Tourism Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada


Discover Mennonite Goods at the Farmers Market - Where tradition meets commerce

By Sheila Harris

Thanks to a newly migrated Mennonite population, Saturday mornings in the hamlet of Desbarats, located 60 km east of Sault Ste Marie, offer visitors a unique experience in the summer months courtesy of the community’s thriving Farmers Market.

The seed of the market was planted in 2007, beginning that year under a canvas tent, where vendors from Iron Bridge to the east and Echo Bay to the west gathered to sell naturally grown seasonal vegetables and herbs, maple syrup products, honey and tantalizing baked goods. The market quickly became a weekly attraction for area residents and visitors who are drawn by the good produce and cheerful community feeling.

The summer of 2008 saw a rapid expansion in varieties and quantities; preserves, alpaca fibre and products, and outdoor furniture were some of the additions. However, the emphasis has remained on being local, that is within 110 km, with a northern addition of Thornloe cheese from New Liskeard. At the market, freshness is measured in hours, not days or weeks.


The Farmers Market, managed by a committee of the Township of Johnson, has vendors from throughout the agricultural community, but start upwould not have been possible without the support of the Mennonites, six families who moved into the area in 2004, in time for their first spring planting here.

Their arrival has made Johnson Township a community of contrasts where the school bus and horse and buggy pass each other on the same roads. In one field, Mennonites are pitchforking sheaves on to a wagon for threshing, while on the farm next door, a combine is blowing oats into a grain buggy.

A drive through the back country on an October day might show a farmer striking out furrows with a tractor, while next door, a three, four or even six horse hitch is ploughing land.

The local agricultural mosaic includes good-sized dairy, beef and cash crop operations alongside mixed family farms. There is also an interesting seasonal variation in lifestyles: farmers work hardest in the summer, relaxing in the winter, and cottagers reverse this.

This is beautiful Canadian Shield country with fertile river valleys, where some of the old split rail fences still seem to link arms to keep the bush in check. The Farmers Market is a showplace for the products of a rural community working and growing together, respectful of cultural differences. Mayor Edith Orr is proud of her community, seeing it as, “ living in the present, with a good look at the past, moving together into the future.”

Led by one Deacon and two Ministers, the sixteen year old Order Mennonite families who have moved to this area seek to live a simple life, one our grandparents and great grandparents would recognize. Without intruding into the daily lives and busy seasonal work of these families, it is possible to catch respectful glimpses of their traditional values. They dress in quiet dark colours, live without phones or electricity, and conduct no business on Sundays. Recess at the Gordon Lake Rd. school sometimes features barefoot baseball games, and laughing, jostling walkers clutching lunch pails who must remind the oldest residents of their own school days.

This area was chosen by the Mennonites because of skyrocketing land prices in Southern Ontario where urban sprawl presses in on prime farmland. In 2002, a land search committee recommended the area because of affordable agricultural land and room for growth. Although a location within a day’s buggy ride of a large centre would have been ideal, Johnson Township was acceptable because Bruce Mines and Desbarats could supply some of the necessities that cannot be produced on the farms, such as sugar, some feed supplies and baby chicks. The close access to Northern Quality Meats, the local abattoir, was also important.

Today, income from farm produce can seldom supply all the needs of a family; and like almost all local farmers, the Mennonites do additional work, providing the following services: blacksmithing, harness making, saw milling, machining, woodworking, contracting in concrete, roofing and general maintenance, and operating agencies for wood cook stoves, steel siding and roofing.

Skilled at cooperative building, since their arrival here they have raised four new barns for their own farms, a commercial barn, two new houses, and various house additions. They also built a produce centre on Government Rd., which wholesales and retails fruits and vegetables. In 2009, the Mennonites used their building skills to raise a rough-sawn timber framed pavilion, now the permanent home of the Johnson Farmers Market.

The market has grown! Welcomed by Mayor Orr, visitors from all over this continent and Europe have signed the guest book, leaving comments such as “Awesome market!”, “Love bringing guests here!”, and “Great family times”.

Johnson Township is proud of its market! Come and experience our diversity; close the gap between town and country. Meet the people who grow vegetables, stonegrind flour, raise lamb, beef and pork naturally, bake, preserve, grow herbs, raise bees, care for alpacas, tap maple trees, build furniture, blacksmith iron products, and do leatherwork - and you’ll have an experience to share with your friends and relatives.

Once again, Desbarats is along Highway 17 about 60 km east of Sault Ste Marie. The market season kicks off the first Saturday of June at 9:00am complete with a breakfast sponsored by the local recreation committee.


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