To Market, To Market… To Market

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of excuses as to why people don’t make the effort to shop at farmers’ markets, with the most oft-heard one being that there just isn’t anything accessible and easy to get to. This has changed considerably in the past couple of years, and downtown Toronto now has over 20 separate markets, with at least one market taking place every day of the week during the summer and early autumn.

Which begs the question – have we hit a saturation point? Are markets the new Starbucks with two on every corner?

On Thursdays in the downtown core, there are now three separate markets within walking distance of each other. The market at Metro Hall is the most established of these, with a selection of vendors who are predominantly farmers. There are many vendors selling the same in-season produce, but this tends to create a healthy competition that keeps prices reasonable. During the lunch hour, there are live performances, and half a dozen food vendors along the south end of the square selling everything from Caribbean food to crepes to peameal bacon on a kaiser.

Competition comes in the form of a new market at Bay and Adelaide set up by the folks responsible for the market held on Saturdays at the Evergreen Brick Works. Given the Brick Works’ difficult-to-access location (there is a shuttle bus for the market, but the easiest way to get there is still by car), it makes sense to bring those vendors to a more accessible and TTC-friendly location during the week, and the products there, like at the Saturday Brick Works market, lean more to prepared and artisanal food items. There are a few farmers with fresh produce, but there are also cupcakes, sandwiches, fresh fish, baking mixes, and a lot of prepared food. This isn’t a bad thing – the office lunch crowd is always looking for something new, and if they can pick up some tomatoes in the process, all the better.

The final Thursday market is a wee little display of 3 vendors in the courtyard at Brookfield Place. Consisting of 1 farmer, 1 booth selling bread and sausages (and what an awesome variety of sausages there is!), and one booth with a weird selection of local and imported goods that appear to be straight from the food terminal (local blueberries and veg, plus lemons, mangoes, figs and California strawberries). Still, it’s better than nothing, and if you need lemons, it’s more convenient than heading to the supermarket.

But is it too much? The crowds were overflowing at lunchtime at Metro Hall last Thursday, and Cheese of Canada vendor Gurth Pretty told me that he hadn’t noticed a drop in customers. He rightly pointed out that in the downtown core, folks on a lunch break are likely to visit a market only if it’s within a 5 minute walk. So just as regular customers of the Wednesday market at Nathan Phillips Square probably don’t have time to wander down to Metro Hall on Thursday, it’s unlikely that the shoppers in the Bay-Adelaide area will bypass the Evergreen market to walk to Metro Hall – or vice versa.

This isn’t totally the case however. After the MyMarket farmers market started running on Tuesdays at Sick Kids Hospital a few years ago, vendors at Nathan Phillips Square noticed a significant decrease in sales. Office workers from the Dundas and University area who previously would walk down to city hall no longer had to do so, switching their patronage to the new market a block or so north and a day earlier.

Ideally, everyone in downtown would have access to a farmers market at some point during the week. But there are still pockets that are under-served. The market at Sick Kids would make much more sense a few blocks north at Queen’s Park, if only because we’re more than overdue to have a farmers’ market on the lawn of the legislature. And I’ve seen a number of people suggest a market somewhere in the vicinity of Union Station to catch the commuter crowd on their way home from work.

I’ve also seen market organizers complain that Toronto is at such a saturation point that there just aren’t enough farmers to fill the markets and make them worthwhile. By the same token, many markets are not showing a lot of profit for the farmers who vend at them. The attendance figures for the St. Andrew’s MyMarket that ran last year were pretty dismal, at least partially due to the fact that it was held on Saturday mornings, when three large “destination” markets (St. Lawrence, Wychwood and Brick Works) were also taking place. And the MyMarket at Liberty Village on Sunday mornings is also suffering from poor attendance with a couple of vendors pulling out this year due to poor sales.

And let’s not discount timing. I’ve heard from so many people who say they’d love to check out the dinnertime markets at Trinity-Bellwoods, Sorauren Park or Dufferin Grove, but the 3-7pm time frame is just too inconvenient for them. There’s not enough time for them to get home from work and back out to the market before it closes. Even extending these markets until 8pm would make a significant difference in accessibility for many potential customers.

Pretty points out one other irony in the whole situation. While we’re over-saturated with market options during the summer months, come November, and through the winter, there’s nothing. St. Lawrence is still running and Wychwood moves indoors, but Toronto’s got very few year-round markets even though there are still producers making bread and cheese and pickles, and farmers who still have eggs and meat and root vegetables and fruit such as apples. Pretty initiated a monthly indoor market in the CBC atrium last winter, featuring many vendors from the Metro Hall market plus some food artisans such as ChocolSol and Evelyn’s Crackers, and it was a great success.

Sometimes, though, it’s all about finding a space to do it in. At the end of the first year of the Liberty MyMarket many of the vendors there were in search of an indoor space they could use to set up a Sunday morning market for the winter, but none could be found in the Parkdale Liberty neighbourhood.

We need to ensure that our farmers are making money by coming to market; that they’re not overly burdened by too many rules and regulations, and that they can send family members or staff to vend while they’re doing the very important job of tending their crops and growing our food. We also need to ensure that every market has a big enough customer base to make it viable and that we’re not over-saturating any one area with more markets than it can handle, especially when there are pockets of the city going without.

There also needs to be more work done on promoting the many markets in Toronto so that people know they’re there. And keeping the markets open during times when people can actually get to them is vital.

Ultimately, we all need to thank our lucky stars for the options that we have. Living in the middle of one of the most fertile areas of the world and having so many wonderful farmers and products and food artisans to choose from is a great gift. Don’t for a second think that any of this is complaining! But it’s also important to look for ways to make things better, for farmers and for customers.