Go For the Real Deal: Producer Operated Farmers Markets

by Jas Faulkner

How much do you trust the people who supply the grocery store you support or the kitchen manager of your favorite restaurant to provide food that is safe?

In a very telling incident, food journalist Michael Pollan visited a farmer who grew potatoes for McDonald’s french fries.  During the interview, Pollan asked the farmer if he fed the potatoes to his own family and the answer was an emphatic, No!’ The farmer grew his own organic spuds to feed his own clan.  Later in the story, Michael asked for a drink of water and was warned away from filling his glass at the tap.  The farmer’s wife explained that the local water was full of pesticides and they bought bottled water to drink.

That was a sad example of a farmer knowing his or her food, and also knowing that he didn’t want to eat it. It brings up an interesting question of how well the people behind the tables at farmer’s markets know their produce. Can they tell you where the seeds came from or whether their stock was exposed to chemicals that might remain not only on t he outside of the fruits and vegetables, but have permeated the flesh?  Did those potatoes come from a county away?  A time zone away?  Did they come from another continent altogether?

Once upon a time…

A farmers’ market was exactly what the title suggested.  It was a place where people who grew fruits and vegetables or raised animals for meat could sell what they raised. The advantage was one of both quality and trust. There was a greater sense of accountability on the part of the producers and customers knew that they had a responsibility to support farmers if they wanted to buy food that was locally produced by people they trusted. This worked well because most metropolitan areas were surrounded by farmland. There were enough farmers to feed everyone who cared enough to maintain a locally centered food economy.

As more people moved to the city and the land surrounding those urban areas was devoted to housing, people got comfortable with the idea of buying everything they ate from large corporate producers who created factory-perfect food-like stuff that could come from anywhere. Zero plotline development and the loss of connection to family traditions such as the household kitchen garden cause people to lose a sense of what it meant to eat with the seasons.  The demand for shipped in produce grew and with it, the loss of seasonal eating except for certain holidays.

Over time, people began to miss the feel of buying from a farmers’ market, so they sought out places where they hoped to buy fresh, in-season produce.  One thing many of these shoppers didn’t think to ask was: “Where did it come from?”

Not All Farmers’ Markets Are Equal

A farmers’ market is a farmers market is a farmers market?  Right?  Well, on the surface, that might be true.  The open air ambiance, the smell-of-the-week of whatever is in season, the atmosphere that makes it feel more like a large outdoor party; these are all things that draw people to farmers markets.

So what is the difference and why does it matter?

There are two different kinds of farmers’ markets.  The first is the traditional market where farmers sell what they raise.  The second, and sadly more common in many urban areas, is really more of a reseller’s marketplace.  These people often go to food wholesalers and buy large lots of produce.  In some rare cases, they might know the person they are buying from without ever actually seeing where their wares come from.

When you buy from a market that allows resellers,  you run the risk of buying food that might have been raised in less than ideal circumstances. Do you or they know exactly what into the items you’re considering for your pantry?  Chances are the person behind the cash box knows exactly as much as you do, which is nothing or pretty close to it. Is that a risk you want to take?

Know Your Farmer

Traditional farmers’ markets are worth the investment of time and money.  Eating locally means you are more likely to eat in season and eat in a way that will contribute to your overall good health.  It means that you have the confidence of knowledge and the power to make your own choices about what you put into your body.  It means that you help keep the local economy robust and  food sources close by which is a smart, sustainable way to feed your community.

Most important of all, know your farmers means that you are buying from people who are selling you the same things they are feeding their own families. They get  your support of their hopes and dreams and you get the benefit of years of agricultural education, family experience, and strong personal values that go into organic family farming.

So the next time you think about visiting a farmers’ market, look, ask, and make informed choices. Your local farmers will thank you for it!