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Monday, January 26, 2015

The End of the Riverdale Road

Riverdale Farmers Market in happier days - with myself, Didi Curry, Peter Southward, and some of our lovely regular customers

The Riverdale Farmers Market has reached the end of its life. The City of Toronto that has managed the weekly summer Tuesday farmers market in recent years has decided to close up shop. No surprise really, after recent seasons of dwindling attendance from both vendors and public. But sad, nonetheless.

In its heyday, the market was jam-packed with a motley array of organic farmers and enthusiastic Cabbagetowners. We were all under the charge of the effervescent Elizabeth Harris who founded the market and oversaw it with humour, verve, commitment, community spirit, discipline, and drive.

I wrote about the experience in my book, High Up in the Rolling Hills:
It was the irrepressible Elizabeth Harris who had given 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 she voiced 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, “Okay, but only as long as you bring all the farmers in to sell at your stand through the season.” “Sure,” I promised having gotten a foot in the door. It wasn’t to be, of course; only one or two farmers bothered to come in at all, but the first season was a roaring success for the co-op as a fledgling sales organization. I made sure we stayed 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, her 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 seventy-five this Friday?”

She would often call up and 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 at 3:00 p.m. As I tried to sneak in a sale for a customer who was running off to work, a booming voice bellowed out from the other side of the park: “Mr. Finch, the market opens at three o’clock, and not before!” Last year, held up in traffic and running late in setting up, I upheld her rule when an impending storm told her to ring the bell early. “No, Elizabeth, 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, succumbing to cancer, but her amazing energy, drive and spirit would remain with us as we tried to honour her legacy and continued to provide for the table she set for us so passionately. It had been an honour and a privilege to know her; hard to believe that she wouldn’t be shuffling along on a glorious spring afternoon on opening day of market in May and that her voice wouldn’t be greeting me across the park: “Peter, who do you have helping you today? I’d like to introduce you to …”

Elizabeth is now gone, as is Didi Curry, the defunct Quinte Organic Farmers Co-operative, and now Riverdale Farmers Market. I still miss Elizabeth, and it was for her that I kept Rolling Hills Organics selling at Riverdale under the very last day in mid-October last year, 2014. We were down to just four vendors on that day which turned out to be the final market, valiant to the bitter end.  

Thank you to all you lovely customers who also kept me coming in. This upcoming season, I am hoping you will find me, Rolling Hills Organics and our salad greens, herbs (and much more besides) instead on Wednesday afternoons at Fairmount Park Farm Market at Coxwell & Gerrard.... and of course at Evergreen Brick Works on Saturday mornings most of the year.

November 2015 update: Riverdale Farmers Market was resurrected in the summer of 2015 as Cabbagetown Farmers Market, running on Tuesday afternoons as before. I am delighted to hear from both vendors and customers that it was a successful well-attended season. The spirit of Elizabeth Harris lives on!