One of my farmers, Elizabeth Haarer of Wild Onion Farms, asked her customers to comment on this odd Washington Post story: For some growers, farmers markets just aren’t what they used to be. They are “where true believers could make their weekly investment in the future of local and sustainable agriculture.” Yet as the locavore fad passes, farmers are making less money at markets. At the DuPont Circle market, they brought in food trucks to attract millennials, but the millennials admire but don’t buy or cook.
Despite this, the market manager says “Our goal is still to support local farmers.”
It’s Not Just About the Farmers
Maybe that’s the problem. It’s not a one-way street. It’s not even a two-way street. Farmers’ markets bring local cooks and farmers together, supporting them, their community, and planet. I practically spring out of bed every Saturday so I can get utterly fresh vegetables and fruit. I’m happy to invest an hour on Saturday when the payoff is fabulous meals all week. As a bonus, I get to support my local economy, including the farmers, enhance my security, and turn a chore into a fun outing.
Cook like a chef with fresh local ingredients.
The easiest and fastest way to improve your cooking is to use better ingredients. The best way to get fabulous and unusual ingredients is to start at the farmers’ market. As locavore goddess Alice Waters told NPR:
I know very well that in order to cook something that is really flavorful, you need to have ingredients that are grown in a place where they really thrive and so you’re looking to the farmer to plant the right seeds in the right place and care for them, and know when to pick them. … 85 percent of cooking is about finding those ingredients and then it’s so easy after that. You just let them be themselves.
I love the variety and personality of produce from farmers’ markets, too. Just last week, I spotted ten or more varieties of tomatoes, five types of squash, three kinds of basil, and several Asian vegetables I’d never heard of until recently. How refreshing to leave the land of uniformity and find a carrot that seems ready to walk on its own.
Expensive compared to what?
The article compares the costs of farmers’ market produce with that from grocery chains. I’ve tracked prices in both places for over eight years. Overall, I get more value for my money at farmers’ markets but more convenience from the grocery stores.
The real savings show when I compare the cost of cooking at home to eating out. The WaPo article mentions that farmer Heinz Thomet of Next Step Produce already sells to Woodbury Kitchen and the Dabney. Woodbury Kitchen‘s menu offers a bowl of berries with whipped cream for $9, black bean dip for $10, and Meatless Monday mains for $15 to $20. The Dabney‘s menu lists charred green beans for $7, grilled summer squash for $8, and a roasted vegetable and farro small plate for $15. This is about the same as my local farm-to-fork favorites. Piedmont in Durham has a green salad for $8 and a charred squash main for $20. Raleigh’s Irregardless has their famous salad for $8 and several vegetable mains for $17, including pasta primavera and stuffed acorn squash.
These restaurant meals all cost five to ten times more than it would cost me to make them at home, not including tax and tip. In my area, we pay no sales tax for unprocessed food bought directly from the grower, but pay 7.75% sales tax on restaurant meals and prepared food. The $8 grilled squash above actually costs at least $9.82.
I enjoy going out to eat. It’s usually worth the money. As Irregardless chef and owner Arthur Gordon told me once, if people factor in the cost of their time, they might as well eat out. And that equation doesn’t factor in the value of the chef’s artistry, the change of settings, and not having to make every decision. But because of our great local farmers and markets, I can eat delectable meals every day on a writer’s budget.
Support the community, not just the farmers.
When you buy from a local farmer, your money tends to recirculate in the community. Farmers hire farm workers, bookkeepers, babysitters, and roofers. They pay local taxes that help build libraries, roads, and schools.
Reduce food and packaging waste.
And although this article recommends that farmers hire marketing specialists to help them style their stands and handle social media, I think it’s a mistake to try to look like an outdoors Whole Foods. Farmers might be better off letting customers know when they have scratch-and-dent produce at bargain prices. I can’t get canning tomatoes or ice-cream peaches at the grocery store. Maybe give customers a little price break for buying in quantity when you are awash in peaches or zucchini. Together, we can reduce food waste and improve each other’s finances.
Strengthen your local foodshed.
What if California falls into the Pacific or the main cross-country roads and railroads are destroyed? What if climate change just keeps on changing? I lose sleep some nights about statistics like these, from a post about drought on Climate Progress:
California produces 84 percent of the country’s fresh peaches and 94 percent of the country’s fresh plums. It produces 99 percent of the artichokes grown in the United States, and 94 percent of the broccoli. As spring begins to creep in, almost half of asparagus will come from California.
It’s a good precaution to ensure your community has skilled farmers and productive farms.
Follow the money.
As you read the article, remember that Washington Post and its syndicates make a lot more money from restaurant ads, grocery store ads, and product coupons than they do from farmers’ markets and small-scale farmers. De-skilling modern families is big business, as we increasingly pay others to cook, grow, mow, and sew for us.
I say let’s learn these core skills and work in partnership with farmers and other specialists to create robust communities. You don’t have to be a saint to do it.