The Hamilton Farmers’ Market is celebrating 175 years of selling locally grown food to the city and surrounding areas. In the past several years, buying from small local farms and shunning massive factory farm operations has become a very popular trend. With the E–Coli contamination at Alberta based beef factory, XL foods, more people are asking questions about how their food is tested and are looking to local farmers as an alternative to grocery shopping.
“Always sell the best and don’t rip your customers off and your business will last forever.” Ron Jepson’s grandfather taught him this lesson about working in the meat industry. It seems he was right seeing that now his grandson Ron and his great–grandson Ray are carrying on the family business. Ron says “I was taught with a verbal sledgehammer. There is only one way. I was taught the right way bar nothing. You don’t compromise on quality, never.” When the Jepson’s buy their meat, they send it straight to slaughterhouse where it is inspected by government inspectors. “We go and pick it up and do everything ourselves. No one else handles it. There is no middleman. It is impossible for it to be mishandled because we do it ourselves.” The Jepson’s run their business right out of their home and sell weekly at The Hamilton Farmers’ Market. Although he has sold the family farm, he knows exactly where his meat comes from. “I buy pigs from the same guy every week. He lives right behind us and I have known him forever. He doesn’t feed them any chemical feed... We sell beef also. I have 3 different guys that live between Hagersville and Fort Eerie. Again, these animals are on pasture... they get fed grain and hay... No fancy name just good beef.” Ron says that because the beef he buys are a crossbreed of Charolais and Hereford cows, you get more meat to bone ratio keeping the fat content down. Ron Jepson knows that he needs to keep his customers happy. He sells to some of Hamilton’s most popular restaurants including La Piazza Allegra and Boo’s Bistro. “I have to have perfect ones (cows) because I sell meat on site. You actually walk up to look at the meat. If I have a piece that has half an inch of fat you won’t buy it. If you go to a grocery store they hide things or you can’t look inside until you open it (after purchase). But we don’t do that and I don’t want to do that. I want you to see exactly what you are getting... Over 90% of customers are repeat customers. They come and buy meat from us because they know they are going to get what they want.”
The Manager of Food and Safety for the City of Hamilton, Richard MacDonald says that each food vendor at the market will fall into 1 of 3 categories. Each category represents the risk factor for contamination. Low is for pre–packaged food such as chips, medium is for places that cook pre–frozen food such as fast food restaurants and high risk is for places such as full service restaurants. A full service restaurant that has a variety of items on the menu are usually seasoning food and preparing them almost from scratch. The more preparation needed means that more people are handling the food. At the market, a meat vendor would be considered medium risk. This means that public health inspectors will visit them once every 6 months to check up on their practices. MacDonald states that meat vendors must abide by certain rules. “...temperature is very important. Raw uncooked meat must be maintained at 4 degrees Celsius or less and already frozen meat at minus 18 degrees.” The reason for keeping raw meat cold is to slow the growth of pathogenic bacteria such as salmonella or E–Coli. “Cook all food thoroughly particularly chicken and beef products...when you cook it you kill it (bacteria).” MacDonald stresses that if any vendor at The Hamilton Farmers’ Market or anywhere else in the city is not complying with proper safety regulations, they are immediately shut down until further notice. If the inspector finds meat that is stored in above 4 degrees, he or she will “seize and destroy [all material]. They will tell the operator to fix the fridge and not to keep any hazardous waste in it. They will go back to re–inspect the fridge. When we determine that the ambient air is below 4 degrees, we will say now you may resume the use of it.” When it comes to fruits and vegetables, Macdonald categorizes them as very low risk because they are sold “in its original state.”
Gord Williams’ family have been farming since at least the 1930’s and he believes that they have been selling their produce at The Hamilton Farmers’ Market since around that time. He and his two brothers work at running their conventional farm in Millgrove and selling their fruits and vegetables. They grow strawberries, apples, pears, potatoes, broccoli, and tomatoes, just to name a few. Although he may be a bit biased, Gord says that his produce tastes different then what you buy in a grocery store. “...the stuff tastes really good...[we use] just good sandy well drained soil. We put a lot back into it. You can’t grow stuff and not put anything back into. Not just fertilizer. Natural stuff like what an organic guy would do.” Gord uses red clover in his soil in the spring which is a natural manure and uses seeding rye in the winter time as a cover crop to prevent his soil from blowing away. Then in the spring it is plowed into the soil to naturally fertilize. Gord notes that there isn’t much of a way, other than owning your own farm, to get produce much fresher than his. “...for instance, broccoli and cauliflower are cut the day before so that it’s always fresh. You tell by looking at the leaves. Strawberries I can bring it in picked that day. I’m only 10 minutes away [from the market]. I go back and forth a couple times a day. When it comes to food safety, Gord ranks Ontario as number 1. “Ontario is the strictest in the world for testing. There’re inspectors that come around. They will buy a sample of what they are testing. They will tell you who they are... [They] will test for pesticide residue. They come around quite often... Ontario is probably the safest place in the world to by fruits and veggies.”
To learn more about The Hamilton Farmers’ Market and events to celebrate their 175th anniversary, visit www.hamilton.ca.V