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Friends of Farmers Markets are Friends of Mine

This blogging thing does get out of hand. The first thing you know, you get an idea and then it sprouts other ideas, which breed and make other ideas and pretty soon the whole post gets out of hand and you are looking for a book deal. So, I am going to go with one idea and tell you what the next one is and hold myself to it.

Today’s topic is farmers markets and Aunt Toby is hearing the eye-rolling and groans from here, deep in the computer dungeon at Chez Siberia.(and by the way, the rolling of eyeballs, as any parent of teenagers can tell you, sounds like nails on a chalkboard and is usually accompanied by the word, “Moooooom!!!” which is at the frequency of dog whistles). “Oh, come on, Aunt T – EVERYONE knows about farmers markets. Can’t you come up with something more interesting that THAT?

Well, 30 minutes ago, I would have agreed with you and turned in my blogger’s license right there except for an IM I got from a friend who lives in the more suburban part of a large metro area. We were talking about pasture raised meat (which is another topic for another time) and she was saying, “Oh, I’m sure “large national supposedly organic grocery store chain that is only found in large metro areas” will have that” and I replied, “Mmmm, I’d rather deal nose to nose with the person who actually raised it so that I can ask what they did and how they did it – how the animals were ‘finished’ and so on.” And then she dropped the bomb on my little idea that ‘everyone knows about farmers markets’:

“You know, I’m going to go down to the xxx farmers market right now (which is, like a 15 min. bike ride from her house) – we’ve lived here 25 years and I’ve never been.”

The sound of my teeth tinkling on the floor as my jaw dropped was deafening.

This is a lady who I have discussions with on a regular basis about solar energy and saving water and energy independence and air and water pollution and food and health related topics like that. But the damn grocery store is soooooo….convenient? We will now draw a veil over this before my blood pressure reaches the top of the bulb on the thermometer like in the old cartoons.

Why do people NOT shop in farmers markets?

Well, I think first of all is this overwhelming mythology about ‘teh’ cheap food (and how Americans somehow ‘deserve’ it). There is food that may not cost you a whole lot that ends up rotting in the vegetable bin in your fridge. That is NOT cheap food. That is actually very expensive food. That is food that has been bought on a ‘just in case’ basis. It is also food that has been purchased from the growers, usually through multiple intermediaries (though some grocery chains are going direct now), been trucked or freighted hundreds if not thousands of miles to get to that bright and shiny display in the store. It is food that is being sold on margins so thin and sharp that you could perform brain surgery with them. Every hand that has handled that food between the field and the display has taken their cut – there is not a whole lot of wiggle room there. So in order for everyone to get their ‘grift’ on this, the grower has to sell it so cheaply that they really can’t make enough money to even cover their costs.

This is also food that actually American consumers pay for multiple times because a) there is a huge amount of petroleum energy in it from fertilizers, harvesting and trucking, and b) your tax dollars have gone to agricultural subsidies – not only to the growers, but also if it’s meat animals, to the Big Ag corn and grain growers whose products are used in feeds. Before consumers even go to the grocery store, they have paid for that food at least twice already – but they don’t see that – they see the cheap price tag at the grocery store and feel that they are getting a better deal. Small local farmers have to compete against that mythology. We will not even discuss the amount of time it takes from field to display in terms of what the nutritional quality of that food actually is when the consumer buys it. Suffice it to say that Aunt Toby, who is a mean lady with a penny, wants to get all the nutritional bang for her buck and feels that tired green beans in March from Florida is not a good nutritional investment. She’d rather wait for her own local farmers to have beans fresh from this morning for her table – and a lot of other people feel the same way.

That is why a lot of growers are going direct. I have read about dairy farmers going back to putting in their own pasteurizing and homogenizing plants (as they had when Aunt Toby was just “little Wober” and would be taken to the ‘dairy store’ by her father for ice cream. That store was owned by a family farm. Their milk, cream, sour cream, cottage cheese and ice cream (‘Three regular flavors plus Maple Walnut!!”) came from their cows, was pasteurized and homogenized and bottled and packaged in their own plant. DairyLea put an end to that then, but you see more and more dairy farmers getting out of the coops and going direct to consumers now.

In the beginning of farmers markets and ‘green markets’ 30+ years ago, mostly what you saw was fruits and veggies in season and perhaps some eggs. Now, depending on where your farmers market is and how creatively it’s run, you can have everything from plants and flowers, some processed products, eggs, chicken and now pasture raised meats (being sold right out of freezers in the backs of farm trucks being run by auto batteries, etc.). In some other markets, actually hand crafts can be sold.

And in some ‘farmers markets’, you will see stuff that is being sold straight out of the cardboard cases from the wholesale distributors. Sometimes, you will see absolutely perfect peppers being sold out of wooden crates…and not by people who have grown them, either. This is not really a ‘farmers market’ – it’s a market for sure, but distributors and wholesalers and people selling case lots of tomatoes that they’ve gotten from wholesalers and distributors are not farmers. And the farmers with the stands next to them have to compete.

