Jacqueline Johnson and her husband Howard have been vendors at the Guelph Farmers' Market for 45 years. Their stall is Farm Fresh Market and this is their story
We’ve been vendors at the Guelph Farmer’s Market for almost 45 years. Market gives rhythm to our lives.
The beat starts in January when we wonder when that seed catalogue from Stokes will arrive. It’s a slow intermittent beat. Winter deepens, As February freezes our doors shut and we chip away the ice, one of us now wonders where we put the catalogue while the other can’t remember if it ever came.
In March and April, the beat grows stronger. We have to get the seed order in. It’s already late. The catalogue now sits well thumbed on the back of the toilet.
It’s always a Sunday afternoon when the pressure gets to us and Howard takes out his calculator, grabs the catalogue and begins the order. I coach from my chair next to the woodstove. Howard is on the outlook for new varieties or something to replace those that Stokes has discontinued. I’m just concerned he orders the Royalty Beans. They’re the shelf-talker that sells the green and yellow beans. With that order in, we place our order with Trout Lily for heritage tomato and pepper plants. Then we split a bottle of wine and breathe.
In May and June, the garden begins. There‘s a steady rhythm to the work. Howard prepares the soil, fences out the rabbits and deer and plants the seeds that he pulls from a huge cardboard box plastered with Canada Post labels. The days are filled with farm work.
Sometime in June, we start at market. If it’s a wet spring, we start with lots of spinach. If it’s dry, we start with what spinach there is. The first two weeks are always slow.
By July, the rhythm is staccato. Pick on Friday, sell on Saturday, collapse on Sunday, do the gardening Monday through Thursday.
Saturdays are when it all comes together – I display our produce in big baskets – all shapes and sizes. I create a sense of abundance which isn’t hard when you arrive downtown with a truck filled with – peas, lettuce, beans, tomatoes. I love that the colours always go together, the purple beans go perfectly with the deep green of Romaine, and the yellow beans spill out of their baskets mingling with Swiss Chard or beets or just drawing attention to the green beans beside them.
“You have a wonderful sense of colour, dear, “ the old ladies tell me. I take credit but none is due except I know enough to use wood and wicker instead of plastic.
At market, there are customers, I watch the ones who feast with their eyes – they think fun and shop quickly – the sale is done and it’s delicious. I watch the lovers who care less about the food than the excuse to be with each other. I watch the families there on an outing. I show them our purple beans and tell them they are magic because they turn green when you cook them. When they leave, after they have taught their children to count the change and say thank you, I ask them what colour they think the water turns and refuse to tell them the answer because its part of the magic.
Our market customers come for vegetables, but they want them served up fresh. They like them filled with nutrition, with perhaps a little added advice. They want value and they want us to know them as people.
It’s odd how intimate the contact feels. When you sell food, you are part of the reality of people’s lives.
I’m not sure how to describe the rhythm of the market, the beat. – and I’m not sure I really ever knew it was there until the pandemic. It’s not that the Pandemic is a bad time. Market is not just fun and games. There are bad growing seasons. There are lots of days when the vendors arrive braving torrential rains that keep the customers home. There are renovations planned and otherwise. There are days when vendors fight tooth and nail for the stall they’ve had forever (Forever meaning any time from 10 years to two weeks). Vendors and customers both come and go.
The Spanish Flu didn’t close the Guelph Farmers' Market. The pandemic almost did.
For us, the pandemic didn’t disrupt what we did in winter, but it disrupted our dreams and memories..
We ordered our seeds, but there wasn’t the excitement. I stopped mid-sentence when I reminded Howard to make sure to order lots of purple beans. I didn’t know if we needed them for display. We bought a new rototiller, but our excitement and dreams of bumper crops were tempered by the reality of lockdown with its nagging question of how without a market, we’d be able to sell anything at all.
Howard was onto the impact of the pandemic early.: "We have to get a website,“ he said. "I’ll call Fred.”
Fred is web guru guy. The next thing I knew we were meeting remotely with Fred and he had us salivating over the website that would put our vegetables in your kitchen – and he immediately got to work.
Howard hit the ground. By the beginning of May, he was ploughing and tilling and planting. He’d come in sweating and smiling about the bumper crop he was in the process of overseeing. God seemed to be keen on a bumper crop too. The weather was perfect.
