Watching “Restaurant Startup” the other night, I found myself irked. The contestants were shopping for produce at the farmer’s market and the voice-over went something along the lines of “but those premium local organic ingredients come at a cost”, making it sound like it was almost a bad thing! It was irritating to say the least.
I am a diehard weekly farmer’s market shopper for a number of reasons, but I hate it when the option of regularly shopping there is glossed aside by the media like a luxury Gwyneth Paltrow ala GOOP choice, instead of highlighted as one of the best ways to feed yourself and your family. (No offense, Gwyn… I love you and GOOP, but well, you know what I’m saying.)
So instead of whining to myself today for the billionth time about this, I decided to sit down and list my reasons as to why farmer’s markets are an awesome choice. Though in the words of Levar Burton, “you don’t have to take my word for it!” All of the items listed below are ideas you can test drive too.
7 Reasons Why You Should Shop Farmers’ Markets
1. It’s in season for a reason.
Isn’t it funny that oranges are at their ripest December through February, coincidentally the same months that people are most likely to be trapped indoors, susceptible to colds, and in dire need of Vitamin C? While we don’t have as much struggle with scurvy as we used to, for whatever reason, the natural world wants us to stay well and alive as a species, and provides us all the medicine we need at any given time of the year in the form of vitamins and minerals via delicious produce. Unfortunately, grocery stores have convoluted this message, providing the supply to meet demands of tomatoes in the dead of winter and broccoli in the heat of summer. Farmer’s Markets help navigate this dilemma- if you see it on every table, you can almost bet it’s in season and it will be beneficial to you.
2. It doesn’t really cost more.
Pick any in-season fruit or vegetable and start comparing the price on it wherever you go. Buy that cheaper one at the grocery store, and then that one that’s maybe five cents more (or ten cents less!) at the farmer’s market. Then tell me which one tastes better… and which one you are more likely to eat when you bring it home. (Because let’s face it- you’re not really saving money if you’re throwing bland produce away!)
How often do you go to the grocery store and get to taste what you’re buying? Short of a few random standing containers of sad grapes, dry apples, or sweaty dixie cups of generic hard white cheese anyway. At a farmer’s market, you can literally taste almost everything. Not sure if you like those plums? There’s probably a sample. Can’t decide between this red pepper and that garlic pesto hummus? Probably a sample. Those strange looking limes you’re not sure are actually limes? You guessed it- sample. (They’re sweet ones by the way, and they’re DELICIOUS… but you’d never know just by looking.) At the farmer’s market, your mouth, your hands, and three inches of splinter in the form of a toothpick are your best friends.
Bonus Level: Oftentimes if you’re really curious, you can ask very genuinely and politely for a sample if there aren’t any out. Many vendors may decline, but I once spent nearly an hour tasting tomatoes with a farmer on a slow market day. I expressed interest in a variety I had never grown before and the next thing I knew, we were slicing wedges out of a dozen varieties with a multitool he pulled from his back pocket, tomato juice covering our hands and faces. (I ended up buying nearly a case.) But what I’m saying is ask questions! Engage with your farmers and play with your food a little bit more. Being able to taste what you’re buying is fun, and gets the wheels spinning before you ever even set foot in the kitchen.
4. You get to know your farmers.
This goes back to #3: I really believe that talking with farmers should seamlessly flow into market conversation. So many people these days are disconnected from their food and the people who grow it. Take your headphones out and pay attention- if you love what you’ve tasted, ask about it! (How frequently is there someone on hand to tell you about the produce that you’re buying at a grocery store? Almost never.)
I’d even take this idea a step further: so often I see people at the farmer’s market eye a piece of produce they clearly don’t recognize and simply walk away, rather than asking anything about it. It’s time to stop being self-conscious about not knowing what something is. Because you know what? I’ve grown fruits and vegetables for over two decades of my life now, and I still don’t recognize everything on the tables at the market… but that doesn’t stop me from trying to cook with it. Look at it- figure out what other vegetables it looks like, ask, “Is it similar to [X]?” Touch it, smell it, sample it (if there are samples), and ASK- ask the farmers, “What is this?” and “How do you use it?”
