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Locavore's Lament

The dirty underbelly of farmers market shopping

Michelle Gienow

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 7/29/2009

For the past three years, I have fed my family almost entirely on food purchased directly from local farmers. Our weekly allotment of organic fruit and vegetables from the CSA we belong to satisfies many of our produce needs; even so, I often need a greater quantity or different items than our share provides. Since I try to buy the SOLE-est products available (sustainable, organic, local, or ethical), the logical next stop is one of the many farmers markets cropping up around town these days. Yet, as much as I love the farmers market vibe, the actual shopping can be a drag. I just get so tired of having to ask so many questions about where the food on that funky folding table really, actually came from.

Michael Pollan, food activist and author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma, calls organic labeling a long-distance substitute for being able to look your farmer in the eye when you buy your food, but as I have become more and more educated about local, sustainable eating I have come to realize you can't just blithely cruise the farmers market and assume everything scooped into your--reusable, of course--shopping bag will actually be grown, nearby, by the farm family running that stand.

It's important to know whether your favorite local farmers market is what is called a "producer's market" where vendors sign an affidavit that whatever they put on the table they have grown or produced themselves. Other markets allow resellers, who often buy from local farmers to resell at market. Distressingly, however, there are resellers who just drive to the wholesale depot in Jessup and sell the same high-mileage produce you could buy at Giant, making the wholesome, feel-good farmers market experience essentially the same as shopping at your local supermarket, only with live music and a samosa stand. Either reseller scenario is not great because essential information about how and where and by whom the food was grown disappears once middlemen are involved. The major point of buying at a farmers market in the first place--the direct transaction between grower and consumer--is lost.

Locally, the big-daddy downtown Sunday Baltimore Farmers' Market (Holliday and Saratoga streets, [410] 752-8632, bop.org) is producers only, while the Towson farmers market (Allegheny Avenue between York Road and Washington Avenue, Towson, [410] 825-1144, towsonchamber.com) notoriously allows resellers. The area's only year-round farmers market in Waverly (400 block of East 32nd Street, (410) 889-6388 or 410-917-1496, 32ndstreetmarket.org) splits the difference, going producer-only during growing season (June-November) but allowing resale during the winter market in recognition that Maryland farmers need year-round income, but aren't able to grow their own in February.

Right now, this issue is sort of moot; August is peak harvest time, corn and tomatoes and peaches busting out all over the place. It's totally possible to safely don a willing suspension of disbelief, buy something from each and every produce stand at any given market, and have every purchase be locally grown. Earlier this growing season, however, I spent a weekend cruising both the Waverly and Baltimore farmers markets, notebook in hand, grilling each produce vendor about the origin of their wares.

At Waverly on July 4, One Straw Farm, the largest organic grower in Maryland, was offering an array of leafy greens--lettuce, kale, cabbage--plus some beets and the very last of their sugar snap peas. It was not the most varied spread, but it was seasonally appropriate, i.e., entirely representative of early summer in Maryland.

Elsewhere, however, vendors were selling heaps of tomatoes and pyramids of peppers, semi-tropicals that around here typically mature in late July. Given the growing popularity among farmers of season-extending techniques like high tunnel (a type of greenhouse) production, it was not out of the realm of possibility that these were Maryland grown, but still pretty unlikely.

When I inquired, the first answer was almost always a variation of "this is a producers market, so everything on the table is supposed to be grown by us" which doesn't answer the question. Further questioning led to some uncomfortable and even hostile exchanges; some vendors claimed ignorance--"Well, I'm not the farmer, so I can't exactly say." Not one person admitted to not producing the questionable items on their tables, not even the lady cutting the lids off plastic boxes of blueberries straight out of the wholesale carton. Not even the guy who hadn't bothered to take the little "California" stickers off his onions.

As far as I could tell just about every vendor was selling at least some of their own stuff, though sometimes with imports mixed in. It can be subtle, but the more a farm market stall resembles a grocery store in depth and variety of offerings, the more likely it ain't all local.

Caveat emptor. First, you need to really understand what is seasonally appropriate to this region. Next is to act on that knowledge; once you realize that strawberry season is truly over locally, you then have to decide if you're willing to buy the carbon-stained out-of-season ones that commuted hefty distances to get here. Stand back and do a little critical observation; the resellers start to become obvious once you know to look, Look for brand-new looking commercial cardboard produce boxes under the table or back in the truck, or signs on the produce that differentiate some of it as "our own" or "home grown." But most importantly, get to know your favorite vendors. Ask them questions--the real farmers want to talk to their customers. They are proud of what they do.

Yeah, it's work, and it sucks to have to ask, at the fucking farmers market, if the stuff was really grown near here. But if you are shopping at a farmers market to vote with your food dollars--for supporting local growers, better environmental practices, and for a food system that lets you in on what exactly it is you are eating--you do have to ask.

And then, once your questions are answered, don't forget to say thanks. Thank you for being here, with this amazing food.

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