably well for us and giving us a base income to build upon.  We have hosted a few very fun cooking classes and had a good go of growing winter greens in the unheated greenhouse, which has made us more confident that we can maintain a good variety of nutritious foods throughout the year.

Keep abreast of developments on Long Road Eco Farm's Facebook.

Friday, 9 October 2015

The Election Sign

The past few days have been windy and candidate signs are being blown down.  Given our location (we are right on a busy highway at the entry point of the township) we have the opportunity to catch the attention of many if not most of the township's population.

In rural communities - sometimes well off the beaten path - you find houses with hand-painted signs posted on front lawns.  This past summer I passed a house on a back road covered with such signs, all deploring the Ontario sex ed curriculum....a patchworked lament about how it is destroying a generation, etc.

Our sign is simple:

I'm sure many would agree that this has been a nauseating election race, with a few bright spots - there have been many clear-headed insights and stances amidst the sleazy tactics, such as the many voices reminding the voting public that there are more pressing issues than the niqab's place in citizenship ceremonies.

There are, of course, plenty of issues that are being largely ignored.  Health care policies, aboriginal issues and food.

There was a candidate's meeting in Kingston last week on the issue of food security, and it was my chance to see what those running in my riding were like.  In rural ridings like mine, the candidates are not always suave.  One was a bit wooden in his delivery, and mostly reverted to platitudes, one read directly from the party manual in a monotone, one was more seasoned and charismatic, and fairly articulate, one didn't show up (I'm sure I don't need to say which party was the no-show).  The riding will most likely go to the latter candidate.

After the opening remarks and a couple of questions, I had to get up and stretch.  I stepped out of the room, and then stood in the back when I came in.  I wandered over to the banquet tables, where coffee and muffins were set out, and got a drink.  I gazed around the room, picking out the candidates' handlers, mostly in suits (mostly sharper looking than the candidates themselves).

It seemed that the questions all bled together and the responses suggested that there were no bright ideas on how to get more out of our own country's capacity to grow good food and make it available to more people.

This makes people like me second guess my hope for a better food system.  No matter what evidence there is to suggest that big changes in agriculture are necessary to environmental sustainability and the welfare to farmers (consider the idea that currently, crop farmers work off-farm to make up for the losses in their farming venture - essentially subsidizing the large seed and pesticide companies they buy from regardless of their own profitability) no politician with serious prospects of being elected would support anything much outside of the status quo.

These issues well up over time as they are neglected.  Health care becomes less sustainable and slowly sinks into crisis as the population ages.  Aboriginal communities become more alienated from government and less able to trust them.  Food eventually becomes inedible in spite of its abundance.  Farming, already unsustainable for the farmer, becomes phased out as new generations are less willing to swallow the bitter reality of working two jobs for the income of one.  This is where I am reminded of the fact that, although Canadian politics still rolls its eyes at my farm and calls what I do a quaint hobby, its general tenets are really the inevitable direction of food production (small-scale, local and not reliant on large, powerful, litigious companies patenting seed) and something that will continue to take hold and evolve as politicians strategize over their latest niquab issue.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Squash Harvest

Although today, as I write, it's been raining steadily (it's the first rainy day we have had since the spring I think - though we have had an almost ideal rainfall this year - often overnight or short bursts during the day) yesterday I spent most of the day harvesting squash, weeding the struggling strawberry rows, and setting up beds for greens that will go into the fall and serve the first part of winter CSA shares (before winter sets in and we will use hardy vegetables grown in the greenhouse).  It was a beautiful fall-weather day.  The sun seemed less intense and not as high for as long as I've been used to, and the air was a bit drier andcrisper.  The trees in the forest are still fully green and in their shade it could just as well be spring.

The last couple of weeks of August were hot and humid, and work had become so repetitive and unsatisfying that I got frustrated and morose, even thinking about getting as far away from farming as I could and soon.  The shift in the weather, and seeing the squash patch cleared - and a good abundance in the shed where they'll be left to cure, has shifted something in my mood and outlook.

I welcome fall and winter. Life goes more at a pace that suits me - the hard work of farming is generally satisfying, and one of the things that drew me to it, now that I think about it, is the idea that the pace of life is slower.  (That's not the case in the summer, when we are scrambling to make as much in sales as is possible to offset a slower winter season).  There is no way around the fact that the modern world demands a constant speeding up of life's pace.  The man credited with developing the cell phone was recently on CBC lauding his invention for how it improved productivity and allowed more people to do more things at once.  But it's probably more a mixed blessing.

