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Spring Gillard
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Addicted to Farmers’ Markets

Just back from the Okanagan. I spent nearly two weeks of the summer “at home”. I still call it that because my folks and now both my brothers live there, as well as my adorable, precocious five-year old nephew. It was a fruitful time. Although it is now clear that I am certifiably addicted to farmers’ markets.

One evening on the patio, I had a somewhat heated discussion with my brother about farmers’ markets. He said they were a rip off. The prices too high. The selection crappy. And that a lot of the food must go to waste because he claimed, there was a lot left over on the one and only day, early in the season that he went there looking for apricots. Even my parents chimed in saying the vendors would sell out if they dropped their prices. Turncoats. The same people who had to drive all the way down to Vancouver and sell their fruit off the back of a truck in the Mac & Blo parking lot just to get a decent price.

So I leaped atop my bushel basket and began preaching to the treetops about “the real cost of food” and how we have to support local farmers, and how they deserve to make a fair living like the rest of us. By buying local, I argued, we help to strengthen the local food economy and increase our food self-reliance and decrease our dependence on food imports. Needless to say, there were no conversions that day. My family was by now immune to my rants.

A couple days later, and almost by accident, my brother and nephew accompanied me to the Penticton Farmers Market. This is now my favourite market of all time. Trout Lake Market in Van is a close second. I was in heaven, flitting from booth to booth, in awe of the colourful and bountiful selection, chatting happily with the farmers. My nephew was happy to flit alongside me too because we had stopped first to have his face painted. He was now a spectacular dragon fly.

As I shoved my purchases into my bag, we kept running into people we knew. A couple old flames, some childhood pals, friends of my parents, former neighbours, the local chiropractor and naturopath, even holidaying colleagues from Vancouver. You could not just whip in and out of this market. Socializing was an important ingredient in this shopping experience; the Penticton market was now the place to be and be seen.

Meanwhile, my brother was thoroughly enjoying himself too. Beaming from ear to corn ear, he was loading up shopping bags as fast as I was. I kept snapping photos of him as he charmed the local farmers. Evidence. If only I’d had a tape recorder as he exclaimed about the good prices and the plentiful displays. Still I knew his conversion was tenuous.

While I was in Penticton, I had coffee with Eva Durance, a local author, landscape designer and native plant specialist (Cultivating the Wild, Gardening with Native Plants of BC’s Southern Interior and Eastern Washington, Nature Guides BC, 2009*). She helped to set up this farmers’ market; the first one was held in July 1990 in a parking lot south of Gyro Park, and then moved into the park itself for a few years. Now they occupy the 100 block of Main Street. Eva tells me it was local seniors who helped to keep the market running in those early years.

“They only bought small amounts,” she said, “but they came every Saturday.” The Safeway store down that end of town had been closed. There was no other grocery store for miles.

There were a lot of naysayers back then, but now that it is an enormous success, the crafters have moved in in full force. They take up another whole city block before you even get to the farmers’ market. And brother dear, if there are any leftovers, the farmers donate the produce to the local food bank. Yes, there’s a need for a food bank even in this small resort town.

The second time I went to the market I was with a girlfriend and we had to take one load to the car. She was caught up in market fever too. When we got to her house and she began to put stuff in her fridge, she asked, “Why in the world did I buy a dozen corn?” It’s just the two of them now that the three kids are off to university. “Because I did?” I laughed.

That wasn’t the only duplicate purchase we made that day. We stepped up to one booth just as the farmer was telling people how to cook water spinach. “Remove the stems and cook them first, then the leaves,” he said. He had an array of interesting Asian veggies. We also both bought fingerling potatoes, coronation grapes, yellow watermelon (I don’t even like watermelon, but I loved this one!). Kohlrabi. Small bright orange squash shaped like little crowns. Beets with leafy green tops. Handfuls of multi-coloured cherry tomatoes and baby peppers to pop right on the grill. And well, there was more as you will hear.

The night before my talk up in Kelowna (See Talking Food Security in Kelowna, August 26), I made dinner. My brother and nephew were there. I tried to get my nephew engaged in the whole local food frenzy.

“Look Dragonfly, this is everything we bought at the market,” I said. “And I’m making ratatouille. Just like the movie.”

He didn’t bite. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Undaunted, I mixed everything together, the glossy black eggplant, luminous crimson onions, a giant zucchini from the neighbour’s garden, pale yellow, fragrant peppers, some fresh garlic and basil, and a jar of my mom’s canned (local) tomatoes. I also threw in deep purple beans that turn green when you cook them. It was beautiful and delicious on a bed of brown rice. Or at least I thought so.

“Blech,” said my nephew, barely tasting it. Then he paused and looked up at me. “But when I grow up, I will like it a lot and I will be eating a lot of it.” A charmer, just like his Dad.

“I hope so,” I said. Meaning more that I hoped you could still buy local food when he grew up. That we hadn’t paved over the entire Agricultural Land Reserve by then. But I bit my tongue and spared them all the lecture. My Dad, the original charmer, had two helpings.

I went to another farmers’ market in Kelowna before my talk and bought peaches, golden plums, more grapes, apples, and another squash. My mother was going to kill me. Her two fridges were already stuffed.

We had a good turn out for my talk.  Well half the room was related to me, but never mind that. My often loud and vocal brother had promised not to heckle me and he kept his word. On the drive home afterwards, he said, “Now I finally know what you do for a living.” “Well, can you explain it to Dad so he stops sending me those job ads?” I pleaded.

“So there’s only three days of groceries on the store shelves at any one time? That’s scary,” my brother said and then went quiet. After a few minutes, he said, “Too bad my Summerland development is so hilly or we could put some community gardens in there.” “You still could, you’d just have to terrace them,” I said. Promising, promising. It was a good evening all around with many local connections made, but that’s a whole other story.

The weekend before I left, we went to Matheson Creek, a straw bale fruit stand and farm not far from my parents place. I bought raspberries for my little dragonfly, apples and small silverskin onions. Between what I was bringing home and what the neighbour was dropping off on the doorstep, my mom was forced to do some pickling. I helped out and got to tuck a couple small jars of mustard pickles and bread and butters into my suitcase.

On the way back to Van, my friend’s car already stuffed to the rafters with my bags of produce, we stopped at a couple other fruit stands in Keremeos (Sanderson’s and Mariposa). I was jonesing for more eggplant and peppers and one of those little yellow watermelons. Oh and some Summerland Sweets syrups (a blackberry/raspberry combo and a black currant), they make great hostess gifts. Somebody stop me!

I was circling the 40-pound boxes of canning tomatoes. “Ten bucks,” I said to my friend with a crazed look in my eye. That’s twenty-five cents a pound. Look at them they’re gorgeous!” I reached for the box, hands shaking. Thankfully my friend staged an intervention.

“There’s no more room in the car,” he said. “And since when do you can?”

Note to self: Buy canning equipment on return. This is getting to be an expensive habit. Might need to get a real job to support it.

 

*To order Eva’s book, email edurance@vip.net. Also available at Art Knapp’s in Penticton.

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