By Jessica Duncan
Did you eat today? Of course you did! Any idea where your food came from? Well, I can pretty much guarantee that at least one farmer was involved in your daily nourishment. Who was that person who grew your potato/oat/wheat/carrot/apple/almond/peach…? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could spend a day with the farmers who fed us? The beauty of the farmers’ market is that you actually get to engage with the folk who grow your food. But for many of us, that engagement is limited to simple niceties as we buy our produce then move along to the next stall. Each farmer comes with a personal story that few of us know.
If you’re a regular at the James Bay Community Market, you will have probably bought something from Maria at least once. Maybe a bunch of carrots, or perhaps, one of her stunning bouquets of seasonal flowers. You will have heard her rich, Portuguese voice ring out as she exchanges rapid-fire banter with her husband Joe, while still serving umpteen customers and mentally calculating change.
As the 2017 season comes to a close, Maria can tick off her eleventh year of selling produce and flowers at the James Bay Market. She took over the family stall after her father passed away, and her mother Connie, who had been a vendor since the market first started, could no longer do it on her own as she did not drive. Maria’s parents may have no longer been able to sell produce, but the gardens kept producing; Maria picked up where her parents left off and continues to bring her gardens bounty to market.
Yes, that is gardens, plural. Maria and Joe work two large gardens side by side at their View Royal home, as well as an aging friend’s farm in Saanich. On her own property, Maria has five greenhouses running, providing her loyal customers with early crops. Committed to spray-free growing, Maria does double-time battling the ever-present weeds, ensuring her crops and flowers have the best growing conditions. Along with her elderly mother and husband Joe, Maria works solidly, ensuring these plots are always in production.
Maria’s gardening regime starts in January when she plants seeds in the warmth of her home. Being a somewhat slower season, she takes the opportunity to thoroughly clean everything – pots, greenhouses, tools… Sometimes she even manages to find enough hours to pursue her lifelong hobby of painting. As well as being a full-time farmer, Maria is an accomplished artist who has taught painting classes in one of her many incarnations.
Of course, springtime brings many more tasks to the day. This is when you will find Maria rototilling the ground, prepping the beds for sowing, pruning trees, and planting flowers. In the spring, Maria starts to introduce her house seedlings into the greenhouses, but will bring them back in at night so they don’t catch a chill.
Her garden grows. The months pass. Suddenly it’s May and Maria and Joe are back at the James Bay Market for a summer of hard work, ridiculously long hours, and little sleep. From 5:30 in the morning (3:30 am on market days) until11:00 at night, Maria and Joe are tending gardens, weeding, planting, harvesting, preparing for market, selling at market, and doing it all over again.
As the summer fades and market season comes to an end, Maria’s gardens slow down, allowing her time to work in her trained profession as a hairdresser, provide maintenance for her properties, paint, and wind the gardens down for winter.
You’re probably feeling a bit exhausted now at the thought of this endless work, and wondering why Maria would choose this lifestyle. Having started to care for her parents’ garden as a child when the family immigrated to Thunder Bay from Portugal, the garden is where Maria is happiest. Early on, feeling frustrated at all of the imported produce being sold in stores, Maria got serious about growing spray-free food. The flowers are a lifelong passion that still bring her endless pleasure. When she moved to Victoria from North Ontario in 1988, Maria set herself the challenge of transforming her large yard into a tropical paradise, complete with tropical birds. Now, when Maria looks out her window, she is rewarded with a view that could be found in Hawaii.
A self-proclaimed perfectionist (a trait that can cause worry and frustration, as well as great satisfaction), Maria thrives on being busy and abhors sitting still. Maria’s advice to others who want to sell produce at the farmers’ markets is to present only high quality, fresh, clean product. As an artist, visuals are important to Maria. Freshness is key. Be ready to work hard and long hours.
When I asked Maria what she would like her customers to know about her, she gave me the facts: born in Portugal, immigrated to Canada, she paints, she grows show dahlias, she became a hair stylist, she bred tropical birds, designs fancy gowns and costumes, her standards are high. But then she also told me to let her customers know that she loves growing food to share with her loyal customers. She loves interacting with the people who come to the market. In her own words, “I thank every client that has supported me for all these years. It’s been fun!” And I think I speak for all of us when I proffer a huge thanks to Maria for feeding us all so well over the past eleven years, and to her mother Connie, for the years before.