The ‘Mennonite Toronto’ hosts three auctions a week with a lot of guys named Martin
If you’ve spent any length of time in the realm of those trying to reinvent “local food,” you’ve probably heard a whole lot of talk, and seen very few pounds of food changing hands. At best, you might find yourself at a carefree farmers market a few hours a week. At worst, you might find yourself with invoices tied up with insolvent flights of fancy.
“Access social media!” “Create buzz!”
It all sounds great, but it’s actually very difficult to get traction in alternative food marketing.
It’s both fitting and ironic that the group which has succeeded most in this area has done so with a minimum of talk, and nothing but quiet and concerted action. The plain folk of Waterloo have never wanted to draw attention to themselves, but their creativity and long-term investment in the viability of their small family farms speaks for itself. There are many examples of this, but what I want to shine a light on here is the Elmira Produce Auction Cooperative (EPAC).
When you think of farm auctions, what comes to mind might be the weekly sales barn, the equipment auction, or estate sale. EPAC could be considered much more humble: where skids of squash, bushels of apples and bags of carrots are sold to the highest bidder at a machine gun pace. On the northern outskirts of Elmira (“the Mennonite Toronto”), the sale operates three days a week during the growing season, and on Wednesdays during the cold months.
In operation for 19 years, Emmanuel Gingrich (a founder and current co-operative board member) explains that the business developed as a reaction to the collapse in cattle markets during the Mad Cow crisis of the early 2000s. “It’s still a relatively small percentage of our community that takes advantage of the sale,” he said.
The Waterloo Mennonites are not traditionally horticulturists proper – rather having been known for their expert animal husbandry. And so, while the Old Order is very orthodox, they are not afraid to adapt – or share: the auction is open to everyone.
The commerce that this auction generates is remarkable. With over 25,000 sq. ft. of sales space, the facility cannot hold it all, and the auction flows into the parking lot (complete with horse and buggy stalls) at the peak of the season. Fleets of straight trucks line loading bays at the back of the building. Daryl Shantz quietly moves through the auction with a laser-like focus. He’s the floor manager and responsible for the smooth execution of the sale. Somehow, he makes his job look easy; seeing that the dizzying array of produce is all accounted for when hundreds of lots are sold in a handful of hours. “There’s always a box of something left at the end of the day,” he chuckles. The volume and variety are incredible, but as a produce grower I was most struck by the quality on display.
A lot of this comes down to good earth. Mennonites first wandered inland up to what is now Waterloo Regional Municipality from Pennsylvania in the year 1800, before formal settlement had even begun. They were looking for good land, and followed the trail of the black walnut: a tree whose presence indicates deep, well drained, calcium rich soil. These were men of vision: they could see their descendants’ prosperous farms in the midst of the primeval forest. They staked their claims, and in 1804 formed the German Company, and in 1805 bought 60,000 acres of land in Waterloo Township. Quickly thereafter, more arrived and settled in much of neighbouring Woolwich Township where the Elmira auction now takes place.
As the 1971 Soil Survey notes, “The fertility of Waterloo County soils has been maintained by the generous use of fertilizers and manures from the time of the first settlers.”
Growing legumes, rotating crops, and applying lime were already standard practise in pioneer times for these advanced farmers, whose abundant crops hung on the fertility generated by the careful and intensive cultivation of livestock. The saying goes Kein Futter— Kein Vieh; Kein Veih—Kein Dung; Kein Dung—Kein Ertrag. (No feed—no cow; no cow—no manure; no manure —no profit).
And so, when the time came to plough down some alfalfa to grow vegetables, there was 200 years of soil building already built into it; which helps explain the gigantic and gorgeous crops on the block at this auction.
The competitive nature of the auction creates a positive feedback loop for the sale and drives the incredible quality. Excellent produce attracts buyers, more buyers mean better prices, strong prices attract more growers… Now to add another layer to things: there’s a whole matter of relationships and consistency.
“You only screw someone once here!” Scott Struyk exclaims. He’s a regular at the sale, with an on-farm store and pick-your-own operation in Troy, Ontario. The auction is only a part of his farm’s cash flow, but a significant one. He finds the prices strong, often approaching retail on good days.
For some growers, the auction is their one and only market. Growing about three acres of strawberries, and 12 acres of beets and carrots, Maynard Martin streamlined his farm to accommodate his calling to the ministry, and sells entirely through the auction now, coming to nearly every single sale. He figures between the different grades of carrots, his yearly average price for the crop is a bit over 40 cents per pound: a price you can make a living at.
Other growers market primarily at the auction, but also purchase there to round out their other ventures. Mervin Martin (yes, half the people here are named Martin) focuses on growing a handful of crops at scale and takes advantage of the auction to satisfy customers at his on-farm store, the Elora Farmer’s Market and his wholesale clientele.
You’d be surprised by the eclectic mix of buyers: ethnic and specialty shops from the GTA, independent grocers, restaurants, institutions, and even chain stores. Matt Poirrier owns the local Foodland: “We’ve got a lot more leeway than a lot of grocers when it comes to buying.” Most franchisees are held to a strict fidelity agreement, where generally only two to three per cent of their inventory is allowed to come from outside the corporate warehouse system. “Sobey’s has thrown that out the window for Elmira: a lot of the people in this room shop at our store and they want to know where things come from.”
It was Dwayne Brubacher, at Irrigation Plus, who first told me I absolutely must witness the auction. I deal with him as a vegetable farmer: his company supplies the endless bits of plastic and steel modern growers rely on. Irrigation Plus represents one branch of an entire economic ecosystem that has sprung up around EPAC and a great example of what a creative force the auction has become after nearly two decades of operation. It’s remarkable because it’s real and it works, it’s practical and profitable: it’s not some sort of verbose feel-good exercise. When I ask Emmanuel what he enjoys most about the auction, he laughs in my face: “Well I don’t see what ‘enjoyment’ has to do with it. You get a cheque every week… It sometimes might not be as big as you hope, but you get a cheque!”
As the crow flies, the Elmira Produce Auction is only 95 kilometres from Bay Street, but it feels like you’re in another dimension. In the shadow of crass consumerism and corporate monoculture, the auction is home to a human scaled, decentralized free market that actually delivers for all parties. Millions of dollars and even more millions of pounds of food change hands at this gem, and goes to prove that parallel institutions outside of the status quo can indeed thrive.
The secret ingredient to their sauce appears to be good ground, humble hard work, and the grace of God.
Charles Summers owns Salt of the Earth Farm, a direct-to-consumer operation selling vegetables at the roadside, near Lyndhurst, in Eastern Ontario.