I have noticed that most of the time since I've been farming, I've felt that this is the pace that is compatible with my own physical and mental functioning.  Life in Calgary in 2005, and life in Toronto in 2012 were both a constant, blurred rush.  I caught a lot of colds, and felt more often than not that I was in a sort of soldiering-on mode.  If there were ways to live a more mellowed life, I couldn't see it.  It's a tall order in 2015, and I think it's something many of us are seeking at the core.

Friday, 14 August 2015

The P Word

Thinking back on the evening, it was like a strange dream.  We were set up at the market, ready to go, when the power failed.  The band cut out and the vendors running cooking devices all looked back to some unspecified spot where power happens, or around for some unspecified person who could make power happen again.

Then, like little ants scurrying, we unplugged cords, tried other outlets, reconfigured our various plug-in arrangements, and slowly, power came back on...first the band came through the speakers and got back into their set.  Then the Indian food vendor went back to frying samosas.  Somehow we were still without power.  We rallied the organizers to find a reliable outlet for us.  There was one strangely set into a tree, about two metres up from the ground.  The cord wouldn't reach.  Then there was another atop a lamppost (again, it was like a strange dream) and that one was out of order, we realized, after climbing a ladder to plug it in.

All the while the band played on, the crock pots a few booths down simmered on, the smell of frying permeated the square.  And yet, there it sat, the little griddle seeking a current.  Throughout the ordeal, we kept telling people they could still take their food home and heat it up themselves, but it was a lost cause.

With an hour left in the market, we shrugged and started slowly stacking our boxes, sitting there. The consensus among our fellow vendors seemed to be that it had been a stellar day.

Driving home, we couldn't help acknowledging that there is something pathetic about the whole business of being market vendors for a living.  Pathetic might be a strong word for some.  Most vendors downplay poor showings at market, saying, "there are good days and bad days," or, "well, had a few new customers so it's all good."  Most jobs have petty sides, boring sides.  Plenty of good, reputable, well-paid jobs have a shady side.

Being in the local food business gives us a certain street cred - when you tell people you have an ecological farm, it sounds wonderful.  But I suspect that when they catch you in the moment of scrambling with the extention cord, flustered, bordering on desperate, the glow dims a bit.

Monday, 20 July 2015

A Third Trip for the Fat

We have learned the hard way that slaughterhouses are places not only of killing, but also of a more mundane kind of shady business. We had been going to a local abbatoir for our pigs until we realized, on our last visit, that they had shorted us by about two dozen pounds of meat – meat that would be sold for $11/lb. It was not a negligeable amount. Though, which cuts were missing, we had no way of knowing for sure. The fat was particularly low, though.

I use fat to make lard for pastry – it is of significantly better quality than Tenderflake, the standard store-shelf lard, which is heavily processed and hardly digestible. Good lard is hard to find – few farmers who keep their own lard have enough to sell, and I don't know where the rest of it goes, but abbatoirs don't seem to have a lot on hand.

We went to another abbatoir further away this last time – in fact, a good hour away, hoping that we would have better luck. Sure enough, upon returning from our second long trip to pick up the meat we had delivered a week previous, we realized the fat we had requested had been left out altgother.

We made the third trip this week.

Since we began farming, we have had no expectation of taking summer vacations, but this was an opportunity to make use of a business trip to enjoy a few hours of leisure before heading back to do afternoon feeding, weeding, strawberry picking, watering, steamed bun making, wood stacking, goat herding, garlic scape picking, and supper.

What a day it was: we got to the abbatoir minutes before they were to close for lunch, picked up the bag of white mass, stuck it in the cooler, and drove back towards the tourist towns of the county, stopping along the highway at a couple of farmgates – little tables set up in some places, others elaborate structures, some stores with proper cash registers.

We took note of the way people interacted, the displays, and the food itself. Generally, there was nothing memorable – cherries, raspberries, a feta and spinach pastry with a waffled surface, a loaf of bread – but it was certainly more satisfying than what we usually accept as road food.

