Toronto farmers' markets say they're not selling fake goods
Do you know where your heirloom carrots come from? If you purchase them at a local farmers' market, you should be able to find out – easily and instantly, with absolutely no drama.
A few bad apples have a whole bunch of people talking about "fake farmers" at markets in Ontario right now after the CBC show Marketplace exposed some vendors in Peterborough passing off wholesale vegetables as their own.
Called "resellers," these types of characters can indeed be problematic for consumers and real farmers alike – but they're far from new, according to local experts, and you'd be hard pressed to find any at one of our city's legitimate, community-organized farmers' markets.
"We've known that there are resellers at old school farmers' markets – the ones that have been around for 30 years," says Carolyn Wong, manager and co-founder of the Trinity Bellwoods Farmers Market. "There’s really not that much of that going around anymore, not in most of the GTA."
"Those farmers' markets are just markets. You’re basically just grocery shopping outside," Wong explains. "[Reselling] wouldn't happen at Trinity, or Dufferin Grove, or Sorauren or Cabbagetown. That's not even a question."
Daniel Taylor, executive director of the Leslieville Farmers’ Market agrees.
"Peterborough, St. Lawrence Market, those are markets – public markets where anyone can go," he says. "They never really claimed to be a local food market like Trinity Bellwoods or Leslieville."
Markets that allow reselling from the Ontario Food Terminal aren't necessarily the worst thing, Taylor says, as long as customers are aware that they're buying the same, commercially-grown produce available at local supermarkets.
What shoppers need to know is that this type of thing doesn't happen at most of the neighbourhood-based farmers' markets in and around our city.
Both Bellwoods and Leslieville belong to something called the Toronto Farmers' Market Network, along with about a dozen other sustainability-focused local markets like The Junction, Evergreen Brick Works, Withrow Park and FoodShare Toronto.
"We all started with the same focus; Supporting local agriculture," says Wong of the TFMN markets. "Even our park permit says 'no re-sellers' on it. The city is supporting this."
The city may support the idea, but it's up to each market to ensure that their vendors are authentic – and organizers go to great lengths to do this, from intense application and screening processes to certification requirements and regular farm visits.
"We ask many questions about how and where products are grown or made, animal welfare, where ingredients in prepared foods are sourced, and so on," she says. "We also get to know our farmers and vendors really well."
Freeman, Wong and Taylor all travel to farms for vendor inspections as part of their market duties, sometimes up to two-and-a-half-hours away.
This ability to build close relationships with local farmers is part of why markets like theirs exist.
"You can come get to know your farmer and trust that you are getting healthy, local food," says Junction Farmers Market manager Tess Van Den Bosch. "You can ask to taste things and you can talk with the vendors about the products. If you're not satisfied, return to the market and your farmer will be happy to discuss it with you."
And it’s very unlikely that you'll be fed lies.
Toronto farmers' markets have stringent guidelines in general, but they're also in constant contact.
"Our community is large," says Wong, "but small enough that word can get around. If something hinky is going on, we'll talk about it."
"All of the legit farmers' market managers are really close," confirms Taylor.
He says that Leslieville, like many of the markets, has a "very very tight knight group of vendors" as well.
Between those vendors, loyal customers, and farmers' market staff, dishonest sellers would have to fool a lot of very knowledgeable people to succeed at one of Toronto's community markets.
Still, some have tried.
"In the 15 year history of the market, we have had three incidents where vendors failed to meet our standards for transparency," says Freeman. "Those vendors lost their spots. Period."
Taylor says that a few years ago, a customer complaint tipped off his market to a (former) vendor who was reselling.
"Fake farmers will always screw up," says Taylor. "We have an agricultural advisory board – we really notice when people have too many tomatoes too quickly, or something that’s out of season, or more than they can produce."
Shady vendors might occasionally slip through the cracks, but they're the exception, not the rule – and dedicated market organizers like the ones I spoke with worry that "sensationalizing" the issue of re-sellers undermine the public’s trust in legit farmers' markets.
"We need local farmland and local knowledge to be part of our future," says Freeman. "Supporting farmers directly is a way to be part of that. You can't get food that's fresher, and the variety is spectacular. Shopping at markets is also a way to get to know your neighbours."
"One of our mandates is to educate," says Wong. "So that peach pit is split? You can talk to the farmer and learn about why, about how climate change is affecting agriculture. It’s real. Nothing’s perfect."
"Farmers' markets are just trying to do a good thing and support the local economy," says. "We’re really supporting families."
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