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City Desk

Farmers market source for food and knowledge

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 by Tyler Morrison

Farmers markets can be intimidating for the uninitiated. And why not? If you're like me, you grew up wheeling metal carts around brilliantly lit aisles, examining potential purchases in complete privacy, independence, and control. All of the pieces of fruit are unblemished, waxy, perfect spheres-and always, it seems, in season. All of the animal parts are neatly cut, separated, and glossed over with the clean, aesthetic sheen of plastic. Compared to that, a farmers’ market is a rustic, intensely personal experience with its own set of rules and expectations.

For many of us, grocery shopping is a chore. You march into the supermarket on a mission, sort through the list, and haul everything back out breathing a sigh of relief.

Take Your Time, Learn Something New

Farmers, artisans, and food crafters are not cashiers. Nor are they governed by big-box retail efficiency measures. What they offer instead is a grocery run that's actually a chance for real human interaction and relationships. And relationships are by nature slow, inefficient, and beautiful things. So enjoy your time in line, grab a lemonade and stroll along with the crowd, and ask a vendor how his day is going.

These people literally grew, raised, baked, milled, brewed, fermented, pickled, gathered, butchered, and harvested everything you see before you. Farmers are an amazing resource, and shopping directly from them gives you an incredible advantage. They know exactly what kind of beer will pair perfectly with the gouda they smoked themselves. They know just how to make a pesto out of tufted carrot-top greens. They know exactly where their eggs came from because they gathered them with their kids from the coop in the dark this very morning.

In short, farmers markets are treasure troves of information about anything related to food. All you have to do is ask. And while no question is a dumb question, some are better than others. For example, you won't get very far if you ask, "What's your favorite?" If you want to learn more about an item but aren't quite sure how to start, open-ended and informational questions will invite the vendor to expand. Simple questions like, "How did you grow this?", or "How could I prepare it?" or "What does it pair well with?" are a great start.

That doesn't mean you have to be satisfied with vague signs advertising "Cage Free!" or "Grass-Fed." Ask specific questions like, how much time do the chickens actually spend outdoors? Is the cattle's grazing supplemented with feed, and if so, what kind?

Farmers who know they'll spend market time educating new customers about farming practices will usually staff their booths with enough employees to keep things moving. But if they look busy and you're still bursting with questions, ask for a way to read up online or get in touch after the hectic market day.

For those with dietary restrictions or food allergies, there is probably no safer place than the farmers market. Close to the source as this food is, little information is likely to be lost in the process.


The Organic Bandwagon

Organic food has a reputation for being a high-end trend. And while some might be cashing in, your farmer probably isn't. There's a real cost associated with maintaining the organic standard. While organic farmers can grow almost as much food per acre organically as conventionally, it does take more effort and attention to detail. Instead of going in and spraying an herbicide every three weeks, they must hand-hoe and cultivate every week. They spend a lot more time with their vegetables, and the most costly part of producing anything today is labor.

 

And then, for every dollar sold, up to 7 percent of that can go back into keeping the organic certification programs up and running. Some assistance is provided by the federal government-but only as long as it's maintained in the Farm Bill, and then only up to 75 percent of the cost. Fees and stringent record-keeping put an extra burden on those who are willing to go through that process but they are maintaining an organic standard.

The Other Kind of Dough

Markets want to make the purchasing process easy on you, the customer, and therefore often come equipped with ATMs, vouchers for city and statewide food assistance programs, smartphone-enabled credit card processing, and good old-fashioned coin purses. But if you want to turn the tables and make the purchasing process easiest on your farmers? Bring cash. Especially during rush hours, exact change-or, for some small-town vendors who accept them, a personal check already half-filled out-speeds up the transaction and makes for happy crowds and happy farmers alike.

If you're not picky about looks, you may politely inquire if there are any scraggly carrots or bumpy cherries you can buy. Farmers often have 'seconds' of fruit and vegetables that may not look perfect but taste perfectly good. Many offer these imperfect specimens at a discount or may offer bulk discounts as well.

What about some good-natured haggling over price? Most farmers aren't getting rich, but just trying to make an honest living, raise their families, and do what they love. But if you insist, deals may be found near closing time. Farmers don't want to haul back unpurchased produce to the farm. However, farmers can't properly plan to make a certain amount of income and customers are unsure quite when 'reduced prices' come into play. And should someone who can only come to the first half of market be penalized? So what's the takeaway? Flat-out asking for lower prices can be touchy, and different markets have different standards of etiquette. In my opinion, I’ll skip the $5 artisanal coffee shop, and let a local farmer make an extra couple of bucks on his tomatoes.


 

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