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This article was published 27/8/2016 (303 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
EAST ST. PAUL — It’s sweet corn time.
Market gardener Martin Natiuk picks up a foot-long husk of corn from the back of his truck, holds it up like an Olympic torch, and tears opens one side.
The kernels are so large they look like they could burst and squirt you in the eye. Their sweetness is left to the imagination.
Natiuk is one of the last market gardeners in East St. Paul. He remembers when market gardens carpeted the municipality. He delivered newspapers as a kid and every fourth house on Henderson Highway had a market garden with a vegetable stand in front.
Now look at it.
By his count, there are only three stands from the Perimeter Highway to Lockport. There’s still a scattering of market garden plots — often beside $700,000 homes with swimming pools.
Will the last market gardener please turn out the lights (and lay down some sod to save time for the next housing development)?
Natiuk’s third-generation Hnatiuk Market Gardens (with the original spelling of the family name) is one of the largest in the province at 25 acres. Those acres sound miniscule next to 10,000-acre grain farms, but market gardening is get-down-on-your-hands-and-knees labour intensive.
He doesn’t run a roadside stand but is a wholesale supplier to those who do, including Petrasko’s Market and Garden Centre at Henderson and Chief Peguis Trail and Crampton’s Market in south Winnipeg. "We get orders at night, pick the produce in the morning, and it’s on shelves by noon," he said.
"That’s our niche. We supply fresh vegetables every day."
Natiuk, 61, also sells to farmers markets, and has become involved in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where customers buy shares of a farmer’s harvest directly. He produces chemical-free produce for CSA and has doubled his customers each year. He now has 70. He delivers directly to the client’s home.
'Nobody wants to do it anymore. When I was in it, I worked from 6 a.m. until dark'-- longtime market gardener Billy Smith, 79, a.k.a. Smitty
In an increasingly residential area where lots can sell for $160,000, he can’t afford to own his own land except for his six-acre home property. So he rents, sort of.
There are still those long narrow lots here, a holdover from the parish lot system of the days of the Red River Settlers. Most homeowners don’t have a use for those long lots that are quickly smothered by weeds, so they rent to Natiuk for a nominal fee, and he plants vegetables.
That’s life in the municipality with the second-highest-priced houses in Manitoba.
Roadside stands have been open since mid-July. At Smitty’s Fresh Vegetables on Henderson, operating for more than four decades, you’re greeted by the perfumey smell of corn, green peppers, onions and cucumbers, in a spicy blend. Every fragrance promises it can do something good for you.
The proprietor, longtime market gardener Billy Smith, 79, was sitting in his house in a leather recliner, his walker on one side, the TV remote control on the armrest opposite, watching an afternoon baseball game. Smitty, as everyone calls him, would still be out there weeding and picking, like he did for more than 60 years, if it wasn’t for health problems. His sister and brother-in-law run the stand.
"Nobody wants to do it anymore," Smitty said of market gardening. "When I was in it, I worked from 6 a.m. until dark..."
"...in the mosquitoes and rain and mud," piped in Natiuk. "He did all the work himself" on 40 acres.
Smitty: "From here to Lockport, every Tom, Dick and Harry was growing at one time. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed watching things grow."
Natiuk: "You don’t have to punch a clock."
Smitty: "The only thing you have to worry about is the weather." Market gardeners don’t meet the minimum acreage to qualify for crop insurance, Natiuk said. So whatever they lose, they lose. Natiuk saw a few acres each of potatoes and corn drowned out this year, and hail wiped out his lettuce.
Smitty: "This is one of the worst years for weather. You couldn’t get planted because of the wet. Then it rained every day. It used to be you’d have half- or quarter-inch rains. Now you get two, three, four, five inches at a time. As soon as it dries, it rains again."
Natiuk: "The last five or six years have been very wet. It takes a lot more time when you’re working in rain and mud."
There are also fewer people canning and pickling and juicing. No one buys 75-pound bags of potatoes anymore. Corporate vegetable farms from California supply grocery stores with fruit and vegetables year-round.
Probably the biggest factor in East St. Paul is the appreciation in land values from residential development.
"Everybody wants to sell their property," said Bob Baigrie, who co-runs Smitty’s, and who market gardens in the RM of St. Clements.
Natiuk knows that first-hand. His father and uncle subdivided land along what is now Roman Drive, named after Natiuk’s grandfather. They got $28,000 per lot back in the 1980s. The lots now sell for $180,000, Natiuk said.
It’s a natural evolution. Elmwood, at the south end of Henderson, was once home to a number of market gardeners. Brazier, Roch and Watt streets are all named for former market gardeners.
In 1925, North Kildonan was still mainly market gardeners: Whellams Lane is named after one of them. That was the year it split from East Kildonan, which was more preoccupied with urban concerns. Only about 100 people lived in N.K., versus 6,500 in E.K., according to Jim Pask, in his book, On the East Side of the River.
East St. Paul was the same, yet different. Its fertile soil along the Red River is rich for growing vegetables. Its proximity to Winnipeg was another advantage. The long river lots also encouraged market gardening. Perhaps the biggest advantage was the homes were all along Henderson Highway, which made it easy to set up road stands.
While this story may sound like the death knell for market gardens, it’s not really. In East St. Paul it may be. Elsewhere, probably not.
There is a whole legion of young, idealistic farmers emerging to fill a similar role, said Tom Gonsalves, Manitoba Agriculture vegetable specialist.
You see them at farmers markets and setting up direct-buying clubs where consumers get weekly packages of fresh vegetables from a grower they know.
"I would say there are a number of young market gardeners who are in it to win it, in it for the money, not just as hobby," Gonsalves said.
There’s also a new but somewhat different market out there, not the canners and picklers of the past.
"There are younger families not always prepared to just pay the cheapest price. They’re more willing to pay a premium over the long run to know that Joe or Jane is growing my food and this is the way they’re growing it."
People don’t go into market gardening to get rich.
"They need to love to do it because I think there are easier ways to make a living," Gonsalves said. "You don’t see any MBAs farming. People going to school with an eye on the dollar don’t wind up farming."
The new market gardeners also support the proliferation of farmers markets. The "grow it, make it, or bake it" mantra still applies for those vendors. However, the province keeps no data on the number of market gardeners.
Ray Nedohin, 39, is one of the new generation. He officially opens his Nedohin Gardens Inc., at 3983 Henderson Highway on the Labour Day long weekend.
Like Smitty’s, he has a parking lot in his yard, which means customers don’t have to park their cars in long lines along Henderson Highway. His aunt and uncle used to operate a stand on the site many years ago.
Nedohin and his wife both have full-time jobs and a young child. "I’m a city boy, born and raised," he said.
So why on earth go into a labour-intensive sideline such as market gardening?
"I come from a Ukrainian background," Nedohin explained. "My parents and grandparents were always gardening, canning, pickling." He’s gardened for years and always gives away produce to family and friends. It gave him tremendous satisfaction.
(Natiuk started the same way, working full time but market gardening on the side until the latter became his primary career.)
Like many market gardens, Nedohin’s is a family operation. His mom and dad live next door and will help run the stand, along with his sister.
Nedohin believes there’s a new market for vegetables.
"It’s a new generation. The younger generations want to eat healthy and eat locally grown produce."
He’ll be growing a whole range of vegetables, including beet tops and kale, which go into blenders to make smoothies. "Green slurpies are what everyone is after," he said.