The problem with a rainy Saturday morning is that it does the outdoor farmers' markets no good. There are two major ones in central Toronto, at Brickworks and at Wychwood, both of them relatively new (in the past five years). At Brickworks there's a huge roof over everyone, so the rain is a problem "only" because it is apt to discourage shoppers from turning up. But at Wychwood vendors must rely on tents and canopies, and shoppers are stuck walking in the rain., so it's uncomfortable as well as discouraging. Those who usually go by bicycle, like me, will most likely stay home, as I am doing today, writing this blog rather than pedalling through the lovely empty early morning streets.
The largest farmers' market here, long-established, is downtown, at St Lawrence Market, in the "north building". The south building has a permanent market of fishmongers and cheese merchants and butchers, etc etc (open Tuesday to Saturday). The north market is only on Saturdays, and is packed with vendors selling meat and cheese and vegetables and fruit, and bread and sweet baking, as well as some prepared foods. There's no hard rule about local only, as there is at the outdoor markets, nor any requirement that foods on sale be organic or sustainably grown, though as consumers' awareness of those issues and labels grows, who knows?
The St Lawrence Farmers' Market is there year-round. So is the Wychwood Market (it moves indoors in cold weather, into a beautiful galleria space in the refurbished TTC barns). And so too is the Thursday market at Dufferin Grove, to the west of downtown. So people who go to those markets can and do develop the habit of going each week ... and it is habit that can sustain a market. In fact without it, the markets have to rely each week on consumers knowing about a particular market and then deciding to go. Habit and necessity are much more reliable sustainers of farmers' markets than last-minute whim.
And why am I going on and on musing about this, as the rain intensifies outside? Well once you've seen how hard farmers work, especially farmers doing family-farm-scale sustainable agriculture, the fact that that hard work is not enough, that they also have to cope with the vagaries of consumer behaviour at fledgling farmers' markets, makes you anxious for them, and in fact anxious for us all.
How can we make the essential-to-life work of farming a rewarding and rewarded part of our community? How to keep this thing called sustainable local agriculture on track?
The local markets are one element. And we need to get in the habit of relying on the markets. But relying in what way?
In North America we are generally rushed and have the habit of doing "one-stop shopping", getting it all over with at one large comprehensive grocery store. Most of us don't have the luxury of a European-style set of small specialty shops: the butcher, the fish monger, the cheese-seller, all within easy walking or driving distance. The large grocery store is the substitute for that. And so for us "reliance" on a market means we feel confident that we will find all the food we need to shop for all at the one location.
Very few of the farmers' markets can provide that. There is meat, and vegetables, and fruit, but no dairy apart from a little cheese. The only exception is the St Lawrence Farmers' market in the north building. And what buyers can't find there they can get in the permanent south building market. So the larger better established markets will, I hope, continue to function reasonably well for farmers and for consumers, but the very small ones will probably fade away, as the cost of bringing in food for an uncertain result becomes too expensive and discouraging an equation.
Getting locally-grown and -produced food into grocery stores is the other important piece of the puzzle. (I'm leaving aside for the moment the CSA (community-supported agricuture) movement, which is hugely important way of ensuring reliable markets for farmers; and also the resurgence of urban gardening (urban farming is the new buzzword)).
It is happening. Independent grocery stores like wonderful Fiesta Farms here in Toronto, are developing long-term relationships with farmers and stocking their shelves, especially in the produce section, with locally and sustainably grown food. Hurrah!
All this is not just about Toronto, or other cities in North America. Most industrialising countries face the conflicting pressures of on the one hand feeding people affordably in the short term (the most food at the cheapest price), and on the other protecting local food resources and local agriculture for the long-term future (emphasis on local and sustainable).
So the question remains: How do we keep the local food scene vibrant? How do we discourage the importing of foods that are displacing the locally grown versions ? (Garlic from China, which floods the market in Thailand and Vietnam as well as in North America, undercutting the better-quality locally grown garlic, is the quickest example, but there are many others.) This is the real "health issue"...
It's still raining. There was a heavy downpour and now we are back to drizzle. I went out for several hours (a few paragraphs ago) to have dim sum with my friend Dina. We found ourselves eating three-layer pork and other rich and hearty fare, as we sat in our sweaters - on June 20! Bring on the hot weather, say I!!
And once it comes, the summer heat, I promise to be a little more light-hearted here. Something about the chilly damp brought on this serious questing tone today. Hope you stick with me nonetheless.
A final note, that brings me back to the garden and the rain: The garlic and shallots that are planted in odd spots around the edge of the garden have strong aromatic leaves that I harvest in handfuls, then chop and stir-fry. Now their lovely curling scapes have formed, and those too I snap off, chop and stir-fry. Other green candidates in the garden include arugula and tat soi. The fresh gathered greens are all part of a mid-morning addiction that starts with leftover rice put into in my favorite bowl of the moment and then set aside. Into a hot wok goes olive oil, then a little mustard seed until it pops, then a fresh egg, which is fried and flipped over before being lifted out onto the rice. The wok goes back on the heat and the chopped gathered green stuff goes in to get a quick hard dose of heat. I turn it out onto the egg and rice, then squeeze on some lime juice and drizzle on some nam pla prik (fish sauce with hot chiles chopped into it). Sometimes some torn fresh herbs (shiso, parsely, arugula...whatever!) go on top. There's nothing better!
I have a feeling I may have written about this earlier. Sorry if I'm repeating myself!