5. The organic conversation.
This can be an uncomfortable talking point for a good handful of seasoned farmer’s market veterans, but it’s one that’s worth covering. As farmer’s markets become more popular, many conventional farmers are beginning to try and get in on the action. Now I don’t know where everyone else falls on the chemical comfort scale, so your mileage may vary. Personally, I need to know that whatever I buy is grown incorporating “best practices”; that is to say, it may not be stickered “USDA Organic” with a capital O, but the farmer grows without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers and is simply not certified because it is an annoying and cost prohibitive process. I don’t expect someone to lie to me about this (and as you start eating more chemical-free produce, you will be able to taste the difference.)
Unfortunately, the farmers that grow this way cannot (by law) hang a sign that says this, but fortunately, most people have some sort of built in communication skills. I don’t recommend asking right off the bat “Is your farm organic?”, simply because it’s a question of legality for the farmers, and you may get a “no” (though I am guilty of defaulting to this when I’m zoned out.) But this isn’t the right question to be asking, as the farmer may not follow-up with a “no, but…”, and you may walk away from some terrific produce. Again, you have to decide the amount of chemicals you’re morally comfortable with paying someone to coat the earth you live on in, and ultimately the amount you are technically comfortable putting into your body as well. (Lucky for you, chemicals are expensive on a small scale, and the majority of farmer’s market vendors don’t use many of them.)
Instead, I have learned to ask, “Is your food grown without pesticides?” or “Do you spray anything on your farm?” or “Are you a best practices grower, like without using insecticides or herbicides?” These sorts of questions get me the answers I’m looking for.
I can’t get these answers at the grocery store.
6. Money where it matters.
I’m not sure that many people realize this, but for every dollar we spend on food at the grocery store, only about 15-25 cents of it goes back to the farmer. The other 75-85 cents? Supply chain operations. A few pennies for labor, a couple nickels and dimes for trucks and fuel, and a quarter or two for processing, storage, salesmen, marketing, overall logistics, and distribution. But the farmer’s only get 15-25 cents out of every dollar in this version of reality, and what’s worse, they may never get to interact with the people who will enjoy the fruits of their labor.
In contrast, when you buy produce from a farmer at a farmer’s market, they keep 100% of what you spend (minus front end operational costs, but they also have those in the former model.) So by shopping for produce at a farmer’s market instead of a grocery store, we help to bolster local economy and incentivize more people to grow food closer to where we live. We say with our actions that we support our hard-working neighbors taking on the challenge of farming, of raising clean, fresh, healthier food for the rest of us to consume, and that their time and energy is valued by our society.
7. Having a routine creates life balance and lowers overall stress.
Sunday is my favorite day of the week. Why? Because it’s farmer’s market day! I know that every Sunday, I am going to schedule in at least a half-hour of time (generally between 9am and 2pm) and get every produce item that I think I might want or need for the week with the $40 I have in my pocket. I know that I’m going to get a chance to say “HI!!!” to the same people I love seeing every week, or explore and meet new people and taste new things if I’m on a different side of town. I know that I can ask how many weeks I have left to enjoy Asian Pears, or how many weeks I have until Reed Avocados and apples and oranges and cherries really come into season. I know I can call ahead and make sure that my favorite vendors bring enough mushrooms or chicken or lamb necks for me that week, just for me. I don’t think I’m anyone special to them. Or maybe I am- maybe, a regular, weekly customer IS what is special. And I know that I’m going to have delicious and inspiring foods to eat or play with in the kitchen, all week long, even when I have crappy days at work, or am too tired to cook or pack lunch… that even raw and chopped, most of the food available to me in my fridge and on my shelves needs minimal effort to taste amazing. And that is COOL.
The photo of the produce featured at the top of this article was just under $50 worth of farmer’s market shopping. I don’t know what other people’s weekly food budgets look like before or after they shop, but I find that this amount of fruit and vegetables is generally enough produce to last 2 people at least a week; you can get even more if you don’t succumb to higher dollar items like berries and mushrooms (I am weak, and food is my great pleasure, so I choose to spend my extra dollars here.) I got a little more produce today than I normally do because I’m experimenting with recipes for an event in a few weeks, plus I frequently make food experiments for friends every Sunday or Monday night.
So what did your market hauls look like this week? I want to see and hear all about them!.