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Where the foodies are: Exploring our burgeoning farmers' market scene

It's one of the most profound changes in North American food culture since the drive-through: the neighbourhood farmers' market, where fresh fare from local farmers is snapped up by urban dwellers who are tired of woody, out-of-season tomatoes and hard, oversized strawberries grown thousands of miles away. As recently as 2000, there were few such options in Toronto, apart from the venerable St. Lawrence Market. Now there are about 30 in parks and public buildings around town, of which almost one-third operate year-round. Although they share a family resemblance, each one has its own unique personality; to demonstrate, here's a comparison of three that reflect their neighbourhoods.
At Evergreen Brick Works in the Don Valley, the emphasis is squarely on local food producers, some of whom have a sort of celebrity status among city foodies—partly because they supply high-end restaurants as well. On Saturday mornings, the market's high enclosure roofed with corrugated metal reverberates with the buzz of conversation and live music. Wafting aromas tempt a crowd of tourists, sporty locals in high-tech bike helmets and well-to-do ladies in expensive recent salon 'dos as they graze amidst an impressive "Local Food Court" and shop from vendors.
Chef and local-food champion Jamie Kennedy, who happens to be strolling, shopping and noshing just like anyone else on the day I visit, was a driving force behind the Brick Works Market five years ago, with Evergreen's co-founder Geoff Cape, the organization Slow Food Toronto and the late Elizabeth Harris, who was the first market manager. "She brought so much knowledge and passion for the growers; it really helped inform this market," Kennedy says.
Clearly, the support for vendors is making itself felt. "We're planning to expand" [to other markets], says Jonathan Deshman, a vendor with Forbes Wild Foods. When they first came to the Brick Works, Forbes was mainly selling surplus from its restaurant and retail trade, he says, but the response was so strong that "now, we want to grow for the market."
Food lover and market-goer Joel Solish started as a shopper, but one day slipped behind a busy table to lend a hand at Vicki's Veggies; now he's there every week. "I love this space; it really is the centrepiece of farmer's market culture," he says. "Market culture is taking off; it's becoming trendy—which in this case is a good thing, because it means that people are coming and spending money."
Across town at Dufferin Grove Park, there's more of a west-coast hippie vibe as local residents—including lots of young families—come together for Thursday market day, sporting handmade fashions and hair of many colours. Here, the focus is more specifically on organics, and the heart of the market is the artisanal bread (rye sourdough, challah, kamut, olive) baked in the park's own outdoor wood-fired ovens.
West-end Dufferin Grove, along with Riverdale Park in the east, was among the first of the new-era farmer's markets; it complements other remarkable park amenities like weekly community suppers and a resident puppet theatre company. Here, the "godfather of the organic vegetable growers" is Ted Thorpe: lean and leonine, with a springy greying mane.
"My business is 95 per cent retail at markets. I've been doing it since 1990, when we only had one organic market, Knives and Forks on Markham," he says, referring to a pioneering project spearheaded by chefs Michael Stadtlander and—go figure—Jamie Kennedy. Thorpe says he's starting to get tired, but he still has a twinkling eye, a joke and a laugh for everyone who pauses at his table.
"This is not just a market; it's a community meeting spot," says Clark Lord, a vendor with Akiwenzie's Fish and More. Market manager Anne Freeman agrees: "What stands out here is a not-particularly-wealthy but dedicated clientele who really go out of their way to support the organic vendors. This is our tenth anniversary, and there's a big affection between vendors and customers."
Out on Queen East, the love affair has just begun. Leslieville Farmer's Market (this writer's home base) had a remarkably vigorous first year at Jonathan Ashbridge Park in 2011, followed by a popular weekly box program throughout the winter. Clearly, food-focused Leslieville was hungry for its own market, which includes some local retailers (Merchants of Green Coffee, the gluten-free and vegan baking of LPK's Culinary Groove, sustainable fishmonger Hooked and J.P. Challet's Le Matin bakery) along with up-and-coming farmers who aren't yet known to the culinary crowd.
"We try to support vendors that haven't broken into the city scene yet; we try to ramp up the educational aspects, so people learn about cooking things like kohlrabi, kale and bitter melon," says board chair Emma Baron. On Sunday mornings, film industry folks and media types in graphic tees and expensive sandals linger near fancy baby chariots while toddlers enthusiastically taste unfamiliar vegetables at the kids' nutrition table.
"You get the full range of customers: those who are learning to eat healthy, and consequently how to cook with the ingredients, and the ones who do know," says the ebullient Zach Theo of Highmark Farms. Leslieville, Wychwood and a third market in Barrie represent the entire customer base for Highmark's 20 acres of vegetables and livestock. Theo won't even sell from the farm; "The signage we had up, we took down," he says, "because it was cutting what we had for the farmers' markets."
Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods, and, with more opening every year, apparently there's a market to suit every one of them. So when will demand peak? Apparently not anytime soon.

Sarah B. Hood's writing explores the culture of food, fashion, urban life, environment and the arts. Her latest book is We Sure Can! How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.
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