The advantages of shopping at a farmers’ market are clear to anyone who visits one regularly. Other shoppers’ motivations may differ, but I can tell you why I prefer to spend my food dollars at a farmers’ market.
In my experience, you can’t find fresher food unless you grow it yourself. Many growers harvest for a farmers’ market the day before, even hours before. In contrast, produce intended for the supermarket often goes to a packing shed first, then it’s trucked to a broker or wholesaler, then to the supermarket’s warehouse before it ever makes it to the retail produce department. One government study estimates that the nation’s fruits and vegetables travel an average of 1,300 miles before reaching the consumer.
If you care about quality and nutrition, freshness matters. In the hours and days after harvest, produce undergoes change, almost all undesirable. Immediately, moisture begins to evaporate. Cucumbers lose their crisp crunch; basil wilts; peppers and eggplants start to shrivel. Decay sets in, especially on delicate banded produce like lettuce and spinach. And natural sugars in some vegetables begin converting to starch, which is why peas, beets, corn, and carrots never taste sweeter than the day they’re picked.
Nutrients also dissipate quickly. Broccoli loses 34 percent of its vitamin C in just two days. Asparagus making the refrigerated trek from California to New York arrives with only about one-third of its initial vitamin C.
Growers who sell to supermarkets can’t do anything about the nutrients, but some do try to combat moisture loss: they wax the produce. Waxes on cucumbers, peppers, rutabagas, melons, citrus, apples, and other fruits and vegetables keep moisture in and give the produce a shiny appearance.
According to Bryan Jay Bashin, writing in the magazine Harrowsmith, the wax is sometimes mixed with fungicides and sprouting inhibitors before it’s applied. The only ways to get rid of it are to scrub your vegetables with detergent or to peel them, which eliminates more nutrients.
A better solution is to buy from farmers’ markets, where growers sell their produce too fast to have to bother with waxes.
What’s more, the farmers’ market offers variety unmatched by the supermarket. In season, I may find 20 different tomato varieties among the growers at a farmers’ market, or a dozen different apples, or a half-dozen different cucumbers. Supermarkets value uniformity; farmers’ markets encourage diversity.
“The farmers’ market has been a tremendous vehicle for new-product introduction,” confirms Kathleen Barsotti of Capay Fruits & Vegetables in Capay, California. Growers like Barsotti are much more willing to experiment with less-familiar produce items like fava beans or with untried tomato varieties because they can count on the farmers’ market as an outlet.
“I know I can sell it at the farmers’ market if it tastes good,” says Barsotti. “At the wholesale market, if people don’t recognize it, they don’t care how it tastes because they know they can’t sell it.”
In many cases, the experimental seeds that growers are planting are from century-old varieties known as heirlooms. Until farmers’ markets gave growers an excuse to grow them, many of these heirlooms were in danger of extinction because they didn’t meet the needs of commercial growers. Perhaps they didn’t grow uniformly, or didn’t ship well, or didn’t yield enough — all concerns of farmers who sell their produce to supermarkets.
But these antique varieties often have flavor superior to that of the “improved” varieties that replaced them. At farmers’ markets, where flavor matters, vendors are reviving these heirlooms, such as Brandywine tomatoes and New England Soldier beans. By purchasing them, I know I am helping preserve a more diverse gene pool — an essential foundation of a healthy, sustainable agriculture system.
Another advantage of farmers’-market shopping is getting to taste before you buy. Growers are proud of their produce and pleased to have you try their peaches or pears. In fact, they depend on sampling to help sell unfamiliar apple varieties or plums that taste better than they look. As I sample growers’ tomatoes or cucumbers, I’m also gathering ideas for what to try in my own garden. And I find it a real benefit to be able to taste the peaches or apricots before I invest in large quantities for preserves.
I also relish the opportunity to talk directly with growers at the farmers’ market, an exchange that never occurs at the supermarket. A grower can point you to the right potatoes for potato salad or the best apples for applesauce. Many farmers are a rich source of recipes and preparation tips. And if you ask, some will happily give you, or sell at a deep discount, the blemished fruit they can’t sell at full price — fruit that’s perfectly fine for jam, for example.
If you are concerned about growing practices and the use of chemical sprays, you can get the answer from the source. The information I get from chatting with growers also makes me a better vegetable gardener.
For city dwellers like myself, farmers’ markets bring yet more benefits. By buying direct from the farms that trade at my local markets, I am supporting the outlying greenbelt that makes life in my urban region more pleasurable. Without the farmers’ market revival, many of these small farms would now be condominiums or shopping malls. Having the farms nearby not only enriches my dinner table, but also enormously enhances restaurant dining in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Just as important, farmers’-market shopping has become a social activity that connects people with their community. Like the town square or village green of earlier times, the farmers’ market provides a place to congregate. One friend tells me that in her small town, everyone meets at the coffee shops near the farmers’ market on Sunday morning to have breakfast before or after shopping. I can count on running into friends when I visit the waterfront market in San Francisco or the Jack London Square market in Oakland, and I often see couples, friends, or families with young children happily strolling the market together. A coordinator for Manhattan's Greenmarkets once boasted to me that his markets produced more smiles per square foot than any retail space in New York City.
In contrast, supermarket shopping is almost always a solitary experience, or an unpleasant experience shared by a parent and a cranky child.
Budget-conscious buyers can save money at a farmers’ market (although I don’t always save money; around beautiful produce, I have poor self-control). Because growers who sell at a farmers’ market don’t have to package or label their produce, or meet industry size and appearance standards, they can pass some of the savings on to consumers. And at some farmers’ markets, they do.
In my experience, however, farmers at markets in upper-income communities tend to ask what they think their well-heeled audience will pay. To save money, it may pay to compare markets in your region. But even if your purchases are no less expensive than at a supermarket, their quality will almost certainly be superior.
At many northern California markets, farmers’-market shoppers realize the best savings on flowers and organic produce. Other items may be no less expensive than at a supermarket, but the quality will generally be superior.
In addition, many farmers’ markets offer more and better organic or unsprayed produce than I can find at conventional markets, and at better prices. Supermarkets rarely have a good selection of organic produce because their shoppers, seeking rock-bottom prices and picture-perfect fruits and vegetables, don’t demand it. For many organic farmers, the farmers’ market provides a warmer reception.
For shoppers, farmers’ markets restore a sense of the seasons, a sense that supermarkets have all but erased. Thanks to imports and controlled storage, you can get just about anything just about anytime at a conventional grocery store. But this year-round “abundance” robs us of the seasonal excitement that comes with the first local strawberries or summer corn.
“One of the things that’s frustrating is that people are not aware of the seasons,” says Debbie Hurley, a California tree-fruit grower. “They don’t know when it is the right time to be buying certain fruit. There’s no awareness of whether it’s local or imported. And that’s the neat thing about farmers’-market customers. They’re a lot more aware of those things and willing to devote time to get a superior product.”
I’ve come to believe that anticipation is the secret ingredient in many dishes. When we can have anything we want whenever we want it, nothing seems special. You may only be able to buy corn for a few weeks at your local farmers’ market, but it will be tastier for having waited for it.
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