As we were driving on the 401 earlier in the day, I had noticed Denny's after Denny's,  McDonald's after McDonald's, Tim Hortonses everywhere...and asked XB, “isn't it strange that these few companies, owned by a tiny proportion of the population, people who live far away and have never been to Napanee or Picton, are everywhere, absolutely everywhere except for dying towns like ours?”

We headed south at the County's main town, wound along nice two-lane highways, and after a few turns and twenty minutes, arrived at the winery owned by people who vend at one of the farmers market we do.

We were served samples of five wines, and two cheeses, and I, for the first time, noticed interesting flavours and characters in wine.

The little detours brought out an enjoyment that is hard to come by when you have more time and money than you need. There was no time for the squabbles and boredom that happen on extended vacations, nor was there enough spending opportunity on the few stops we made, to feel like money was pouring out.

We bought a bottle of wine and a block of cheese and drove back through the main town, across the lake, and stopped on the native reserve just outside of Deseronto, at a tiny cafe.

We ordered a coffee and a smoothie, browsed some of the native crafts, the bear cream, the wall of aboriginal artists' CDs. The owner invited us to stop out back and see the yard where summer concerts are held, and have a seat in the teepee, drink our drinks in there if we wanted. We sat down, it was comfortable, cooler and nicely shaded.

After a few more minutes by the water, seeing people waterskiing, hearing the buzz of motoboats, and breifly revisiting the Canadian dream, we got back in the car and drove back to the farm.    

Monday, 8 June 2015

Sunday Morning

We have not been late for market yet this year.  Each Sunday, we are up at just the right hour so that, if we work at a frenzied pace, using every minute efficiently, we will be on the highway in time to arrive at the market for 8:30 without having to speed to get there.

This past Sunday, I had to take a quick break from rolling pastry dough to take this picture:

As we pulled up to the market later that morning, we saw an interesting sight.

A 50-foot (maybe it;s 48 -foot) flatbed tractor trailer had parked overnight in the centre of the market square (or the section of parking lot that acts as the market square). Apparently the driver had sought permission from the police to park there.  As far as anyone knew, there would be nothing going on the next day.  I have driven my car with a u-haul trailer attached, for hauling supplies or pigs.  The first time I rented one, I found it impossible to back into a space without the trailer going the wrong way.  It took be about three rentals before I managed to figure it out.

This driver made it look easy, but I have seen truck drivers trying to back into narrow laneways in downtown Toronto and having trouble, and at one point I had a kitchen job doing deliveries, and at the end of my rounds I would have to back the van into a parking space off a busy road, with impatient traffic. It kept me awake at night.

We had actually assumed, when we first saw it parked there that it was part of a special event.  It wasn't until the market manager commented as she passed by with a cartload of tables and chairs, "there's always something interesting,"  that I sensed it was an unwelcome surprise.  But it was good, it gave people something funny and unusual to talk about.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Greens are doing well

The greenhouse has a lush green floor.  There is bok choy and garland chrysanthemum, cilantro, spinach and now a very tidy lettuce patch.  We have been struggling to keep flea beetles from getting out of control, but it looks like our efforts (catching and pinching) are paying off.  They seem to be few and far between.  Fortunately, there are no other signs of pests.  Greenhouses are handy in that they give cover from wind and cold, and pests are not as keen to enter and set up shop.

Seedlings in April

We are doing a Sunday market in Kingston and have a few food box shares (a weekly pickup of vegetables, eggs, and some steamed buns).  The season is off to a fairly good start - we are back into a steady income (relatively speaking) and we have a fairly good sense of what we want to do for selling efforts.  

I can remember last year running a farmgate operation throughout the week before Friday and Saturday markets in our township.  We did get customers, but we were at a point in our farming and business career where we just wanted to get something going - and that meant winging it sometimes.  A car would drive up at some point in the day (maybe two or three over the morning and afternoon) and either we would be inside working on dim sum, or we would be in the fields doing chores.  

We would greet the guest (almost always someone we'd never met before) and tell them what we had available.  There was a table set up in the garage with the day's vegetable pickings, and a sign listing our pricing - pork, chickens, buns, egg tarts, dumplings.  I'd often have to shoo the cat away or chickens that had gathered at the garage entrance. 

