In the Heart of Farm Country
Johnson Farmers’ Market in Desbarats, Ontario (pronounced “Debra”) is a relatively new market, but it has made a big impact in the community in the short time it’s been in operation.
Deemed a destination market, it was founded in 2007. Market Manager Edith Orr said that when they started the market, “the first order of business was to educate people on where Desbarats was!”
Today, the market is a busy, bustling farmers’ market in the heart of the farming country in pretty Johnson Township, which is an easy 30-minute drive east of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, just off Hwy 17 East. It started out under a prospector’s tent and now there is a permanently covered structure. Edith pointed out that “the market provides the cover and the tables for their vendors so that they can use the room in their vehicles, whether a buggy or truck, to bring in as much product as they can for customers.”
I met up with Edith on a busy Saturday market morning recently. She is a retired elementary school teacher and principal, who has been very active in the community not only through her work with the farmers’ market but as part of the Central Algoma Fresh Water Coalition. Her roots are in the agricultural community, where she and her husband raised their children on a 600-acre farm.
The Johnson Farmers’ Market vendors come directly from the community surrounding the market. They’re Old Order Mennonites, traditional farmers, and young, upcoming farmers too. They offer products that are grown, raised, and produced with the noted and posted priority as follows: from the community, Northern Ontario and Ontario at large. This ensures customers that what they are buying is as authentic to the area as possible, and freshness is measured in hours. “What you’re buying today was picked this morning directly on the farms of those vendors,” said Edith.
There are even more vendors inside the arena with baked goods and much more. There’s Cheryl’s Café too, where shoppers can enjoy a snack or stop for a delicious lunch.
Edith is an enthusiastic manager who is always looking for opportunities to expand, partner, and work with the greater community. She considers the market a gathering place, always striving for satisfied customers, offering diversity, and acts as an agent for vendors. “Everyone works together at this market—we are family,” she says. An example of customer service was a demand for eggs. Recently, eggs were not available at the market, so the community banded together and invested in an egg grading station. With this in place, eggs can now be legally sold at the market.
The “Under the Tent” is where new entrepreneurs, or fresh and new businesses and artisans have a place to try out their products with the buying public. They can showcase their products and customers can sample without needing to commit to a full season. Other events include the Summertime Christmas Market.
With an understanding of the power of community and connecting, Edith makes sure that there is a well-stocked traveller’s resource kiosk available at the market. They have connected with the Bruce Mines & District Chamber of Commerce and direct people to area attractions—“if you can convince people to stay in the area beyond the weekend, we have lots to offer”, she says. “We can’t do it individually, but collectively we can.”
Many vendors in the market have lots of knowledge of the area, so if a customer is looking for something, and the vendors don’t have it, they can direct the customer to where to find it. “It’s about building a larger community and growing business outside of the market too,” says Edith. Customers are local residents, as well as long-time American cottagers, travellers from all over Canada, and also international tourists.
I asked Edith about the plans for the future of the market. She has many fantastic ideas that she hopes to put into action like accommodating cyclists who use the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail nearby, by putting in bike racks, connecting with paddlers who use the waterways in the area and networking with birdwatching groups. She has also ensured the market is a member of Farmers’ Markets Ontario to take advantage of their vast experience, resources, and education programs for new markets and market managers.
Edith shared with me a saying she is borrowing but thinks it’s an appropriate way to describe the Johnson Farmers’ Market and the feeling that she wants customers to have when visiting: “Come as a stranger, leave as a friend.” I think this is a perfect way to describe this wonderful country market!
Johnson Farmers' Market
Hours of operation
Open June to Thanksgiving weekend
Saturdays: 9 am – 2 pm
Fall hours: starting September 10 am – 2 pm