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19 March 2009

Top 10 reasons to shop at a farmer’s market

It’s already mid-March and that means the snows will melt and if the ground’s not too saturated farmers will soon be planting seeds for the food that will feed us this year.

Since time immemorial farmer’s markets have been with us: farmers harvest, bakers bake, dairy farmers milk their cows and they all meet at a central location where there’s lots of foot traffic … and they sell. The common theme: the food is fresh.

In addition to the standard organic fruits, vegetables and eggs, farmer’s markets offer items you wouldn’t usually consider: hand-made brooms, herbs, bath and body care products, lobster rolls, wine, organic teas and “traditional handcrafted leather goods and repair”, rabbits, natural and dyed yarn and spinning supplies, photographs of local scenes, elk and moose meat, organic spice blends and increasingly, fresh fish.

1. It’s locally grown

Most but not all Farmer’s Markets in the US require vendors to have grown, produced or crafted what they sell at the market. Most vendors are small, one- or two-person operations and they grow only what they can manage. They grow what’s in season and it’s local. Ask the farmer if they grew what they’re selling, ask if it’s organic. Don’t buy until you’re satisfied with their answers.
2. You know the farmer personally

You know where the farm family lives; you’ve seen their farm, your children go to school with their children, you see each other at church or at Little League games or at a movie. You know the farmer and you trust him. He’s a neighbor.
3. It’s where the chefs and restaurateurs shop for fresh produce and baked goods
Patrick Soucy, chef at a Portsmouth, N.H. restaurant that specializes in New American cuisine, buys at the local farmer’s markets because of the “better health, better quality” of the food.

“And the produce defines ‘tree-ripened’. It’s fresh. ”

Raj, chef at an Indian restaurant in southern Maine, buys there “because it’s local, within a 20-mile radius. It didn’t come here from California. Also, I support the local community.”

4. Prices are often cheaper than supermarkets

… but not always. Organically-grown and the small-operation produce is very labor-intensive. Individually planted by hand, individually nurtured during the growing process and then individually harvested by hand obviously takes a tremendous amount of time. But the local farmer doesn’t have the tremendous labor, mortgage, transportation and other expenses of a supermarket, so cost comparisons show that all-in-all the farmer’s market sells food for less than a supermarket.
5. There’s less of a carbon footprint: field to farm

What about the bananas at a supermarket in America that come from El Salvador, the berries from Chile, and the kiwis from Australia … how can they possibly be their freshest when they were harvested so early in their growth process and they grew older on their journey? Local produce usually travels less than 10 miles from field to market. Take a bite from a store-bought peach and then take a bite from a locally-grown peach. As chef Patrick Soucy says, “I needed five napkins to wipe my mouth after biting the locally-grown peach”.

6. You have the opportunity to spend time with the farmer, asking questions like: “What’s this?”
Any farmer will take the time to explain what they sell. They don’t expect everyone to know everything about their produce, so ask about something new: ask how it’s grown, ask about a recipe. A farmer’s market vendor will let you sample a strawberry or a leaf of spinach or an Asian pear; they’ll have samples of maple ice cream and organic tea, fresh sausage and honey. Does your local supermarket do that for its customers?
7. You’re helping sustain the local economy

You might have seen the bumper sticker that says, “Support Local Farmers or Watch the Houses Grow”. Charlie Reid, a local organic grower, says he has lost about 10 different garden locations because builders have bought the land for houses. Farmers are just holding their own against developers but farmers hire locally when they need help. The money you spend at the market stays close to home and doesn’t go to another state or worse, to another country. You’re helping the local economy.

8. Enjoy beautiful displays
There’s a definite art to presenting your produce: the more attractive the display the more pleasing to the eye. Two women from a farm in coastal Maine display their vegetables so beautifully at the Portsmouth (NH) market that more than once I’ve heard customers say they didn’t want to mess up the rows. Farmers take special pride in how they present their produce … they’re showing you their life.
9. It inspires the gourmand in all of us

Mix-and-match: Picture yourself doing any (or all) of these on a warm summer day — buying fresh blueberries and mixing them with organic yogurt; warm breads with honey or jam or cheese; cold organic milk and warm cider donuts. You sit and eat, watching the people go by or you nibble as you stroll, looking for that next, “Oh wow, look at that fresh (fill-in-the-blank); I’d better get some of that, too.”

Here is some not-so-common produce you’ll find in Farmer’s Markets across the country: dewberries at the Austin, Texas farmer’s market; hazelnuts at the Portland, Ore., market; English toffee at the Los Angeles market; cider donuts at the Portsmouth market; bison at the Dane County (Madison, Wisc.) farmer’s market; freshwater prawns at the Lexington, Ky., Farmer’s Market. You can even buy sod at the Alabama Farmer’s Market in Birmingham. You want it? A Farmer’s Market is sure to have it, or tell you where to get it.
10. The best reason to shop at a farmer’s market:
It’s fun! You’ll have a wonderful time learning new things, meeting new people, tasting new foods. Some folks say it’s best to get there early because the displays are full while others say to go at the end because farmers want to take home as little as they can and they’ll give you a good discount. Both are true: When the market opens the pies are still warm and the variety of goods for sale is astounding; at the market’s close the farmer will sell a $12.50 pie for $10, a peck of Honey Crisp apples for half price or throw in a few cloves of organic garlic with the dozen organic eggs, provided there are pies, apples, garlic and eggs left to sell. My advice is get there as soon as the market opens; you won’t be rushed into buying what you don’t want. But beware, it all looks good, so take your time. If you buy too much the first time some will go to waste and then you won’t want to go back, and that would be a shame.

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