Turmoil, eviction threats at farmers' market featured in CBC investigation of homegrown lies
'After that Marketplace episode, people were really concerned,' farmer says
Several local producers say they're facing expulsion from the Peterborough, Ont., farmers' market because of their campaign to increase transparency among fellow vendors, just months after a CBC Marketplace investigation revealed two vendors were not being upfront about the provenance of their fruits and veggies.
The group on the chopping block includes four produce farms and three artisans, who are also part of the campaign to stand up for local producers over resellers peddling wholesale goods from elsewhere.
Each was named in a notice sent out by the market's board of directors on Dec. 21, requesting that all members attend a Jan. 8 meeting to vote on a motion to evict the seven from their stands.
The special notice cites "disruptive behaviour," "making false and disparaging statements ... having a negative impact on the reputation of the market" and "actions that directly violate the Code of Ethics" as reasons for the move.
"It is completely shocking, what they are trying to do. We don't understand why they are trying to kick us out," said Julie Fleming, co-owner of Circle Organic, a 15-acre vegetable farm in nearby Millbrook.
She said no specific allegations from other vendors have been brought to her attention.
Her family-run operation generates about a third of its total annual income from selling at the Saturday farmers' market in Peterborough, located northeast of Toronto.
"It will be totally devastating," Fleming said of her possible eviction.
People want to know the truth. More than ever before, people want to know about their food.- Julie Fleming, co-owner of Circle Organic farm
Reached by telephone, the market's spokesperson and fellow vendor Mark Jones would only acknowledge that a meeting has been called and that the allegations will be aired at that point. He declined to comment on any specific details, citing privacy concerns. Jones repeated several times that no decisions have been finalized.
But Erin McLean, co-owner of the family-run McLean's Berry Farm, which cultivates a total of 287 acres of land and faces eviction from the market, says she feels like she's "backed into a corner."
"This our market, too," she said. "Farmers' markets are for farmers. We don't think we should have to leave or back down."
'People were really concerned'
In late September, a Marketplace investigation identified two vendors at the market making misleading claims that the produce they were selling was locally grown.
The investigation followed one vendor's truck to the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto, where staff loaded boxes of produce. At the Peterborough market the next day, the Marketplace team spotted what appeared to be those same boxes and watched as workers removed stickers and transferred vegetables from wholesale boxes to farm bushels.
"After that Marketplace episode, people were really concerned," said McLean, who emphasized the fact that the issues raised in the CBC report go back years and are at the root of long-running tensions between some vendors and the board of directors.
"We asked for these issues to be looked into and dealt with, and they just weren't," she said.
Late this past summer, about a dozen vendors at the market — including the seven vendors named in the special notice — opted to display banners at their stands to let consumers know that their offerings were harvested locally or made from products cultivated locally.
Similarly, about 18 months ago, the four farms and three artisan businesses co-signed a letter to the board asking that priority be given to certified local operations.
"All seven of us listed have been vocal in an effort to stand up for local farmers," Fleming said.
"People want to know the truth. More than ever before, people want to know about their food."
'Huge part of our community'
The group started an online petition calling for a review of the board's "actions and behaviour" and planned to hold a "rally for local food" Friday morning in Peterborough.
In the past, vendors frustrated with the market's management have splintered off, forming smaller markets of their own in towns surrounding Peterborough. McLean says that is not a viable option this time around.
"We want to save this market. It is very important to us. We want this market to thrive. It's a huge part of our business and it's a huge part of our community."
Both Fleming and McLean said that if the market's other vendors, including board members, vote to expel the seven vendors named in the motion, the group will call on the city — which owns the land where the market is held — to put out a request for proposals for a new use for the plot. The group's hope would be that it will still be used for a Saturday market, but that an entirely new board of directors would be chosen, they said.