Keeping Toronto excited about pickles and pears at the Sorauren Farmers' Market.
If you’ve never visited the Sorauren Farmers’ Market, picture crowds of people choosing between bushels of apples, leafy greens, fragrant baked goods, and juicy-looking meats. Live music mingles with the sound of toddlers laughing; in the distance, evening soccer games have begun. The market can be overwhelming, but Corry Ouellette and her dedicated band of farmers, prepared-food vendors, community members, and volunteers keep the weekly scene running smoothly.
Ouellette is the Parkdale-based West End Food Co-op‘s farmers’ market co-ordinator. When the market started in 2008, she came on board as a volunteer; she was hired as the co-ordinator in 2011. She spends 16 hours each week managing the market (she also does wardrobe for theatre productions) and has worked for Urban Harvest and as a WWOOFer. “The fact that I had worked on farms and knew what it was like to be a vendor paid into getting this job,” Ouellette explains. She’s been living in Toronto for the past 10 years, after sojourns in Vancouver, and in New York City, where she earned a BFA from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Her long-term vision is “sustainability in all the areas, whether it’s the people running the event, the vendors, or the people in the community. I think it can tax you out if you’re working too hard. We talk about sustainability in this field a lot, but we don’t necessarily focus on making a living.” With the market’s help, the vendors are well on their way: last year, the Sorauren Farmers’ Market pulled in almost $700,000 in sales. “We kept that money in the local economy,” Ouellette says proudly.
Our interview with Ouellette—about the importance of co-workers, the power of live music, and the cold days of winter—is below.
Torontoist: How does one start a farmers’ market, and what are the hurdles you face in keeping one going week after week?
Corry Ouellette: I would say that the first thing you would do is find out if your community can support it. Is there a need? There are some areas that are food deserts in this city. Then go from there. You figure out what your goals are for the farmers’ market: Is it just to provide produce, or products, or prepared food? Or is it to be supporting local farmers? Or is to be organic? Or is it to be a community? Ours is sort of all three. The community element is a big part of the co-op and our partnerships.
Then there are the hurdles that you have to go through, and the City permits that you have to get. We’re lucky in that we have a building that we can use, but there are a lot of conditions that go along with that, like getting parks permits and getting insurance. The Farmers’ Markets of Ontario have helped a lot of smaller markets, which we initially were. You have to get farmers on board and show them that it’s worth them coming out. It’s a long trip to make for very little money if there’s no community there.
What kind of community programming does the farmers’ market offer?
Aside from the farmers, the prepared-food vendors, and the services we have, we try to do other things. We offer a community table for different not-for-profits to get their word out. Last week, we had a bike wash and tune-up that was done by donation, and this week we have someone doing workshops on how to plant. We have kids’ programming that will begin in a week, which has a focus on food and farming. Things aren’t scheduled as sit-down workshops; it’s really drop-in, and that’s kind of the only thing you can do!
We have different events throughout the summer—Name Tag Day is coming up, which sounds crazy, but everybody recognizes people’s face and then they can’t remember their names! We’ll have a country fair where people compete jam against jam and pie against pie. Every week, we have musicians and buskers, and live music is hugely important. We sometimes bite off more than we can chew. Even doing the bike wash, we really needed a lot of volunteers to help, and get the word out, but people love it when they see it. We want to have exciting things that people find interesting.
Tell me a little bit about working under the West End Food Co-op’s umbrella. What kind of support do you get?
The original guys wanted to start a food co-op, and realized that it takes a lot of funding, a lot of connections, and knowledge in the co-op scene. They had the brilliant idea to start with a market to build connections with vendors and with the community, raise funds, and become an entity. Since I’ve been working here, I’ve really tried hard to get the co-op name in everyone’s mind, and to recognize that they are the parent project and founders. We used to sell bonds to become a shareholder at our info table, and we asked everyone who walked by if they wanted to become a member. Initially, the market got money from grants that helped support it financially, and it’s evolved into self-sufficiency. It pays its own staff and covers the cost of the fees.
As a co-ordinator, I work with the other co-ordinators at the co-op in decision making. We encourage connections, like being market vendors and selling at the co-op store. The biggest thing for me is that it’s a place where I can have a community of co-workers. I worked here for years with one other person and a whole slew of volunteers, and it can feel overwhelming. In the past couple years, we’ve established a market committee with members elected from the vendors and community members to help me make decisions. To be able to bounce things off other people has been huge for me.
In pop culture, there’s a perception that upscale hippies, yoga moms, and hipsters are the types of people who shop at farmers’ markets. Is that an accurate representation of your clientele? Are there are demographics who are underserved, or maybe over-served?
I’ve seen things change, and it’s become a sought-after environment. This is a community gathering place as much as it is a support for local farmers and food producers. People come here and they recognize their neighbours, or they meet new people. I do think there are economic restrictions, but I think it’s a misconception to think that because someone doesn’t have a lot of money, they won’t be at the farmers’ market. They’re choices people make. I remember a friend of mine who was buying organic cheeses, and I thought to myself, Didn’t you just go into bankruptcy? How are you doing that? But their choice was to eat healthy and to not have a car.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people making choices that are different from mine, but it is a choice. We are misled about the cost of things: the cost of labour, or to not use toxins and pesticides. It is more expensive. You have to do a lot more work. I know people who have a lot of money, and they complain to me that the market is too expensive. And there are some things I don’t buy here, because I can’t afford to. But if I buy a six-dollar loaf of bread, that’s a completely good price for a home-baked loaf of bread when you’re going to spend $4.50 on a loaf of Dempster’s that’s filled with preservatives. I think that there are a lot really educated people who come to the market and have good questions about how things are grown, and they want to participate in something they know is important. For me, it’s been like welcoming people into your home. You want them to feel comfortable and find something that they like.
It’s a challenging question. Are we reaching our demographic? Well, we’re reaching our community, and we have a diverse community. And there are the hippies and the granolas, but I feel like this area is filled with a lot of different people, and the common thread is that they care about where their food is coming from and that they want to connect with other people.
This winter was pretty tough. How do you keep forward momentum in a farmers’ market in the freezing-cold months?
It’s really hard. We’re lucky to have a building. In comparison with other buildings, it’s nice, but we also have to pay for it, and in the winter we have to pay twice as much because we have two floors to fill up. The meat vendors have meat, they want to sell it, and they’ve built up a clientele. They generally do well. January and February are rough in a regular year, but this year, people didn’t even want to leave their houses, it was so cold. And then farmers driving in didn’t make enough sales. I beg my friends to spread the word and recognize that even just your presence can mean so much. We try to do little things like raffles, and we have skating on Family Day, but it was deadly to get people in and buying. But, compared to some other markets, we managed. People have made a commitment, and I really respect that they work really hard. There’s really not a lot of money to made in the off-season unless you’re doing things like preserves. To be honest, this year was very tricky. I really put the credit on the vendors.