So, if you want to buy food that is grown in a certain way, by people from your area, under certain conditions and you are willing to pay to make sure that this is so, here are a few pointers about how to use farmers markets. The first time you visit:

1) What sort of signage is there announcing the market? Permanent? Sandwich board next to the road that has fallen over? Banner on a fence? No signage? Although this might seem to be more for evaluating the market’s marketing, if there is no signage or poor signage, then the market is not paying attention to its farmers. Which means that it might not be paying attention to other stuff either.
2) The first time you visit, find someone who looks official or ask one of the venders to point out to you the “Market Manager”. The Market Manager should be in attendance…every single time.
3) When you find the Market Manager, ask him or her what the rules are for the market. If the market has its own site (which more and more of them do), they may have them posted right on the site, as the Ithaca, New York Farmers Market does: IFM Vendor Rules Notice the first thing on the list: “To become a farmers market member, you must live within a 30-mile radius of the market and make or grow the items that you are selling.” That means that you will not be finding imported veggies and fruits there. All local; all locally grown or made. And therefore worth supporting, no?
4) Let’s say that the rules of the market allow anyone to basically sell anything. The Central New York Regional Market in Syracuse is like that. You can find anything from winter gloves, fish, meat, eggs, chickens, fruits, home made baked goods, veggies, hats, etc. there. Years ago, I saw people selling puppies and kittens there (but I admit that I have not seen that recently). The Regional Market is huge – and has buildings with garage doors on them, plus outdoor areas for sales booths. That means that this market runs year round. This sort of free-for-all has certain benefits, but it also means that as a consumer when I visit, I have to be really sensitive to who is doing what. Even when a display ‘looks’ like a ‘we grew this’ display, I always ask. I ask where the farm is located and I ask what they do in terms of when they pick, what they are using for fertilizer, etc. It’s not offensive to ask those sorts of questions – these are the items that differentiate them from the guy standing next to them selling out of wholesale cases of peppers. If you do canning or freezing and find vendors who do a really nice job with their produce, ask them whether or not you can get bushels from them. Sometimes they will even give you a price break on it.
5) Some folks who do meat and chickens (pasture raised or more traditionally raised) will do a long-term deal with you. We did a handshake deal with a pastured chicken and turkey raiser last year for a certain number of chickens and turkeys. They even cut the birds in half for us. They gave us a 15% discount on the per pound price. Very good birds. Let’s say your family alone would not qualify – it’s time to make some friends and put an order together.
6) Some growers don’t ‘do’ farmers markets. What some of them do is make deliveries to metro areas or have a store. One good example is Joe Salatin of Polyface Farms (and the man considered to be the ‘father of the pastured poultry movement). He has a delivery truck that makes deliveries to various metropolitan buying clubs in the DC area. Polyface Farms Metro Buying Clubs
7) Truth in Advertising: Daughter the Elder is the Market Manager for the newest farmers market in our area, which has grown from 4 venders two years ago, to about 20 now. She says that the number one limiting factor in terms of growing farmers markets and in establishing new ones is – lack of farmers. Yep – everyone wants a farmers market but no one wants to have to grow for one. It is a lot of work and when you operate your stand and have people constantly telling you “I can get that at xxx grocery store for half this price”, it gets really wearing. Why bother to fight it unless you are committed to offering people high quality, safe, healthy food? If we want more farmers markets, we need to produce more farmers. Period. Got a big back yard? Why are you mowing a lawn? Check out Growing Power — this guy got started in the middle of Milwaukee, WI on three acres and is raising everything from Tilapia and Yellow Perch to fresh veggies and educating tons of urban kids at the same time. Again, I say – why are you mowing a lawn(unless you have some sort of covenant on your property, in which case, you have my sympathy)?
Even beyond the ‘wanna factor’ (as in, I wanna farmers market in my community), farmers markets are really good things to have. They are a ‘public good’ (like museums, thriving local art communities, a decent coffee shop, a bookstore that is NOT a national chain, good parks). To find out more on farmers markets and their role in communities and why they should be supported, see: Projects for Public Spaces Projects for Public Spaces

OK..I promised that I would do this and then tell you what the next topic would be and then do that and not go flying off. The next topic(which is really attached to this) is about pasture raised meat and why we should as a society support that and why pasture raised meat is a solid, proven alternative to swine flu.

Bon appétit!

(photos courtesy of kahala and chrisjohnbecket)

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  1. mamafitz says:

    i drive past growing power multiple times a week (when i take my son to gymnastics practice). it’s such a cool place, and is really in the city! it’s always busy too.

    am building 2 more raised beds this weekend — 2-3 more weeks until planting time here!

  2. mamafitz says:

    oh, forgot to add — i love going to farmer’s markets, but i haven’t been for the past few years since i joined a CSA (that gives me eggs too). i miss the experience, however, so i’ll make an extra effort to hit the one by me this summer. i’ll probably end up with a bunch of flowers to plant!

  3. Toby Wollin says:

    Mamafitz – you are right — going to a farmers market is a social thing as well. One of the things that the market that my daughter manages has done this year is that they have made arrangements for coffee and baked goods to be sold, which gives people another reason to go, wander around, meet their friends and turn the market into a destination for a Saturday morning.

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