It was a kind of commerce that most people aren't used to, and it has made for interesting memories, mostly fond ones.  Some days we'd be having lunch and a car would slowly roll down our laneway. Whichever of us saw it first would announce...."Customer!"

I have to admit, Sunday market works better for us than managing an all-day from-the-house selling venture.  We are working on setting up a farm stand at the foot of our laneway, close to the highway. Something rustic and professional looking and mostly unmanned.  Somehow, even though the local food movement talks about how much people like to connect with their farmers, we've found that people also seem to enjoy some distance.  Many people feel uncomfortable alone in the presence of a vendor selling something because they can't as easily walk away as they can in a grocery store.  There is nobody to offend there.  

The idea would be, if someone wants to meet us, and discuss the farm and what we produce, they would just need to drive up to the house and honk.  We are hoping to have it up for next summer.

It's important for people farming like us to find a way to juggle producing and vending with as little unnecessary stress as possible.  This means finding efficient and satisfying ways to sell, and giving up the ones that seem to take up so much time for so little return.  There are many such opportunities - you start to reason that if nothing else, you get some reading in, but after a while you just can't sit through markets where only a trickle of customers come through, or where most of the people passing through aren't there to buy, they are only there to examine this strange thing they have never seen before (a farmers market).  

But a good farmers market is satisfying.  Many small farmers complain, "who has time to sit around when you could be farming," while other insist that the farmers market is a fading concept.  But our Sunday market in Kingston seems to have some real momentum.  It is growing and attracting a good crowd, and there is an amicable feeling among the vendors because we are busy and engaged and pleased to have a place to buy or barter.

It's satisfying as well being able to bring a few bags of bok choy and salad mix and show the world that we know how to grow good vegetables.

Monday, 20 April 2015


Spring has come so suddenly - we went out to Maberly, a small town about an hour north on April 7. I had only been as far north as Godfrey before that.  To put that in perspective for anyone not from this area, it might be like living in Windsor - as far south as you get - and going up to Moosonee after only having been as far as Sudbury...something like that. It was winter that day, as we toured a farm as part of a group of farmers called CRAFT - Collaborate Regional Alliance for Farming and Training.  We looked at a farm that is 30 years into its making.  It is a beautiful project, and yet, after 30 years, there are still too many loose ends to count.

We are entering year two, and with spring having come so cheerfully last weekend, and staying up until this point with consistently nice weather, we have begun the juggling act anew.

I have digressed over the winter to reading and writing about food issues, and those issues remain at the heart of my pursuit of farming.  But the day-to-day farming is made up of projects that are less aspirational.

We moved pigs this weeks, from their space in the greenhouse to a pasture that will be a future garden space.  Pigs go off on their own when you let them out - they don't tag along.  And so we herded, bringing them so close to the doorway to the fenced yard with its fresh grass - only to see them run back into a bush a few hundred feet away.  The dog tried to herd them, and she is good at it, but they have outgrown her.  They just get panicked, and the dog just kept at them hopelessly, but no one budged.

Finally pig A was worn out from the dog's authoritarian trip, while pig B wandered in a patch of prickly ash, seeming to enjoy herself.  I shooed the dog away, seeing Pig A panting, and realized, with about twenty feet to go back to the greenhouse where they had been staying (seeing that we weren't going to get them to pasture that morning) that I would need to coax her.  I scratched her chin, and then took a step back, holding out my hand to see if the promise of more scratching would bring her to me.  She kept stepping forward for scratchings, and eventually we were back where we started.

The morning had been a lot of work for nothing, but projects often come up that have to be done twice.  Farms are unruly.

That evening we managed to move them more easily with a big bucket of grain, and they spent the rest of the evening digging.  I went out at 10:30 to check on them and they were still in a digging frenzy.  They weren't used to their surroundings, and didn't really know where to sleep, so I guess they just decided to keep digging until they dropped.

We moved the goats to the barn the next day and started tearing out the housing infrastructure of a greenhouse, where they had all overwintered.  There was straw and manure that needed mucking, and pallets joined together that had to be disassembled.  It was a dusty, stinky job - maybe the worst job I will have to do all year, but the hay and manure has been piled for compost, which is the heart of our farm project.

