Tumult at Peterborough farmers' market pitting 'friends against friends' as more vendors speak out

As vendors at the Peterborough farmers' market prepare for a contentious vote to potentially evict seven members, some sellers are speaking out against what they have characterized as a deliberate campaign to undermine the market's reputation.

'We all want transparency. But we don’t want to publicly humiliate people,' said one vendor

Farmers who are among the group of seven businesses facing eviction from the market said they have been pushing for more transparency around food sourcing for nearly a decade without results. (CBC)

As vendors at the Peterborough farmers' market prepare for a contentious vote to potentially evict seven members, some sellers are speaking out against what they have characterized as a deliberate campaign to undermine the market's reputation in recent months.

Monday night's vote is the culmination of years of internal tumult at the popular destination, a favourite summer stop for travellers passing through cottage country.

It will be just the latest battle in what has been described by sources as a bitter and at times litigious struggle for control over how the market is run.

A complaint brought forth in December and co-signed by 16 sellers accuses seven fellow vendors — four produce farms and three artisans — of "disruptive behaviour," "making false and disparaging statements" and "actions that directly violate the Code of Ethics."

CBC Toronto previously reported that the seven vendors were caught off guard by the move. Owners of two of the farms up for eviction said that they became targets of animosity due to their vocal effort to increase transparency at the market.

Others, however, say that the battle over locally grown food is in fact a proxy for deeper divisions that have fractured the market and broader community, pitting "friends against friends" in places like online message boards.

"This is not an issue about local food," said Wade Mahood, whose wife Aryn owns Sweet Song Herbals. The pair have been selling wares at the market for about 10 years.

"In the last 12 months or so, there's been a campaign in the media to undermine the market in the eyes of the public, who are our customers," he said, adding that he intends to speak at Monday's meeting.

"At some point, as vendors too, we had to stand up and say, 'You know what? We're tired of this.'"

'Don't burn down the house'

Mahood said that beginning in the spring of 2017, some of those within the group of seven vendors now facing eviction began publicly targeting the board of directors in an attempt to portray the internal workings of the market so chaotic as to render it "ungovernable."

Indeed, representatives from two of the farms told CBC Toronto that, ultimately, they want the board to be dissolved. The city, which owns the land and facility where the market is held each Saturday, could then open the lease to new proposals — presenting an opportunity for a different organization to take over governance of the market itself.

The farmers' said it is because the current board has ignored calls dating as far back as 2008 for more transparency among sellers, and in some cases given preferential treatment to vendors who are reselling produce bought elsewhere in the province.

Mahood agreed that more transparency is necessary, but said the issue has been used to disguise a push for more control of the market.

"There are at least 20 other vendors who are local food producers who are not on their side in this," he said.

"You don't burn down the house and then try and rebuild it."

According to Aryn, many market members have privately expressed a willingness to improve transparency around food sourcing. Problems have arisen, she said, from the tactics being employed by some of those facing eviction, including legal threats.

"They want their own market here, they don't want to work with us," she said. "We all want transparency. But we don't want to publicly humiliate people."

'Hostile takeover'

Yvonne Mark owns a 12-acre farm in Douro-Dummer, where she cultivates an orchard of fruit trees and also grows elderberry. A former board member, she equated the alleged campaign to discredit the board of directors with a "hostile takeover.

"I'm talking about many, many, many visits and letters to the city, condemning the board over and over and over again. Calling us immoral, liars — using descriptors like 'devious.'"

In an interview with CBC Toronto, Mark said that the current environment at the market has left some farmers "terrified" to speak out.

"I want peace at our market again," she added.

Last week, the Peterborough Regional Farmers' Network — a group that "supports the needs, interests and ideas of farmers'" in the area — made a public offer to take over governance of the market.

Neil Hamman, president of the PRFN, said it would allow an arm's length organization to make critical decisions that affect people's livelihoods without any potential conflicts of interest.

"Trust is lost at the market. How are they going to get it back? They can't even stop fighting among themselves," he said.

Monday's meeting is set to begin at 7 p.m. and is closed to the public.


Lucas Powers

Senior Writer

Lucas Powers is a Toronto-based reporter and writer. He's reported for CBC News from across Canada. Have a story to tell? Email any time.