The Hamilton Farmers’ Market – Long-time Player in the Local Food & Food Security Realms

BY Donna Lee Macdonald

Logo - Hamilton Farmers' Market

The Hamilton Farmers’ Market has been involved in the selling and trading of local food in downtown Hamilton since 1837. The Market is as old as the City itself and in 1883 the first civic building built in Hamilton housed the Market downstairs (where we get our food) and the Council upstairs (where we make our decisions to build our community). This isn’t unique to Hamilton – think historically of any forming community and the central food hub will most likely be built around the decision making mechanisms required for a community to stabilize and grow. For the first 50 years of the 20th century, the Hamilton Farmers’ Market was legendary across Canada, and indeed across North America, as the largest outdoor open air Market – bare none – in Canada. People travelled from far and wide to visit the outdoor Market – it was an attraction – and if you know a Hamiltonian over the age of 80 they may well remember as a child the huge open air Market before it was moved semi-indoors in the 1960’s into the parking garage on York.  Hamilton was, and continues to be, ideally geographically situated in the heart of the fruit and vegetable basket of western and southern Ontario and the size of the outdoor open air Market reflected the volume of the supply and demand food chain not only for families but for food businesses and trade agents as well. During this period before the invention and then widespread use of automotive transportation, there was also a secondary Market rumoured to be called the Midnight Market at the edge of the bay in Hamilton. The Midnight Market was where farmers and food trade agents would meet and do business at midnight and then travel back to their communities with their goods to set up stalls at dawn at Markets across southern and western Ontario. It is also rumoured that local food purchased by food agents at the Midnight Market would travel by barge during the night along the shore of Lake Ontario to arrive at dawn for the Market(s) in Toronto. This poetic image of barges traveling at night on Lake Ontario laden with local food to feed Toronto is very poignant and is inspiring to comprehend what our local food industry was and can be again. Essentially Hamilton was the first food terminal in the region.

astonishing specimen of architecture with spires and copper topped domes

Picture Farmer's Market - 001 (1)

On James Street, in 1895 the City received its new City Hall and shortly thereafter their Market Hall in 1898, an “astonishing specimen of architecture with spires and copper topped domes”ⁱ. Unfortunately the Market Hall perished in a fire in 1917 and makeshift shelters became permanent shelters in 1929. The open air Market continued to exist around these shelters until the tension became untenable between the Market’s trucks and stalls on the streets competing with the motorists of the City. Apparently it took eight years of debate by City Council to decide to move the Market off the streets and into a parking garage the City had built in 1958 at the corner of York and MacNab. One could imagine that the length and breadth of the review reflected the integral role the open air Market had in the City. Then at the end of the 1960’s with an ambitious urban renewal plan to build Jackson Square and the adjoining towers, the Market was moved again into its current location as an anchor tenant, alongside the Central Library. It is interesting to note that all of these activities and locations (the first civic building, the open air market, the market hall, the Market shelters, the move into the parking garage in 1958, the move into the current location in 1980) all took place within a few block radius of York Boulevard and James Street. It is also interesting to note that up until the mid-1980’s, the Market and arguably the heart of the city operated 3 days a week following an antiquated rhythm connected to local food production – prepare for Market (Monday) go to Market (Tuesday), prepare for Market (Wednesday) go to Market (Thursday), prepare for Market (Friday) go to Market Saturday – Sunday rest.

Picture Farmer's Market - 002 (1)

So…..where does that land us now with the downtown central Hamilton Farmers’ Market (HFM) and what about local food and food security? HFM continues to offer local food year round either directly from its farmer vendors or indirectly from food trade agents who purchase from farmers as it always has. HFM also responds to the supply and demand for international produce and food products that reflects the cultural diversity of our great City. HFM, our city’s central year round indoor Market, also studies other successful Markets and responds to customer needs as represented in the quality prepared foods now offered in the Market including premium products for the growing foodie community in Hamilton. HFM is many things: it is a famers’ market; a market of international food products. The Market also contributes to Food Security by offering various qualities of food as Markets always have and is now trending in food policies such as in France and in corporations such as Loblaws. Imperfect or diminishing produce still has nutritional value and by identifying and validating these products, we can significantly reduce food costs and food waste – two major components of assisting food security. This dynamic, of selling seconds, is a quality of Markets that also adds to the economic diversity – more choices for customers.

The core strengths of the Hamilton Farmers’ Market are both the quality of the food and the genuine relationships between the vendors, including farmers, and their customers

Picture Farmer's Market - 003

The core strengths of the Hamilton Farmers’ Market are both the quality of the food and the genuine relationships between the vendors, including farmers, and their customers. The Market continues to play a critical role in the community both as a food and a social hub. Some of my favourite aspects of the Market include hearing genuine conversations between customers and their favourite vendors and how people openly enjoy and celebrate food and eating in the Market.   As our technology based lives separate us from face to face interaction, and with the growing demand for quality local food, it is no surprise that Markets are experiencing a renaissance throughout North American communities.

Markets are a reflection of our humanity and how we want to stay connected.

We are at the beginning of a very exciting and long awaited great new chapter for the HFM with the Council appointed inaugural Board of Directors recently created to oversee the care and direction of the Market, a Board that includes vendors, community members and City Council. Interesting times ahead for the HFM as the Board listens to the public and creates a Market that works for everyone: farmers, vendors and the public.


Donna is the manager of Hamilton Farmers’ Market


Want more? Continue reading The Food Issue



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