Locally Grown in Texas Y'all - Why I Care About Farmer's Markets
By Ethena Gayle
When we think about the good life, art and food rank pretty high in importance. The food industry consistently engages in deceptive marketing that confuses consumers. One way this is done is by throwing around terms that have no meaning under federal guidelines, such as dressing up chips as being "natural." While some carry more validity than others, all these trendy marketing terms associated with our food (Organic, natural, cage-free, etc.) can be overwhelming. The word "local" is another term for which even experts can't agree on the definition. So what is the big deal with local food? Is it just another overused marketing term, or are there real reasons we should care about local food?
Most of the customers I spoke with here in Houston believe it’s worth paying a little more for produce if it’s fresh-picked, chemical-free and offered for sale by a local farmer who deserves support. After all, selling at farmers markets is no easy task.
Just ask the three young women selling strawberries at the Heights Epicurean Farmers Market. Six days a week they load their vehicle with boxes of berries and drive to a different market — two to three hours each way — unload, prep the fruit, sell, load again and drive home. Up early, loading trucks with heavy produce, being mindful of money, home late. Plus, when it rains, customers stay away and bad weather can easily damage products. This is a real commitment to make.
These ladies pay $30 for each 10 feet of space, in most places, and sometimes a seasonal fee. Before selling, they sift through each box of berries, separating out the slightly discolored and disfigured fruit that would ordinarily be included in a store package but won’t survive the scrutiny at a farmers market. There’s a lot of waste. And for each sale there are, of course, free samples.
Some shoppers hit the market at the last hour as a rule. The idea here is some growers might be looking to unload any goods they still have left, so they don’t have to lug it back to the farm at closing time. Since different markets have varying rules, folks should feel free to discuss [reduced pricing] with vendors while at market. A vendor might very well tell someone how they might be able to give them produce at a reduced price.
While the farmers market isn’t like a bazaar where haggling is the norm, it can’t hurt to politely ask if you can work out a deal, or if they have any “seconds,” that are a little bruised or otherwise didn’t look perfect. Of course, the offerings will be more picked over the later in the day you go so remember that you’ll be trading selection for potential savings. With the very thin margins, the prices are often incredibly fair and there's no room for bargaining. The best way to get a good deal? Be a consistent customer.
Consumers who fret too much over a few minor infractions — such as selling produce from a neighbor’s farm because he couldn’t make the trip himself — are missing the larger point. Fresh produce is a great antidote to the standard American fast-food diet.
So, let the buyer beware: an apple sold in April probably wasn’t picked yesterday. But don’t let a few rotten apples spoil your enthusiasm for a worthy summer experience. You cannot always get everything, which is also more natural. Shopping at farmers markets, I have learned that I have to be patient with the farmers and their growing cycles. There are seasons when certain produce just isn’t available (even in Texas). No peaches in January, sure, but even in some regions, no summer tomatoes until late July.
By shopping at the local farmers market, I eat seasonally, fresh and ripe. This is another great way to increase overall health. Supermarkets offer too much variety and the food is picked before it has ripened decreasing the vitality. Who needs to be eating imported pineapple in the dead of winter!
Anyway, going to the farmers market, I can meet my local farmers, learn about foods grown in my area, and catch up with friends and neighbors while stocking up with local goods. It's a more pleasing experience than shopping in the big box store under the fluorescent lights. How much money do those guys spend trying to replicate the feeling of buying fruits and vegge outside? How much of that cost is passed on to me at the register. The stores cannot pay less for the real-estate, which only goes up, so I feel like they pinch on the quality, the offerings, and what really matters; the freshest locally grown food!
Which of these two scenarios sounds more vibrant for overall quality of life and health?
The wind on your face, the sun on your skin, you talk with locals and farmers about the size and taste of this year’s harvest of peaches, as you pop a slice in your mouth. After tasting several different varieties, you choose your favorite one, walking away with a great memory in your mind.
You stand shivering in the freezer section at your local mega-mart, your eyes begin to glaze over from the halogen lights and the neon-colored cardboard boxes containing substances claimed to be food products? You decide on the one with the least amount of additives and make your way to the self-check-out line, excited to get in your car and out of the supermarket.
Local farm products would sell for much more in any specialty foods store, where there would be additional overhead costs and markups. It's about cultivating a relationship with people who are willing to spend a little bit more for something a whole lot better.
Some farmers will say their produce is organic, but in order to say that they must be certified by an organic agency, and undergo an inspection. You can always ask to see their organic certification. Most organic farmers are proud to display organic certification.
Food from your local farmers market is generally safer. Remember the recent outbreaks of E. coli in bagged spinach? These things happen mostly in large industrial settings, where business-men work to mass produce food, preserve it and bag it in mass amounts. There’s just no way around it, eating fresh, locally-grown fruits and veggies are great for your health for so many reasons.