The UN has named 2015 the International Year of Soils.  Soils build up slowly in the natural world - it takes about 500-1,000 years to gain an inch, but it's easy enough to erode them.  Soil with high organic matter is better able to absorb water and resist erosion, which is a big part of the point of compost, which gives some motivation to tasks like mucking stalls.  As a farmer, you really have to remind yourself that the resource you are shoveling is better than gold.  

Sunday, 22 March 2015


I have been reading a lot about the new anti-terror legislation and, like many people, I've been feeling privacy's prospects for the future crumble.  It's my view, one very much borne of a typical Canadian education and socialization, that a buffer against the state is always more important than a buffer against mostly nebulous threats against which the state insists it needs to protect its citizens.  

There have been many eloquent thoughts expressed about what is happening to privacy, and there have been endless warnings about the dangers of a surveillance state, and there is not much I can add to that.  Suffice it to say that when a government like our current one tells its people that it is its role to keep them safe, I feel less safe.

Bruce Schneier points out in an interview with NPR's Democracy Now, "Privacy is not about something to hide...privacy is about individual autonomy...when we're private, we have control of our person.  When we're exposed, when we're surveilled, we're stripped of that control, we're stripped of that freedom."

What does this have to do with farming or local food?

Just as the government asks us to give something up in return for "keeping us safe,"  we are surrounded by forces that insist they are there to feed us, and they ask, tacitly, that we give something up in return.  Visit a university and hear Food Services use language like, "it's a big task feeding so many people day in and day out."  Multinational Sodexo finds time to run a "Feeding our Future" program for children in need on top of making sure students and faculty have wholesome foods in their stomachs to keep them going.  Not to say that the food served at my local university is somehow substandard, or that there is anything wrong with people choosing to buy food there, or that the campaign must have no merit because it is Sodexo that is running it.  It's the clever angle they take that is disturbing to me:  we are not there to make money, we are fulfilling a calling.  They have crafted a "where would they be without us?" message (to my knowledge, there haven't been any "bring your own lunch" campaigns on campus).

Companies like Kraft (owned by tobacco company Philip Morris in the 2000s in one of its many conglomerate incarnations) have countless campaigns around their role as Nurturer:  Feeding America Partnership...Toddler Feeding Tips...Huddle to Fight Hunger Campaign...Kraft Fight Hunger Facebook group...Healthy Living:  Smart Dinners, Desserts & More…and now Kraft Singles bears the Kids Eat Right logo of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  Bear in mind that it is not cheese, but a "pasteurized process cheese food," one whose quasi-perishable quality has fascinated many, and left many like myself to wonder how this counts as food.  

Gerber brought us the Nestle Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study, helping us understand nutritional gaps in the diets of America's children.  This is the same company that spread its message throughout the developing world beginning in the 70s:  Our formula is better than breast milk.

Coming back to C-51 and the very personal loss of privacy, something over which I have little control -  I think there are many losses happening and they surround the concept of autonomy.  When it comes to food, I have made it a central part of my life:  being involved in a small way in a local food system and taking more responsibility for knowing what I am eating, and knowing more about the consequences of how food is sourced.  While I am slowly giving up on privacy, I feel I still have a prospect of autonomy around my food choices - something equally, if not more important.

I don't want to put this forward as a sales pitch:  "You can't trust Big Food, but you can trust me - let my farm be your provider."  Instead, I hope more people will see the appeal of regaining alternatives to the way things are going - of asking "what are we quietly being stripped of?" as these forces larger than life ask us to just let them take care of us.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A Tale of Two Farmers Markets

Has the farmers market movement peaked? An NPR article said so on Feb 5, and another one in The Los Angeles Times reinforced this view a few days later.  As for the markets in Kingston, we instead see a tale of two farmers markets:  one on the rise and one in decline.

As we began loading up the car for last Wednesday's farmers market, we paused for a moment and asked each other, "do we really want to do this?"  It's a lot of work going to a market, and when you barely break even, it's also a strain on morale.  We are small-scale farmers who market our goods from our farm and from local stores, but farmers markets have been our best avenue for establishing a customer base and generating income. Good farmers markets, that is. There are those you look forward to attending, and those that just are not worth the bother.

What is it that makes the difference between good and bad markets?  There are people working to make small farms and local food viable again, and there are also people working successfully to keep Big Ag getting bigger.  When it comes to farmers markets - one of the main hubs for local food in the absence of the new big thing that will make local food more sustainable over the long term - there are some that grow into something solid and there are others that fall from great heights.

