Market gardens — locally-grown produce failed to meet demand

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

A November 7, 1907, Manitoba Free Press article claimed that thousands of acres of land surrounding the city were lying idle at a time when the acreage could be used for market gardens to decrease the city’s dependence on imported vegetables.

“No reason can be assigned for this, except that it is not generally realized, and that public attention has not been prominently attracted to this particular form of investment. Many of the market gardeners who have supplied Winnipeg in years past have retired with fortunes. Others who still continue business are on a most solid financial basis as their lovely homes attest. And it is not to be wondered at, when one considers that their industry is practically protected by freight rates and duty, and that they have consequently an unlimited market for all that they produce at first class prices.”

An earlier article in the same newspaper (November 2, 1907) also emphasized the advantages of being a market gardener near Winnipeg, as well as the need to do away with high-costing imports.

 According to the article, “... in the spring carloads of cabbage, cauliflower, carrots and indeed, every variety of

staple vegetables, are brought into Winnipeg at a high rate of freight, in addition to duty, in order to satisfy the

normal demand for these vegetables in the city of Winnipeg.

“This is a state of affairs which should not be allowed to continue. The Manitoba soil grows the best vegetables in the world; the climate is favorable to the production of more crop to the acre than any other country, and yet for seven months this year our vegetables are imported from the south. It was also reported that market gardeners of the past made significant profits when Winnipeg had half the population it had in 1907.

Business acumen and the necessary storage facilities to keep produce over the winter were cited as being the only brakes on an increase in market


That the local supply of vegetables failed to meet demand was a surprising fact, since newspapers of the day reported vegetable crop production running into the tons to serve a population of just over 90,000 people (1906 Canadian Census).

“Every morning a small army of Galician (Ukrainian) women cross the Louise Bridge and go out to the north and east of the city where they are employed harvesting the vegetable crop (Free Press, October 18, 1907). Tons of potatoes, onions, carrots, beets and turnips are gathered every day and every garden in the district shows a bumper crop. The vegetables raised pay the producer better than wheat and grain-growing within a radius of ten miles is being abandoned for the more profitable products.”

On October 29, 1909, the same newspaper reported a record amount of local produce at the city market. “At one time during the afternoon, thirty wagons with loads were seen in line waiting to be weighed in turn.”

A total of 171 loads had arrived in the Main Street market by the end of the day. The heaviest load was 14,100 pounds.

The June 19, 1909, Free Press reported that the town of Transcona was located in the centre of a rich farming district and surrounded by market gardens.

According to a September 17, 1909, article in the same newspaper, the area under cultivation in the vicinity of the city was increasing every year, but there were still problems to be addressed.

“These gardens in the main follow the rivers, but much of the land in close proximity to the city is held at a figure which makes it impossible for a man with small capital to start in business, except under a heavy handicap. However the extension of the suburban rapid transit lines, with a more progressive policy in the way of handling the products of the market gardeners and farmers will readily solve this difficulty.”

“Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, both colonists and new immigrants who gained access to lands along the Red and Assiniboine continued to cultivate only on river lots for several practical reasons,” wrote Avis Darlene Mysvk in her book, Manitoba Commercial Market Gardening, 1945-1997. “Not only were the lots close to natural resources such as water and timber but the river bank silt was easier to work with the farm implements of the time than the urrounding swamplands and clay. Labour-intensive and early-market crops occupied small acreages close to the rivers. Larger acreages further back from the rivers were given over to potatoes. Until the late 1930s, almost 90 per cent of market gardening in Manitoba was located on these lots.”

One area singled out in the Free Press 1909 article as adding to the number of market gardens surrounding the city was on the south side of the Assiniboine River at Headingley, which was called West Winnipeg.

The article stated that Headingley had long been praised for the quality of the vegetables produced due to the richness of the soil.

A Free Press reporter was given a tour of the district by the West Winnipeg Development Company to show the achievements made in just one year.

The company had opened several demonstration plots along the river, which were planted with all the vegetables that thrived in Manitoba.

“The showing was marvellous,” asserted the reporter. “Finer corn, tomatoes, celery and potatoes could not be asked for, and though the date was September 15 there were rows of lettuce as crisp and dainty in flavor as the first spring crop.”

He said that the available water had been questioned a couple of years earlier, but the alleged problem had been solved by the company. Three wells had been drilled and two developed into “flowing (artesian) wells, all of them producing a seemingly inexhaustible supply of crystal clear sweet tasting water, comparatively free from alkali or hardening properties.”

The wells were used to irrigate the fields and at the third well a gas pump was in use to provide added irrigation.

West Winnipeg was described in a January 13, 1908, Free Press, as “an alluring opportunity to anyone desiring to go into market gardening.” It cited the attraction as being the common knowledge that a good profit could be made by selling the produce from such plots of land.

