Musings about our farm, organic farming, regional foods and markets.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Elizabeth Harris

It was the irrepressible Elizabeth Harris who gave me my big break as a certified organic grower all those years ago. Then as Vice President of Quinte Organic Farmers Co-operative, I approached Elizabeth to apply for the co-op to be a vendor at her flagship organic farmers market at Riverdale Farm in Cabbagetown, Toronto. She sized up what we offered – 12 small certified organic family farms pooling their produce to market direct to the customer – and had her doubts. She was used to allowing only single farms to join her family of vendors. But she sized me up too and found something she liked or trusted, so she said “OK but as long as you bring all the farmers in to sell at your stand through the season”. “Sure”, I promised, one foot in the door. It wasn’t to be, of course; only one or two farmers bothered to come in, but the first season was a roaring success for the co-op as a fledgling sales organization. I made sure we stayed otherwise on Elizabeth’s good side – as one had to – and, over several years, Elizabeth and I developed a wonderful mutual respect. I was awed by her tight control of the market, her fairness, discipline with slack vendors, her amazing vision in holding it all together and bringing people together. “Peter, I’d like you to meet Jamie Kennedy”; “Peter, can any of your farmers supply three bushels of romano beans for a dinner for 75 this Friday?”

She would often call up, tell me about the latest new vendors that she was excited to have visited. She had such respect for farmers and for food produced honestly and in a fresh way. And she would ask my opinion and advice.

Early on at market, I incurred her wrath. She had strong rules and enforced them. Vendors were not allowed to sell before the bell rang, right on 3pm. As I tried to sneak in a sale for a customer who was running off to work, a booming voice bellowed from the other side of the park: “Mr. Finch, the market opens at 3 o’clock, and not before!” Last year, running late in setting up, I upheld her rule, when an impending storm told her to ring the bell early. “No, that’s not fair; I’m not ready”, I pleaded. She agreed to wait, and for weeks after, she deferred to me to see if I was ready before ringing the bell. A softening maybe? I feel deep down that she truly respected her senior farmers, and I was lucky enough to have been in that number.

Elizabeth slipped away from us this week, succumbing to cancer, but her amazing energy, drive and spirit will remain with us as we try to honour her legacy and continue to provide for the table she set for us so passionately.  

It has been an honour and a privilege to know Elizabeth; hard to believe that she won’t be overseeing the action on a sunny opening day of market this Spring and that her voice won’t be greeting me across the park: “ Hi Peter, who do you have helping you today? I’d like to introduce you to… ”