Here is a little tale of two markets right here in Kingston.  One is at the University, the other is at the Memorial Centre.  The latter seems to be growing, while the former has dwindled.  The farmers market at Queens was once a bustling, vibrant gathering of vendors selling everything from Indian Curry to Russian specialties to produce and home baking.  When I ask other local farmers if they were ever involved in that market, I often get a response like, "years ago.  It used to be good.  And then..."

The number of vendors has slowly dwindled to the two or three that currently attend, us included. When attendance falls, it is due to a lack of business.  But business doesn't slip just because. Something new has to come along to take customers away, or something has to be taken from the strength of the market.  

When, several years ago, market vendors were no longer allowed to sell hot food, the central attraction was gone.  You could still sell frozen and refrigerated items, but the smells of cooking and the promise of a hot lunch were no more.  

When major chains like Tim Hortons and Pizza Pizza started to set up shop, lines formed.  When I was a student a decade ago, the only chain restaurant at my university was Subway, which stood out like a sore thumb among the quirkier, more exotic booths, like the one run by a Korean woman who sold tacos and ice cream.  Even that little university out on the prairie has come of corporate age since then.

Many students and faculty are interested in a weekly offering of something different - and local.  But with a couple of unassuming sandwich boards and a quick blurb on the TV screens announcing upcoming events, few remember to head over to the quiet spot where the market is held.

When the organizer of the market also organizes the space for the national brands, it's easy to imagine which takes priority.  While our humble farmers market would never really mount anything more than negligible competition to these ubiquitous food outlets, we are kept on a tight rein, and I fear that the market itself is on its last legs.  What vendor wants to pay $35 to a market that does not seem to be invested in its own success?

Where a market like the Memorial Centre differs is in its understanding that a market does not simply sustain itself by existing.  There is a recognition that a sandwich board alone does not constitute promotion.  When organizers took the bold step to hold a December market in an unheated barn and managed to attract crowds of people week after week, it was not taken with the mantra "if you build it they will come."  They hired a market manager and a promotions manager, whose hours are minimally compensated but who have been working hard to find ways to get word out in a world saturated with messages. There is also a board that includes vendors from different walks of life; a member from the local community; and subcommittees of members involved in everything from organizing events to finding sponsors.  Finally, there are volunteers from within the community to help make the market run smoothly week after week.  It is a massive, ongoing effort of coordination. And where farmers markets lack capital, they have to make up for it in investment of time and energy. Through all of this, the stall fees are lower and business is good.

The contrast between the two markets is a reminder of the fact that a successful local food movement involves more than just farmers selling to customers.  It involves other people being invested in the success of those who make local food available.    It also points to the fact that when reps of large food companies assume the role of growing the local food movement, well, it doesn't happen.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

When Ron MacLean Comes to Town

Imagine:  you are a shop owner in the downtown of a small city.  Perhaps you own a coffee shop across from the market square.  It is the weekend before Christmas,  You are hoping for a good rush of shoppers for the next couple of days to make the month worthwhile.  Saturday morning you see trailer trucks coming into the streets lining the square.  McDonald's owns one of these trailers.  They are giving away free coffee.  The trailers are blocking your storefront from view.  You hear the grinding of big engines running and the fumes are pretty overwhelming.  Ron MacLean is skating around on the little ice rink in front of city hall.  He might be doing some kind of heartwarming commentary for TV about Canada's pastime in between burst of skating.  You can't see and aren't interested, but you have time to wonder because there aren't many customers.  The coffee from McDonald's is  free.

The vendors in the market square, meanwhile, out in the cold, standing at their booths, are also looking towards Ron. There are crowds of coffee drinkers and not a customer in sight.  Some of the vendors pack up early. The clothier next to you is not getting many customers either.  Sidewalks are closed, trucks are everywhere. You wonder why there are so many trucks for one little man.

Sometimes something comes up, like the visit of a celebrated hockey commentator.  A city makes some kind of decision.  We can have him come and skate and celebrate our great game, but do we have to consider what this does for those who are trying to make a living in the same space that he's in?  Do we allow ourselves to believe that a celebrity's presence lifts all boats?  Do we give him and his entourage free rein and hope for the best?