SHOPPING THE FARMERS' MARKET

WORDS & IMAGE: KATE WEINER

I have always been enraptured with the energy of a farmers' market. I love the spirit of conviviality; I love seeing what is fresh this week, special to the season.

Getting all of the week's shopping done at a farmers' market, however, isn't always feasible. Some are very affordable, others are decidedly bourgeoisie. The sticker shock of pricier farmers' markets is in part a product of our own misconceptions: the artificially low price of alimentation at supermarkets has inured us to the true cost of food (good food grown by fairly paid farmers is not, will never be, and should never be, dirt cheap). It's also, however, a function of the fact that the government fails to offer effective subsidies and support for many small-scale farmers.

I've had several family members and friends dismiss farmers' market as a high-end trend. I get it. I've been to several where I struggled to find something I could afford. I've been to many many more, however, that were reasonably priced, collaborative, and just plain fun (if you are ever in NYC, the East New York Farmers' Market is a block party well worth the long subway ride). When I lived in Portland, my succulent trip to the Sunday farmers' market was always a highlight of my week. I got to talk with and support regional farmers, taste something new, and stay well within my food budget. The rise of farmers' markets is fundamentally a good thing--for our society, for our environment, for our economy. 

Very few people however, can live by farmers' markets alone. Promoting local networks of food distribution and a decentralized system of sustainable agriculture is absolutely vital--and it isn't inherently incompatible with shopping at a grocery store.

What's worth buying at your local farmers' market and what's alright to grab from the grocery store will ultimately be unique to your own community, climate, and culture. My hope is that the following guide for shopping farmers' markets will get you thinking differently about the intertwined practice of food production and food consumption. Make more room in your spending budget for the essentials (food, shelter, experiences) and less for the non-essentials (you know best what you don't truly need).

PRELIMINARY NOTES

  • Organic is NOT everything. Organic practices matter, not least because it ensures that the farmers toiling our soil aren't exposed to cancer-causing chemicals. Organic certification, however, shouldn't be the basis for buying (or not buying) a product. The high price of organic certification puts it out of reach for most farmers and the lengthy transition process means that farmers' going organic are all but guaranteed to compromise profits for years. Don't ask a vendor if what they sell is certified organic: ask about the sustainability of their practices. 
  • Come prepared. Bring your own reusable cloth bag and be sure to specify before you ask for something that you would like to not have it wrapped in plastic--as is sometimes the case. By and large, farmers' markets are great for going without unnecessary packaging. Take advantage of this.
  • If you eat meat or dairy, always buy local and MUCH LESS. Treat these purchases as rare luxuries.

THRIFTY TIPS

  • It can be a lovely treat to bring home an apple pie or kale pesto from the local farmers' market. However, if you're looking to save money, skip out on the more processed goods and learn instead how to make your own (preserves/pies/pickles). A solid DIY session is a good excuse to experiment with your local haul--and invite friends over to join in the fun.
  • When you find a farmer you really love working with, be a persistent patron. I've had many farmstands I return to again and again reward me for my patronage with extra goodies and discounts. Be a kind, engaged, compassionate customer.
  • Some farms will offer you food in exchange for an hour of service. Research barter systems in your area to see how you can help.

HOW TO BUY:

HONEY

Buying local honey promotes regional bee communities and can help you stay strong during cold season. Although honey is often used as a sweetener, the medicinal properties of local honey are manifold. If you are wrestling with allergies (as many of us are during this seasonal transition) try local honey before you buy a boatload of Claritin--it can't hurt, might help.

VEGETABLES

Veggies fresh from the farmers' market taste better. If you're worried about the higher price, think about what your vegetable crisper looks like--most of us have a few rotting carrots from a supermarket-sized package clinging to the corners of our fridge. Buying better veggies several times a week means less food waste.

It's not just about taste. The majority of vegetables flooding produce aisles are shipped in from abroad. Shipping fruits and veggies across continents is both a carbon-consumptive process and socially destructive. Before I moved to Chile, I remember thinking that I would eat so well--many of the foodstuff found at my neighborhood grocery came from the coastal country. When I lived in Chile, however, I struggled to find fruits and vegetables. The country exported so much of its bountiful harvest that it had little left for the people who actually lived there. In almost every instance, buying from abroad is more than environmentally degrading; it is ethically unsound.

FRUIT

At most farmers' markets, you won't have the option to buy food that's not in season (although I have been to a fair share of NY farmers' markets selling cacti and avocados--definitely not native to the region!) Eat lots of fruits and veggies but don't buy a whole lot up front unless you know you can eat it within the next couple days. Instead, purchase seasonal fruits and veggies several times a week. Fruit preserves work as well for when you're craving the sweetness of stone fruit in December and know that buying peaches that time of year is environmentally unsound (and just not that good).

MEAT

I'm not against the consumption of meat in and of itself--there are many cultures throughout the world who eat meat in a way that is ethically and environmentally conscious. The Masaii, for example, maintain a remarkably ecologically balanced relationship with cattle.

What I am against however, is the unethical treatment of animals, especially in the U.S. Every burger and basket of chicken nuggets we buy from an industrial processing plant is a vote for climate change, for the cruel slaughter of animals, for the needless exploitation of limited natural resources.

If you can't buy meat from a farmers' market, don't eat it. If you are at a restaurant and don't know where it came from, don't order it. Maybe this will make you feel like you're in that free-range chicken skit from Portlandia. Embrace it. Better to be on the side that tried.

DAIRY

Like meat, treat dairy--cheese, yogurt, milk, ice cream--as a treat. Buying dairy from farmers' markets is especially important because most goods won't be riddled with antibiotics and hormones (endocrine disrupters that exist in many mass-produced dairy products). Recently, I've come to love goat cheeses and milks in particular. Goats not only use much less space than cows (and can provide environmentally-friendly lawn mowing services!) but also produce a nutrient-rich milk that is easily digestible by lactose-intolerant individuals.

EGGS

There is very little quite like a fresh egg from my friend Lynn's homestead (and because there's no rooster on the property, you can trust that you won't find an unhatched chick). Local eggs are smaller and come in many colors. Most farmers' I work with have such a deep passion for ensuring that their livestock are happy and healthy that I know several vegan friends who are alright eating eggs from their local farmers' market.

THE BIG PICTURE

More than anything, it's important to support those people who care about creating a sustainable food system. Farmers work enormously hard to feed you. Show your gratitude as best you can.