Reporting from the Royal – all the charm from the North and more

November 15, 2016   ·   0 Comments

The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, now in its 94th year, is still the largest indoor agricultural fair in North America and hosts one of the top international horse events in the world. It is a true microcosm with the combination of participants and visitors. Shopping for the world with vendors from many parts of the world – an enormous souk, as it were – spread across the wide space that is the Enercare Centre in Exhibition Place. There is a difference, though, a Sunday Best look to everything, ready as we must be to take advantage of an endless stream of opportunities to meet a somewhat captive audience who might never otherwise know we and our products exist.

Likewise, for the potential shoppers is the chance to see, taste, touch, learn and listen to the very fine myriad of merchants, whom they might never have known except for the coincidence of their all being here.

Naturally, there is a theme, one with the potential for extensive variations: that of agriculture and the equine world. There are events for showing cattle; there are cattle auctions, where a cow can be sold for a million dollars or more. There are areas for people to chat to the many animals that inhabit farms: sheep, goats, pigs, alpacas and all the small beasts of birds and bunnies. There are corresponding booths stocked with the products coming from those animals from meat prepared in all sorts of ways to wonderful cloth and clothing made from the wool shorn from the farm’s own sheep and alpacas. Other farmers grow vegetables, blueberries, commune with the bees, collect the sap from maple trees. Some deal in near miracles.

We went for a walk through the Northern Ontario section of the exhibitors, a village, one might say, of all the rest but coming from that specific area with all that in common with each other. This space has a different feel to it too, a slower pace, a surety of quality, an easier welcome. So, for this report from the Royal, we begin with a visit to one of the farmers from Northern Ontario.

Colin Sober-Williams accepted the opportunity to come as a member of this community at the last minute, he told us. He has just spent his first season farming organically in Muskoka after learning the methods at a teaching farm near Guelph and working with Fleming College in Lindsay, Ontario.

In Lindsay, as Mr. Sober-Williams explained, “I had a part time job with Fleming College, exchanging a place to stay for work. I did pruning, planting and growing, sustainable agriculture.” He went on to tell about the program he developed there: “I spent two and a half years trying to coordinate the college farm project. It is up and running now, so I’m happy about that.”

This year, Mr Sober-Williams contacted with a landowner near Huntsville where he is living, to create and run organic vegetable gardens on that land. Using as little as half an acre, he told us that he employs “intensive gardening”.  With plenty of good organic compost, the vegetables do well being planted closely.

It was with produce from that property that he attended the Royal this year. Happily, it was all for sale and we were soon munching  on an organic carrot, a slave to the too many sweets we had been consuming.

Just over the way, on the other side of the Toyota display is Jelani McDermott, who is selling the many skin products his mother makes and develops at home for her business, SPAHKET..

Said Mr.McDermott. “My mother learned  a lot from her grandmother in St. Vincent. Once she was living here, she realized that she had to take control of her own destiny. My brother had an immune system disorder that affected his skin, so, she made a cream for him that cleared it up.”

Although he is currently going to school, studying electrical engineering, Mr. McDermott is taking this semester off to help his mother, who home schooled him and his two siblings.

Back to Northern Ontario, we met Joseph Courtney with his Bare Organics Chaga. The chaga is a large mushroom, the properties of which are extremely beneficial as a tea. They are found in the splits or “wounds” of birch trees. Properly harvested, the supply is excellent but Mr. Courtney explained the problem which is far too familiar.

“People get greedy and take the whole mushroom so that it can not regrow,” he informed us with regret, “If they would leave some of each one behind so the spores can regenerate, there would always be lots.”

For the best expertise on the subject, the book, Chaga, King of the Medicinal Mushrooms is available at book stores.

Our last visit was to the Maple Leaf Fudge stall, celebrating an astonishing 50 years at the Royal. Our conversation with co-owner, Lyn Koldenhof,  revealed something of the philosophy of this family business.

Said she, “We bring 18 flavours with us here but many more at our shop in Niagara on the Lake, seasonal and flavours of the month. Fudge is fun and you can play with it. Sometimes, the flavour of the month is popular, we put it in, in place of a traditional flavour.”

She turned to serve a customer, laughing and cracking jokes. It seems fudge is lots of fun.

The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair runs until next Sunday, November 13. That is also the big rodeo day. Come one, come all to the fair. Website is

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