Monday, 2 September 2013

St. Jacob's Market Fire


My Ukrainian cab driver and I chatted about business impacts after the so-called "storm of the century" the other month.  He had heavy cheeks and smelled like ten thousand cigarettes, and his chin's tendency toward the floor imparted a particularly somber appearance to his face.  "We have saying," on the subject of the natural world, "three things cannot be of our control: work, weather and women."  I chuckled for show, politeness, to say no, I've definitely never heard that before.

He continued: "All my life, these things I have heard.  I was married for 15 years, and whole time everyone around me collapse into divorce.  They tell me your time it is on its way.  I say: no, not me.  Then, one day, it happens.  My wife, she leaves me and I am here alone in this miserable world."

We pulled into the parking lot of my restaurant.

"Sorry to hear that," I said, pushing open the passenger door.

"My friend, what I am saying to you is this: I said to the world 'no, not me.'  I had need of humility.  If you say 'no, not me' then you will be humbled too."

"Thanks for the ride."  I tipped him a dollar fifty on a $13.50 fare.


This morning, sometime after breakfast but before cleaning up, I received a text message from my General Manager. "I'm so sorry to hear about the market... How is (farmer friend)?  Do you know if he is going to lose any selling days?  Let me know if there is anything we can do to help."

The message seemed cryptic to me, nonsensical but it augured poorly.  I told my partner about it, and she did a quick Google search.  News headlines read "Huge fire guts St. Jacobs Farmers' Market in Waterloo, Ont."

Frankly, I am in shock.  There are more uncertainties than certainties right now.  I'm unsure about future employment, although less concerned about that than I am about all of the people that this will undoubtedly affect.  Short term practical questions emerge, like "am I going to market on Thursday?" but the larger, more frightening questions loom.  Assuming we don't lose any market days, will the destruction of the main building damage business enough as to really fuck up sales between now and Christmas?  We are fortunate to have the support of many great regular customers, and I bet they will continue coming, but is that enough? 

I get cross with customers that try to nickle and dime us at our stand. The ones that ask "Can I take 3 for $2?" on items where that pricing doesn't make any sense.  Or the classic: "Knock $5 off of the price."  No sir, and go fuck yourself.  It isn't just random vitriol.  Questions like that just emphasize how little people know about the production of food. 

Consider your shitty home garden.  You've planted your seeds, put a bit of work into it, and had no results.  Your broccoli is bug food, you got 6 green beans all year, and your peppers are the size of peanuts.  One of the biggest problems with your garden is that you don't know what you are doing.  You don't have the time or labor to keep your fields cleared, keep the plants properly tended to.  If you have a green thumb you are more inclined to be sympathetic to the amount of work goes into growing vegetables.  You may have produced enough produce to be feed your family from your garden while the season lasts.

Scale the whole thing up.  Farmers grow quality food in quantity.  The farmer themselves work a minimum of 70 hours a week between April and December.  Between tending to their crops, communicating with other growers, going to auction, organizing their truck for market, going to market, organizing back at home, fixing what needs to be fixed and dealing with their own labour concerns, there is almost always a surplus of difficult work that needs to be done.  The more crops you add to the equation the greater the complexity of the operation.  Now you need auxiliary growers, you need skilled pickers, you need people to help with your market stall.

We are past the age of serfdom, so assume that all of the people in the above paragraph are making a reasonable wage.  The overhead of land, seed, equipment, labour, and market need to be covered before the farmer can even consider paying themselves.  Bad year?  Crop failure?  That doesn't mean all of that stuff wasn't paid for already.  Some dumbass gets California grown grocery store rejects from the Toronto Food Terminal and sells them for less than half your price down the aisle from you, lying and saying that its local and whatever else people want to hear, completely disturbing sales from some key item?  Maybe its just a bad day and you don't sell all of the fresh but perishable food you brought to market?

So now you want to "get deals."  Great.  Go bother a stall that doesn't have to survive winter on the strength of half a year's sales. 

What I'm trying to say, and maybe strayed from the point, is that I'm upset about the loss of the market building.  Whether you see it or not, there is a lot of hard work that goes into the food and artistry that you see sold there.  There are a lot of people that rely on that place for their livelihood, and a lot of people that rely on those people.   This happened at a terrible and critical time in the season and I just hope everyone can make ends meet.


  1. Oh shit. So how -is- business at the market?

  2. They've relocated a lot of the vendors, and provided complete listings for the ones that haven't returned. From our perspective the outside is still busy. We lost a bit of business the week after it happened, but since then its been busy as a mother. We still don't feel in the clear yet though. The colder months are coming. While its nice people don't mind wandering around shopping for produce. In November its mostly people that go to the building for their meats that pop out to the produce stalls almost as an afterthought. We'll see anyway.