Special Report: Farmers Market

Hamilton Goes A-Marketing

The Farmers' Market is the fulcrum of a local, self-sustaining economy whereas the mega-grocery store is merely the adjunct of a global, unsustainable economy.

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 22, 2005

Cities are market-places by definition: physical crossroads where individuals meet and exchange what they have for what they need. In other words, places where connections are established and reinforced. In the process of doing this, markets foster the creation of both the built environment (streets, buildings, public squares) and social/cultural milieux that enable individuals to live and work in each other's company as whole people.

The literal market is not just a physical manifestation of the notional market (in fact, the relationship is inverse). It's a potent example of markets as spontaneous human systems rather than detatched and managed corporate entities. Farmers' markets, in particular, are also direct connections between urban residents and local farmers, which not only keeps more money in the region but also helps to cultivate a more ecological, diverse economy rather than the industrial monoculture of Big Agribusiness.

Part of the reason Raise the Hammer advocates moving the Hamilton Farmers' Market to the corner of King St. and James St. and opening it to the street is that such a move physically restores the Farmers' Market to a real meeting-place in the centre of town. Tucked into the back of a mega-complex amid parking lots and multi-level garages, the Farmers' Market survives despite an environment scarred by the great bloodletting of the 1960s and 1970s, when radical modernists tried to wipe the slate clean and build futuristic spaces for imaginary beings. Restored to its natural location, the Market could flourish instead of merely surviving. It could help to re-engage people with a physical crossroads that is currently dominated by forbidding architecture and relentless automotive traffic.

Tillie Johnson, a three-decade Farmers' Market veteran who tends her her stall at the bottom of the ramp, shakes her head at students on school trips who have never seen fresh garlic before and don't have a clue where their food comes from. Here's another market connection: between people who eat and the ingredients that nourish them (or not). As noted to hilarious and chilling effect in The Meatrix, the North American food production system is completely broken, perpetuated through "the lies we tell ourselves about where our food comes from."

The Farmers' Market partially sidesteps corporate agriculture and provides real demand to preserve local farms, which also helps to constrain sprawl. The Farmers' Market is the fulcrum of a local, self-sustaining economy whereas the mega-grocery store is merely the adjunct of a global, unsustainable economy - a notional market that has become detached from the physical reality out of which it first grew.

Environment Hamilton's Hamilton Eat Local Project (HELP) is an important step in re-creating market-places in the true, literal sense of the word and replacing the notional food "market" that spans continents on massive, destructive supply chains, fueled by cheap fossil energy and disdainful of local circumstances.

The globalized market is characterized by a dreary monotony amid a dizzying and ever-growing array of gaily decorated industrial products. The methodology of corporate food is built around bigness, standardization, value-add processing, and manipulative biochemistry. The wizards who design industrial food (like their counterparts on the marketing/advertising side of the business) make the most of science and technology to persuade more people to consume more product. Clearly, their methods are working.

By contrast, the methodology of local food is built around soil conditions, microclimate, and local culture. Local food is idiosyncratic and variable, not to mention fresh, ripe, and nutrient-rich. Food grown locally tastes better. Living closer to the market, growers can breed and cultivate for flavour rather than durability, pick their food ripe, and sell it the same day. Because the scale is smaller, local food is less processed.

Local food processing around here produces such items as fresh baked pies. The methods don't scale and the products don't endure, so corporations substitute industrial processes. However, what emerges from those processes is qualitatively, fundamentally different from the local products they aim to replace. Corporate food seeks always to reduce variation and force conformance. You simply cannot rationalize local food without destroying its essence.

That the Farmers' Market has survived at all in the face of grocery superstores is an achievement for Hamilton's humanity. It, and the additional food markets that dot the city, from the woman selling goods on the side of Highway 8 in Greensville to more established stores like Horn of Plenty, Picone's, and Goodness Me!, have managed to carve niches in an economy dominated by giants. While the stores have adopted many features of corporate food - organic junk food is still junk food - they also provide space for variety. There are, for example, more than three types of grain, but you would be hard-pressed to discover this if your knowledge of food is limited to the wheat, corn, and rice on offer at Fortinos.

Unfortunately, our built environment has been influenced for decades by our economy's monolithic structure, so that most developments built since the 1950s reflect the rationalism of the business models that produced them. Instead of communities where homes and businesses share space and where people cross paths, we have subdivisions, big box complexes, and business parks, all separated physically from each other and connected not by crossroads but by strip highways.

Where there are no crossroads, it will be very difficult to re-establish real markets. Perhaps some new kind of local market - some new kind of crossroads - will emerge that can connect the disparate components of suburbia into a human system that transcends the limitations of the built environment. Such an emergence may be our only hope to endure and re-form the schizophrenic, fragmented places we have created for ourselves.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By brodiec (registered) | Posted None at

I think it should be pointed out, for the record, that in my experience Picone's sells much of the National Grocer's produce. It's also worth recognizing that many local grocery chains sell a lot of local produce when it's in season. Similarly as long as people in Hamilton eat things like bananas in the winter those items will still be coming from places like Guatemala via the same routes that super markets get them. Regardless if you buy it from some boutique grocery store in Dundas or from Food Basics. I don't think I understand this concept of "spontaneous human systems" you talk about. I don't think these systems are any less detached than a Loblaws franchise in place like Canada where we have winter and much of our produce we enjoy is imported. That's not to diminish the importance of locally grown produce. However the snobbish attitude that boutique and market is somehow better is useless. Now if we could get only organic and locally grown produce into the hands of No Frills, Food Basics and Fortinos customers more readily I'd be listening a bit more intently.

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