August 31, 2013

Why I Love (and Hate, but Mostly Love) the Farmers' Market

It’s another beautiful summer Saturday, and this one started as most do for me here in Northern Virginia: with a walk to the farmers’ market about ¾ of a mile from my house. (Lucky me!) It was only a few years ago that I started taking advantage of these little gems rather than heading to the big supermarket by default. I’m no food saint, and I still get some things from the usual megamarts, but I really enjoy the farmers’ markets, especially in summer, when the bounty of beautiful, fresh produce is unmatched and beats anything you can get from the big box stores.

Here’s a few reasons why I make a point of going to the market nice & early on a Saturday morning:

  • I like supporting the local growers/producers. I love knowing that my money goes directly into the hands of the people who raised the animals, grew the produce, and created the other artisanal goods available, rather than being siphoned off by a hundred middlemen so that what winds up in the pockets of the people who made these wonderful, nourishing foods is a pittance compared to what got earmarked for the PR department of some zillion-dollar corporation. Not that I have anything against gigantic corporations, but when it comes to my food, I like the supply chain to be small and local as much as possible.
  • Remember: a safe food supply is golden. The ability to grow or procure one’s own food is riches. Healthy soil and grass-based livestock farms are wealth. ‘Cuz you know what? You can’t eat dollar bills. Small scale farmers are our country’s life insurance. Should the you-know-what hit the fan someday, these people will be our saviors. If there should come a time—whether due to politics, economics, or natural disasters—when  we can’t rely on our international go-to trade partners for food, we will look to our own. And if we don’t support them now, with our dollars and our patronage, they won’t be here when we need them. We’ve gotta support these small, local producers or they’ll all be gone and we’ll have no choice but to get our food from sources we can’t necessarily trust as much as someone who lives in the next town over and whose reputation is based on his relationships with his customers. These are people we can look in the eyes and shake hands with.
  • I love the variety. I’ve seen vegetables at the farmers’ market I’ve never seen anywhere else. If you’ve only ever shopped for fruit and vegetables at the supermarket, you can be forgiven for not knowing that squash comes not only in the usual forms of zucchini, yellow squash, acorn, butternut, and other winter varieties, but also in white, round, and pattypan—versions you’re not likely to see in too many other places. Also, eggplant? Not just dark purple. It comes in light purple, white, green, and even tiger-striped. There are also round and oblong skinny shapes, besides the usual “globe” eggplant you see at your supermarket. (They all taste like eggplant; some are just sweeter than others, some have fewer seeds, etc.)

Good luck finding some of these varieties at the supermarket!

These, too.

And tomatoes? Don’t get me started! I know you know about red and green ones, but yellow? Orange? Pink? Kinda purple? Striped? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Yes, these crazily colored things are tomatoes.

So are all of these.

Ever heard of Smokehouse apples? Or Elstar? Me neither. Interesting new hybrids you definitely won’t find amoung the usual ol’ Red Delicious and Granny Smith at the store.

  • I like knowing the stuff is fresh. No, it likely wasn’t picked that very morning, or even the day before, but it was probably still in the ground, or on the vine, stalk, bush, or tree just a few days before it appears in the bins and on the tables at the market. No international shipping for these gems, and no sitting for who-knows-how-long in a warehouse somewhere. Some nutrients degrade over time, y’know, so the fresher you can get your food, the better. In my opinion—and it is just that, my opinion—local food trumps certified organic. Why? Well, the truth is, most small-scale farmers do use organic practices but the paperwork and bureaucratic hoop-jumping required (not to mention $$) to get official USDA certification are so onerous, time consuming, and expensive, that it’s just not worth it for the smaller guys. And even if they do use some synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, it’s probably a far smaller amount than the big boys who are producing things on an über-massive scale. I’d rather eat a conventionally grown cucumber that came from a farm within 150 miles of me, than a certified organic one that was shipped from 3000 miles away and has been sitting in a hot shipping container or warehouse for weeks. (I’ll skip the fossil fuel and “food miles” debate for now. My approach to all this stems mostly from my feelings about nutrition and local economics.)
  • And last, but not least: FREE SAMPLES!  (HA! Just kidding. Mostly.) 

Whee! Free samples! If you thought free food would stop being a draw 
after college, you’re wrong.  ;-)

And why do I not like farmers’ markets? 
  • Simple:  too much good stuff to choose from! I am cooking for one these days, and when everything is so colorful and so amazing looking, it’s hard not to overbuy. Things rarely go bad in my house, but I do have to get creative sometimes in order to use things before they do. Curse these darn farmers for growing such beautiful vegetables and fruit, for culturing such incredible yogurt, and for raising their cows, chickens, pigs, and sheep in the sunshine and eating their natural diets. They make it too easy to be overwhelmed by food awesomeness and buy way more than one person needs each week. (My coworkers are sometimes the beneficiaries of my eyes being bigger than my appetite, when I make something yummy and bring it to the office.)

So hard to decide!
  • A second reason I don’t like farmers’ markets is all the other people who love shopping there! Those little cordoned-off streets can get mighty crowded! I try to make it there in the earlier hours to avoid weaving in and out of lots of people (not to mention dogs!)  taking their time, meandering here and there, slowly taking in the gorgeous bounty before them. Don’t get me wrong. For reasons discussed above, I love that more and more people are coming out to these markets and getting their food from the local producers. But once in a while, it takes an experience that is otherwise uplifting and soul-refreshing for me, and makes it kind of aggravating. Nevertheless, when it comes to a local market, the more the merrier! I’ll get over it.  ;-)

For a hilarious (yet utterly serious) account of what not to ask a farmer at your local market, read Forrest Pritchard’s guide here. (P.S. He wrote a book, and it is AMAZING. Review coming soon…I’m still reading it.)

Is there a good market in your area? Do you like to go? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

Now that’s what I call a food pyramid! (A little crooked, sure, and it’s missing vital members such as meat, seafood, nuts, eggs, and other great stuff. I’m just making a point.)

P.S. Not pictured: a couple of vendors selling fresh artisan bread, cookies, and pies, plus all the fruit. (Why? Well, I eat very little of those, so I didn't take ant pics of 'em today.) Also, a few people selling unique spice blends, small-batch sauces and marinades, etc. The market in my neighborhood doesn't have any dairy vendors, and only one meat vendor with a very small selection.  :-(   But that's okay. When I want some really good meat, I go to the market in Arlington and get dairy from this place, and meats from this one. (Except when I'm feelin' especially frisky and take a drive out to this farm and buy directly from the shop right on site.) 

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