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A sustainable store

Schmucker says that opening additional stores would require quitting his day job, which he loves, and he’s not prepared to do that. So he puts in a dozen hours a week at the store, working around his main job, which is in public engagement with Mennonite Central Committee, where he is in his 12th year. Then, on top of it all, he also finds time to work towards a doctorate in theology.

Schmucker grew up in the city, but after finishing his BA, he and a cousin bought a rundown dairy farm from a relative. “I only lasted a couple of years and I realized milking cows wasn’t for me,” he says. But his cousin is still there — and was the person who originally supplied the beef for the pickups, and who sourced eggs from neighbouring farms.

Jacqui runs the store and manages customer service, although she prefers that Tim deal with the media — so I’m talking to him. She is great at what she does, and obviously loves it. Once, when one of my kids somehow banged his forehead on a table and started wailing, she raced over with a package of frozen corn (local, of course) to use as an ice pack and keep down the swelling.

The hours are long, but Jacqui finds the customer feedback very gratifying — comments such as, “Thanks so much for doing what you’re doing.”

The store

The store is clean, inviting, but not ostentatious. “It’s not about show — it’s about personal relationships,” says Schmucker. At the back is a meat cooler, while out front sit flats and baskets of produce. There is baking, dairy, condiments — even home-canned fruit and vegetables.

As business names go, this one is pretty descriptive: Fresh From the Farm. Schmucker says that the customer base broadened beyond his Yugoslavian friends as soon as the store opened. He’s not surprised. In a smaller city, he explains, people can drive a short distance and get food straight from producers. But it’s tough in a big, sprawling city such as Toronto.

The client base is very, very diverse, with no one socio-economic, cultural, or gender group dominating. “It’s people concerned with what they eat for health and ethical reasons,” Schmucker says as he explains who shops there. That means some don’t have a large disposable income, but are focused on eating well. Some are neighbours, others come from affluent parts of the city.

A shopper from a tonier part of the city recently said, “I come here because of who you are.”

The farmers

Aside from the direct-from-farm connection, another unique aspect of the store is its farm suppliers. Many are from the Mennonite and Amish community. With his cousin still farming, and himself being a Mennonite and speaking some of the language, Schmucker says that finding suppliers wasn’t difficult. “When you’re in the community and you know the people… that gets around,” he says, adding, “I know people — I know who to talk to.”

Sometimes, the personal supplier relationships extend beyond buying and selling. On one occasion he helped a farm get alternative quota for chickens. He wanted a particular breed of larger, flax-fed chickens for the store — and was able to help the farmer get an exemption from the marketing board to produce these.

“Many farmers say, ‘If only I could get access to the big city market,’” says Schmucker, as he talks about the niche the store fills for the Amish and Mennonite communities. “It’s not just a financial relationship,” he adds, saying that when farmer-suppliers are in Toronto, they often make a point to visit the store.

The day we spoke, Jacqui was at a high school a few kilometres away for an Earth Day event. She was heartened to hear a student say, “Oh, I know you, my mom shops there.” Personal relationships, direct-to-farm and direct-to-consumer, is what the business is all about for the Schmuckers.

For them, it’s also what food means.

Selling relationships

“It’s bridging a gap — an abyss — between rural food producers and consumers,” Tim Schmucker tells me as we talk about Fresh From the Farm, the Toronto locavore store he runs with his wife Jacqui.

Instantly, you realize it’s exactly the same language that farmers use when they describe the disconnect between consumers and the source of their food, even if the message isn’t the same.

This store wasn’t planned, Schmucker tells me. Actually, it started as a once-a-month pickup in a local U-Brew cold room. At the time, Schmucker was teaching English to Yugoslavian refugees, who were accustomed to getting food directly from farmers. They asked Schmucker, a former farmer, how to do so here in Toronto. At first the food pickups were for friends, then friends of friends, and then, friends of friends of friends. Eventually, they opened the store in 1996.

Fresh From the Farm is on an unpretentious strip of storefronts in a largely residential area of Toronto known for its neat streets of bungalows. There’s a fish-and-chip restaurant, bakery, and an animal hospital across the street — and a Chinese restaurant next door. And whenever I’ve been around here, it’s Fresh From the Farm where I see the most people.

“It just took off,” says Schmucker. “We’ve had serious offers to open franchises,” he adds, but explains that’s not in the cards, saying, “It’s about lifestyle for us.” Success, he says, means a sustainable lifestyle, even if it also means driving an older car. Besides, he says, growing into a multi-outlet chain is a bit of a contradiction when what they are doing at the store is all about personal relationships.

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