GRAVENHURST - Mistakes were made.
Gravenhurst Farmers Market board president Barry Anderson, left, and board member Jim Carter say they are open to concerns from their vendors and the farming community.
Photo by Pamela Steel
Board members of the Gravenhurst Farmers Market made this admission after controversy erupted last week when a couple of area farmers were denied access to the popular seasonal market co-op.
This newspaper reported last week that Heather and Andy Johnson, owners of the Severn Sunset Eco farm, had been denied by the market, which sparked outrage and an online petition by local food activists.
But since that time, board members have admitted that they made a mistake denying the farmers and have extended a full invitation for them to join the market this season. Originally, the market had refused the Johnsons permission to sell fresh cut flowers on the grounds that there were already enough vendors of flowers.
“We’re not perfect,” admitted board president Barry Anderson. “We’re not computers … we’re an unpaid board of volunteers.”
Anderson, a reseller of fruits and vegetables purchased at the food terminal in Toronto, is a long-time vendor at the market.
The petition, “Allow local farmers to vend at Gravenhurst Farmers Market,” was started by market customer Melanie Van Pypen.
“This petition is a plea to the Gravenhurst Farmers Market board to allow all local farmers to join the market as a priority, and to sell without impedance, any and all products produced on their farms,” it states.
To see the full petition go to thepetitionsite.com/469/295/666/allow-local-farmers-to-vend-at-gravenhurst-farmers-market/.
By press time 291 people had signed it.
Anderson said of the 87 vendors at the market, 63 are from Muskoka and 47 are farmers or secondary producers.
Board member Jim Carter, a garlic farmer with a property on Falkenburg Road, said it is not the board’s policy to turn down local farmers. Carter characterized the board as “decent people trying to make decisions that are best for the market and for the farmers of Muskoka.”
“We’ve tried to promote local farmers,” he said. “Any local farmer can call the managers (of the market) and they would be welcomed … as long as there is space.”
Carter and Anderson told this newspaper that they were shocked by the petition, its allegations and the controversy that has erupted. However, they are taking steps to address the criticism.
They met with Kelly Ebbs, general manager of Savour Muskoka, for five hours on Thursday to get Savour Muskoka’s advice on the situation.
One suggestion from Ebbs was for the board to post their bylaws on their website in a step toward greater transparency to the community.
It’s a move Anderson said they plan to take.
Anderson was further baffled by suggestions that the board is not open to area farmers.
In order to become a member of the board, vendors must be co-op members – currently 52 of the 87 vendors are members, he said. Members are able to vote on co-op policy. He said to become a member vendors have to be a part of the market, in good standing, for three years.
“You can’t just show up in July and August,” said Carter.
After the three-year period, the current board decides if the vendor will be invited to become a voting member.
Both Anderson and Carter said they don’t know why people perceive the board to be intimidating, controlling or less than transparent. Anderson said if all vendors would show up for the spring and fall meetings, they would be more informed and would have the opportunity to express concerns. He also said any vendors can call and talk to board members at any time.
“Since I’ve been the president, for four years, meetings have been open to all vendors,” said Anderson.
Meanwhile, the dialogue between the board and the Johnsons has taken a positive turn.
“I understand, from a conversation with a board member, that the board is now interested in working towards becoming more transparent, and being more community involved, which is excellent,” said Heather. “I am hoping that they are able to move forward to accept all local farmers to sell all product produced on their farms without restriction. It is evident that the greater community is demanding that, and that the interest in local food and viable local food systems is really blossoming in our community – in fact, the demand exceeds the production. I will definitely rejoice loudly the day - whether now or five years from now – that occurs.”
Despite the call from people like food activist Katya Riley of Brooklands Farm in Milford Bay, and the hundreds of people who have signed the petition to allow local farmers to sell anything they produce, the board is sticking to their guns.
Anderson and Carter said they plan to continue the policy that does not allow several vendors to sell the same product. This does not apply to produce – if it’s grown in Muskoka, they say it’s welcome at the farm. It does however apply to what they call “secondary products,” like jams, honey and maple syrup.
“If we don’t have some kind of control, it’s going to be chaos,” said Carter. “If it opened right up the market would fall apart – it would just be junk.”
“It will become a flea market,” added Anderson.