Lansdowne Farmers’ Market – in the throes of survival once more

By Ali Ramezani

The life of a farmer is one of hard physical and emotional labour in the face of unpredictable forces of nature. It is a legendary battle against variable weather and hitherto unknown pests. Yet few of us urban dwellers who appreciate and seek fresh local produce in our urban farmers’ markets are aware of the extent to which city staff and local politicians can cause grief for our local farmers.

When I last reported on the Lansdowne Farmer’s Market for the Glebe Report in 2015, the market had just reopened. In 2013, seven years after it first opened, the market was forced to leave Lansdowne for two years because of the redevelopment there. During that time, the market successfully thrived in an alternative location in Ottawa South, where an entirely new customer base embraced it and where there was plenty of parking space for the vendors and for customers who came from neighbourhoods farther away. The market was contemplating staying there for good. That was not to be.

The city forced the market to return to an awkward location, with parking costs (not to mention parking space) to be factored in by customers as well as vendors. Amidst complaints from the farmers, city staff came up with a brilliant idea. Farmers were to load and unload their produce at Lansdowne, take their trucks to South Keys Mall several kilometres away, then travel to and from the market by bus.

Fast forward to the 2020 season. COVID-19 uncertainties have thrown a new wrench into the lives of our local farmers. Andy Terauds, a principal founding member of the Lansdowne Farmers’ Market, told me that he met with Ottawa Public Health staff, and they approved his safety and hygiene plan for reopening the market. The market would rearrange its layout and put in place crowd and queue management plans.

However, this was not good enough for the city staff. They are the same staff, by the way, that the city, less than a year ago, was planning to throw under the bus in the process of handing over the entire park to OSEG for free.

While all grocery, supermarkets and vegetable and fruit stores have been allowed to reopen, city staff are forcing the market (in an open-air location) to operate on a mostly curbside-pickup basis. Ironically, if the market was on private land – like the Kanata Farmers’ Market – it could run much like in previous years, albeit with more rigorous queue management.

An additional challenge is that farmers in Ontario, much like in the rest of Canada, rely on seasonal temporary foreign workers to help them with labour-intensive farm work. Terauds’ farm has been sponsoring three workers from St. Lucia regularly. Due to the current epidemic, everything from obtaining visas to making travel arrangements from the Caribbean has been badly delayed. The workers are not allowed on commercial planes and buses. As I write, arrangements are being made between the various administrations of the Caribbean islands to agree on the provision of a joint charter plane to transport workers to various airports in Canada. Terauds does not expect his workers until the end of June. This means much of the work has to be done by volunteer help until the seasonal workers arrive and complete their two-week quarantine. Needless to say, the additional costs associated with quarantine (lodging, food, lost wages) are borne by our local farmers.

Adding insult to injury, the city’s tough “curbside delivery” position means Terauds and his fellow farmers have to deal with new sets of problems, such as time lost to processing and packaging orders and managing delivery time slots for each online order. Terauds tells me that online orders for farm products are by nature fraught with miscommunication and misunderstanding. It’s equally lost on city staff and local politicians that as buyers of fresh farm products, our interactions with local farmers are substantially different from those with supermarkets. We do not purchase farm produce the same way we purchase goods in supermarkets.

In the meantime, City Council just approved an extravagant expansion of Ottawa’s urban boundary, meaning more farmland will be lost to development. Are these two policies – alienating and impoverishing local farmers and changing farming zones to favour big developers – a mere coincidence?

Ali Ramezani is a social policy analyst, mediator and member of two GCA committees. The views expressed here are his own.

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