The developers had a somewhat unique means to attract people to West Winnipeg, using a variation of a time payment scheme, “as his land is cultivated by, he is employed by the company and given wages, and receives interest on his investment capital, whereas, if he started with the virgin soil himself, it would take him three years to produce a paying crop.”

The June 6, 1908, issue of the same newspaper reported that the real estate firm of MacMillian and Vollans noted a great demand for market garden plots in the new West Winnipeg development, especially with the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway rushing to grade and complete the railroad across the development, and with the expectation its railway station would soon get underway.

According to the article: “The Belgians are among the finest market gardeners and poultry raisers in the world. A movement is now on foot to bring 200 families of them to Winnipeg and locate them on properties of a few acres each, at from ten to fifteen miles from the city. Baron M. de Milleville, of Flanders, Belgium, is at the head of the movement.”

The baron’s purpose was to bring the families to Manitoba to establish market gardens to the west of the city.

The article also mentioned a Captain Cairns, who sold a section of land to “Mr. White, an American,” which was suitable for establishing market gardens.

Among the immigrant groups to come to Winnipeg were the Dutch, who had an affinity for market gardening in their home country. “Klaas de Jong was born in 1872, in the Netherlands. He came to Canada with the first wave of Dutch immigration, under the Immigration Act of 1893. After working on the railway on the Crow’s Nest Line, de Jong settled in East Kildonan, and shortly after his mother, father, sisters and brothers came to join him (Memorable Manitobans, Manitoba Historical Society).

“De Jong took up market gardening on lot 64 (near McLeod Avenue), and proved himself one of the finest gardeners on the continent.”

The September 2, 1910, Free Press contained a feature on the Selkirk district, which claimed the area contained the best market gardens in Manitoba.

Again, rich soils were mentioned that were well suited for growing vegetables.

“The bottom fields along the river bank from the city of Selkirk, almost without a break are in crops that delight in low lying soils, especially cucumbers, of which carload after carload have been shipped to the pickling factories and the market.

“Dyson’s Pickles, one of the first processing plants to be built in Winnipeg in 1887, provided an outlet for cucumbers, cauliflower and onions” (Mysvk).

“One market garden here is the largest in the province, equalling in size many a large farm, yet with every rod of its scattered fields devoted to the closest kind of intensive farming,” according to the Free Press article.

The crops grown included sweet peas. A contract had been signed to supply 100,000 bunches to an unnamed Winnipeg department store, “besides shipping an equal amount to other customers.”

The market gardener also had a contract to supply produce to one of the city’s “largest and most expensive” restaurants.

Not everyone welcomed the so-called boom in the promotion of market gardens surrounding the city.

In a September 24, 1908, letter to the editor of the Free Press, a writer, who called himself “Winnipeg” — a common practice was to use pen names when writing letters to newspapers of that era — complained that a local real estate firm had misled the public when quoting crop prices. He wrote that the firm reported, as published in the  newspaper on September 23, that the price for potatos was $1.35 per bushel.

“At the present time the market price for potatoes in Winnipeg is between 50 and 60 cents per bushel ...

“The well known productiveness of the market gardens surrounding Winnipeg too well known for it to be necessary to put such misleading statements in the newspapers with the idea of booming property ... Easterners and others reading the advertisement would come to the conclusion that Winnipeg was a most expensive place to live, whereas, at the present time the price of nearly all the garden produce is cheaper than at any other point.

“I think the land agents have put the price of market garden property high without the slightest justification. They need not be a bit surprised if they find Winnipeg within a year or two supplied with garden produce from Selkirk, Portage la Prairie and other outlaying places. With increased railway and storage facilities, special rates on such

commodities will come.”

Farmers’ markets where the outlying producers could sell their goods in the city were variable at best and to sell an entire crop, it became essential to seek out middlemen, who in turn sold to retailers. As a result, the glory days of receiving top prices for market garden production had virtually ended.

Meanwhile, a so-called “vegetable trust” operated in the city market, monopolizing stalls devoted to selling produce. The trust tended to buy produce from the U.S. at a cheap rate and sell

it to Winnipeggers at a high price. Essentially, the trust was keeping local market gardeners from selling a higher proportion of their production from the market near city hall.

To answer the call for produce at affordable prices for consumers, in March 1913, it was announced that the Million for Manitoba League would be opening a public farmers’ market in Winnipeg in April.

“There is no reason why the gardeners of Winnipeg cannot produce everything used on the tables of the people of Winnipeg,” remarked J.W. Ryckman, the chairman of the market committee, at a league meeting in the lecture room of the Winnipeg Industrial Bureau (Manitoba Free Press, March 5, 1913).

The committee was considering the old central market along Main Street and Water Avenue (now William Stephenson Way), the Thistle Curling Rink on McDonald Avenue or the Winnipeg Auditorium Rink on Main Street as the location for the public market.

(Next week: part 3)