Farmer’s Markets, offering fresh vegetables, fruits, flowers, nuts, honey, herbs and jams, are becoming more prevalent and increasingly popular in urban and suburban neighborhoods. Cities gladly cordon off designated blocks one morning a week or a month to give residents access to locally grown produce and to stimulate commerce. The Union Square Farmer’s Market in New York City is legendary for bringing the farm to the urbanites and the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market in Southern California has been called the “crown jewel” of such markets by Los Angeles Times food writer Russ Parsons.
These street markets are changing the way you eat. Farmer’s Markets are influential in food freshness, variety, nutrients, creativity and cost. Here’s how:
Freshness: The majority of produce for Farmer’s Markets is harvested the day before the event. This allows the produce to be picked ripe or at its peak. Typically, the vendors are farmers located within a 200 mile radius of the Market. This is in contrast with the produce sold in grocery store chains, which can come from farms located in another hemisphere. Grocery store produce is harvested well before ripeness in order to withstand bulk handling and long range shipping. Some farmers say the “senescence” of produce, or the process of dying, starts immediately after picking. Most grocery store produce is at least a week old by the time it goes on display. One of the reasons stores automatically spray the vegetable section every few minutes is to try to perk it up a bit. Experts point out that the nutrients of the produce leach out with every one of those sprayings.
Also in contrast with grocery store practices, farmers who do not sell out their stock on the day of the market generally do not attempt to sell it again the next day. One strawberry grower said whatever does not sell on market day goes into strawberry juice or jams, but is not offered again as berries.
Variety: Food writer Russ Parsons says, “What we used to think of as specialty items are now mainstream items,” thanks to Farmer’s Markets. These sales outlets allows growers to speculate and take risks. According to Phil McGrath, who is a fifth generation grower from the McGrath Family Farms which started in 1857, he has changed from farming 300 acres to working just 30 acres. At first blush, that sounds regressive rather than progressive. But McGrath explains that with such a manageable spread, he is able to rotate different kinds of crops and give closer attention to new varieties. He said that on hundreds of acres, he could realistically maintain only one type of lettuce, for instance, but on his smaller acreage he can grow 45 different crops. McGrath calls this an “unbelievable evolution in agriculture.” This became possible due to the “boutique” style sales outlets of the Farmer’s Markets.
This evolution in agriculture has encouraged all types of small growers to get creative. At Farmer’s Markets, you can expect to see such unusual items as purple potatoes or chocolate mint scented geraniums.
Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms in California is another grower who agrees that the Farmer’s Market outlet has allowed him to exercise his imagination in devising new products. Weiser’s family started on an apple farm that was originally planted by a coalition of ten doctors intending to lose money as a tax write-off. In their first three years of operation, the Weisers lost their crop to spring frost. Now specializing in squash and potatoes, Weiser enjoys perusing seed catalogs and thinking up new ideas. In fact, he laughingly refers to seed catalogs as “farmer porn.”
Organics: The most important food trend in the last few years is toward organics as evidenced by the dramatic increase in organic brands stocked by grocery chains. That movement was spearheaded by the Farmer’s Markets. Many of the small farmers selling at street markets are organic growers and always have been. The ethos of organic farming is to use no synthetic compounds. Sea kelp or seaweed, for instance, may be used for fertilization instead of chemicals. Cats may be put to work controlling rodent populations. Soap or oils will substitute for pesticides to eradicate insects. For many years, every farmer had his own definition of “organic” and some were taking advantage by stretching the definition to the limits. A baseline was needed for consumer protection. The government established standards for legal compliance in order to qualify for “Certified Organic” status.
Ironically, many small growers are economically unable to comply with government requirements for certification even though they utilize organic techniques. This is the plight of Mary Anne Carpenter and her premier tomato farm in northern California called Coastal Organics. Carpenter has always grown organically, but due to her small staff and even smaller profit margin, she is unable to accommodate the annual inspections and official filings prerequisite to legal use of the O-word. Carpenter laments, “The documentation is horrendous.” As a result, she is unable to sell her amazing array of exotic tomatoes from the “Certified Organic” section of the Farmer’s Market. Nevertheless, it is growers like Carpenter who steered the organic movement into the mainstream.
Creativity: The early bird shoppers at most Farmer’s Markets are the chefs of local restaurants. You may see them in their kitchen whites looking for the freshest, most unusual and most colorful herbs, vegetables and fruits to make their menus pop. It is not unusual for a chef to buy all the heirloom tomatoes from a particular vendor before the market is even officially open. A restaurant chef is one of the more influential professions these days. Chefs are the opinion makers of food and they are demanding creative ingredients. Writer Russ Parsons calls chefs the “missionaries” of the food movement. Grower Mary Anne Carpenter agrees, saying “The whole revolution is chef driven. We’d be in big trouble if it weren’t for chefs.” The large produce companies and the grocery chains would not be responding if chefs were not demanding.
Cost: No one denies that it is more expensive to buy your produce at the local Farmer’s Market than at your local grocery store. A California pistachio seller noted that her customers at the street markets come from an “upper middle class milieu.” Small farmers have to charge more for their product than the huge industrial growers who supply the grocery chains. The average retail profit spread for small farmers in the U.S. is less than 20 cents per dollar. By government definition, a small farm grosses less than $250,000 per year. But the difference between buying industrially grown produce for $1.50 a pound and buying boutique Farmer’s Market produce for $4.00 a pound is the difference between a bland peach and, in Russ Parson’s words, “a peach that can make a grown man cry.”