The one who wasn’t coping well was me. I’ m the extrovert in our family. An extrovert in a pandemic is like a heart that’s defibrillating. I couldn’t master the technology fast enough. I didn’t want to either. I wanted market. I wanted to be with people. I wanted to watch the people with the crazy haircuts and make the grumpy ladies and old men smile. You can’t do that on social media.
I had to learn Twitter and Instagram and they had passwords. The only password I ever needed at market is “ Hi,“
Meanwhile the crop was bumpering as spinach and the peas were about to explode .
Our neighbour made us a roadside stall. It’s portable. We dragged it to the side of the road on Silvercreek. The traffic is heavy and fast and our spinach was amazing. But it takes time to convince people to stop, especially when they are cruising past you at 80 – 100 km/h.
I felt like I needed a pacemaker. In social media you have to establish an identity, but no one tells you that in the process, you lose the one you have. We changed the name of the farm to Farm Fresh Guelph because there is another better known Mapleridge Farm up the road selling turkeys and eggs.
At market, it doesn’t matter what your name is, you are what your customers know you for. Howard and I are the Bean People, I’m the Zucchini lady, we are the Pea People. I could never remember whether our new name was Farm Fresh or Farmfresh.
My daughter suggested we rename the farm, “Really Bad at Social Media Farm.” I’d have taken her up on it except I knew Fred would kill me or more to the point (given social distancing requirements), he is the only one who knows all the passwords.
In the midst of all of this, there was the Guelph Farmers' Market.
The city was working to get some semblance of a market back and running.
It encouraged our efforts to create a website, and joined the Open Food Network. This is an exciting initiative that helps small operators work as a kind of online co-operative. Or at least I thought it was exciting until I found out that I had to learn how to accept credit cards. My idea of money management is to wear an apron with four big pockets and hand Howard every 20 dollar bill.
I found the prospect of accepting credit cards heart-stopping, which effectively disrupts rhythm. We got connected on Square after just three weeks of repeated attempts. I guess that’s what people mean when they say its really easy.
Still, there was something about the idea of the market reopening. There was something about the diligence of the city, something about how Vince, the market manager contacted all of us. “ Won’t be perfect” he said. The city sent out emails updating us weekly. It would be an outdoor market.
We’ve never sold outside. We’ve always been right by the door. We have Gord Laidlaw’s Apple stall in the summer months. I sometimes have bad market dreams where our stall has been changed, and nobody can find our stall, not even me. Howard is the man of action. He saw that email and 15 minutes later, we were in Canadian Tire, masks pulled tight checking out our new 8-by-10 tent .
It was Friday, July 3. We had another email . It said we couldn’t chat with our customers, minimize contact. They had to point at what they wanted. Absolutely no sampling.
tried on my new face shield. I looked like a bee keeper. Then we went outside to pick. It was a bumper crop. We were in the field from seven 'till five. Snow peas, sugar snap peas, spinach. We had no idea if any of it would sell. What if no one came?
I didn’t sleep, but 5:30 still came early. Nothing new about that. Nothing new about an extra half hour duking it out with the mosquitos for a few baskets of lettuce before we rolled off down the lane.
I could feel the energy of the market before we hit the gate, but it was a brittle energy. We were all scared, and we noticed early that so many vendors, so many who make the market like Tim and Marianne Kenney, and vendors who aren’t growers like Thatchers and all the cheese people weren’t there. How do you be at the market without them?
We learned how to pitch our new tent. We set up the stand. There were customers waiting. Vince did a countdown. I looked up and there was a short man in a blue shirt. I didn’t recognize him. He pointed to our peas.
“I’ll have one,“ he said. “How much?” I reply "five dollars.” He hands me a bill. I take it and put it in my apron.
I squirt some cleanser on my hands, and hear another voice, “sugar snap peas – ahhh.“ I can’t see her mouth, but I know she’s one who feasts with her eyes. She takes two and hands me exact change. I clap my hands and think, "take that Square’.
I’m watching people now.
“Nice mask,“ I say. I’m looking for crazy masks. A regular from forever ago stops with her grandchild. The child hands me $10. I count back the change, she thanks me and her Grandmother asks “when are beans coming in?”
I take a breath, something has changed. I take another breath and another and I feel my heart beating with the rhythm of the Guelph Farmers' Market....