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Village Market caters to organic and green tastes

On any given Saturday between 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Vaughan residents looking for a healthier and more neighbourly grocery-shopping alternative have the choice of buying organic, mostly local produce at Thornhill’s Toronto Waldorf School.

Started in 1991 as a fundraiser for the Bathurst St. school, the Village Market continues on as Vaughan’s sole farmers’ market. It operates year-round on the edge of the city.

“Although our primary thing is to be an organic farmers’ market where we provide an opportunity for people in our area to purchase food directly from the people who grow it, we also do provide educational opportunities for people to find out about alternative approaches to health,” market manager Richard Chomko said this week.

For many, the organic farming principles of avoiding chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are a back-to-basics, common sense approach of producing nutritious, tasteful foods without surprises or hidden health dangers.

“Eating organically is one of the simplest and most straightforward things that a person can do to improve their health,” Chomko said. “But it isn’t a complete answer – I mean, you can eat too many organic cookies.

“It isn’t a complete answer, but it is certainly a step.”

The push in recent years towards greener, healthier living and sustainable development has helped not only the growth of the Village Market, he said, but has brought organic produce into the mainstream.

“There’s been a proliferation of other places that have started to offer organic produce,” Chomko said. “You can now buy it at major supermarkets, although I would say that all these other places are typically not as fresh or their produce isn’t coming from as close to home as ours.”

With much of the produce on Vaughan’s supermarket shelves coming from thousands of kilometres away, green-conscious shoppers find themselves weighing the benefits against other considerations, such as the cost and pollution associated with transport.

Political problems associated with importing from other countries also enters the equation.

“We have a whole globalized infrastructure here and it’s becoming increasingly fragile and subject to political upheavals,” he said. “I’ve been told by farmers at our market that when you buy honey at the supermarket and it says Canada No. 1, actually only 7 percent of that honey needs to have come from Canada.

“The other part probably came from China, where apparently their standards of beekeeping aren’t particularly high.”

Farmers’ markets have been a fixture in Ontario since the first one opened in Kingston in 1780, but it’s been only in recent years that their numbers have exploded.

According to Farmers’ Markets Ontario, the province was home to only 60 markets in the late 1980s. Since then, the number has more than doubled, the Village Market being a part of the boom.

“The Ontario government has created a fund to promote the greenbelt,” Chomko said. “The administrators of that fund have channeled some of that money to support farmers’ markets.

“However, our farmers’ market doesn’t qualify for their grants because too few of our farmers come from within the greenbelt. Some of our farmers come from beyond the greenbelt. The consequence has been the greenbelt financing has prompted the creation of several new markets in the Toronto area.”

But despite the greenbelt money and the proliferation of farmers’ markets in the GTA, the Village Market on Vaughan’s eastern frontier remains the city’s sole outlet for local farmers and organic consumers.

There may even have been a casualty. Kleinburg’s market failed to attract enough volunteers to get off the ground this summer, Kleinburg BIA chair Geri Harper says.

“I don’t have an (explanation),” Chomko said. “I could say that the people in Vaughan are all happy shopping at our market and those who do market research find that there isn’t an opening for any other markets, but I think that would be a frivolous answer.”

The wave of development that continues to sweep across Vaughan has both introduced potential new customers for the Village Market and washed away much of what was once a rich agricultural zone. None of the produce sold at the market originates within city limits.

“I think the cost of property in Vaughan is prohibitive for agriculture on the whole,” he said. “Our closest main farmer comes from Uxbridge, which is about an hour away.”

The lack of any Vaughan growers at his market doesn’t particularly trouble Chomko, however, putting the question of whether organic produce is more important than where it comes from into perspective.

“Some people think that local is more important than organic, but I ask how many people would like to live across the street from a chemically based farm where there’s a lot of spraying going on and those sprays are drifting, where animals are kept in highly confined areas and where they create a lot of ground water pollution,” he said. “I think local is important, but I don’t think it should overshadow the importance of organic.”

But the Village Market does pride itself on helping local growers, particularly during the lean winter months.

“Something unusual about our market is that it is a year-round market,” he said. “So that means that we are able to provide financial support for farmers in the area all year round.

“It’s grown from being just a hope some people had that it could be a market for people to come buy organic produce to being economically viable.”

Vaughan Today 
Friday, August 10, 2007 
Page: 11
Byline: Philip Alves