Shopping at the Farmers Market

As promised, I went on a field trip to my local farmers market. It was fun and sad at the same time. I didn’t take pictures because I have no interest in putting the merchants themselves on the spot. It is clear that, while they offer some produce selection not available in major stores, they have little to offer the general public. This is very much a niche market.

I went to the North Park Farmers Market, which is about three-quarters of a mile from my house. It only happens on Thursdays, and runs from 3:00 to 7:00 PM during the summer. There was one stand there that had fresh strawberries that smelled and tasted so good I practically swooned. Fruit that sits out in the heat of the day can develop an aroma that you simply won’t get in an air-conditioned environment.

The market itself was a small hodge-podge of produce sellers, small food vendors, food trucks, and a glorious flower seller. I’m a sucker for fresh flowers. A few of the produce tables were very professionally set up with sales-savvy staff and artful displays. As should happen when shopping locally grown produce, the range of products on display weren’t very broad and most tables had the same items as the others. It is what is in season and can be grown locally. I saw nectarines, peaches, heirloom tomatoes, kale (oh, boy, did I see kale…) radishes, lettuce, strawberries, several varieties of peppers, lots and lots of summer squash (including some of the cutest little bright yellow round ones, like a lemon had mated with a pumpkin), beets, carrots, and cucumbers, plus a few others I’ve forgotten. Quite a bit of the leaf produce was wilted. Some was ice cold, having been pulled out of cooler chests.

What are prices like? They start at prices comparable to I see for organic produce at the local Sprouts chain, and run upwards a little from there. Organic kale is now up to $3.00/bunch, and not very big bunches. Peaches and nectarines were $2.50/pound. Radishes start at $1.00/bunch. Strawberries, $3.33/pound. Squash, $2.00/pound. The prices were three times what I generally pay for the same products, and (depending on the table) were visually more appealing, and usually in smaller bundles, bunches and bins.

There was also a meat seller there with pork loin at $12.00/pound. That’s the one price that is sticking with me. The meat prices were very, very high.

Other vendors had hummus (so much hummus, so bland, so undistinguished, so… hummus-y), there was a bread seller with single loaves selling for $4.00-$6.00 dollars, there was a cupcake seller, someone making hot sauce, a ceviche seller, and a few other specialty food items. All were very expensive and some were edible. There was a lot of stuff marked “vegan,” but nothing that isn’t usually vegan. Someone was selling eggs for $4.00/dozen. Someone sold dog treats. Someone else sold almonds for $12.00/pound.

I didn’t go investigate the food trucks.

Overall, it was a pleasant market with happy vendors and shoppers. It was smaller than the market that I used to go to back in my childhood home town, and its definitely smaller than the big zoo of a market that’s held on Sundays in the next neighborhood over.

It was fun to sample a few things, chit-chat with the vendors and admire the very pretty produce.  If you are determined to buy only local (not all food was organic), you don’t care about price and your schedule lets you do shopping once per week on Thursday afternoons, this is as good a place to buy as any, and more entertaining than most. Since I’m not that kind of shopper, it’s not a place I would visit regularly. There are a few specialty produce items, like the adorable little round squashes, that I can envision buying for a particular dish. The market is not geared to general shoppers, not that I think it needs to be. There is a place and, I would argue, a need for specialty markets of all types.

What made me sad was thinking about how this kind of market is so over-sold and misrepresented by the various politically and socially motivated food tribes. This is not somewhere a poor or low-income family should come to buy food because of the limited selection and high prices. Sorry, but when SNAP level budgets break the bank of working class households, asking people to pay 3, 4 or 5 times as much for produce as they would pay at a regular grocery store is unconscionable. Adding guilt trips and not-so-subtle threats that they are poisoning their children if they don’t buy local organic produce just makes it even less ethical.

It’s also a sobering example of the inadequacy of local food supplies. This market cannot supply the weekly food needs of 1% of my local zip code, let alone the entire area. Even the big Sunday market over in Hillcrest couldn’t supply this zip code’s population. It cannot be anything except a small, boutique supplement to the conventional food supply channels that keep most people fed. The tiny portable tables, the few dozen baskets of this or that vegetable, the produce wilting in the warmth of the day (and the market hadn’t been open for more than 1 hour), the narrowness of the offerings. No matter how sincere and well intentioned these vendors are (and they struck me as a good bunch), this is a tiny fraction of the food levels needed in a modern urban neighborhood.

This is the reality of the romanticized vision sold by people who can choose whether or not they want to shop at such places. The farmers market is a niche market sector for a certain class of consumer who has free time, extra cash and eats a very specific kind of diet, qualities not found in the general population. Those who try to valorize shopping at such places simply have no idea how people outside their socioeconomic clique lives, and don’t understand (or don’t want to acknowledge) that the majority of society literally cannot afford to shop based on ideological ideals.

I like my little farmers market and the nice people who are there, and I hope it flourishes. I don’t like it being promoted as some sort of cure-all to the imagined evils of modern food production and distribution.

And I definitely need to get some of those adorable squashes.

Anglachel

UPDATE: Commenters, please READ this post. None of you are addressing the economic and food security issues that get brushed aside in political and ideological arguments about these kinds of markets. FIRST – how can a low-income population buy food that is outside of their budgets? If locally produced food *is* more expensive, then there is a structural problem vis-a-vis the buying public. Don’t just hand-wave or rant on about the evils of corporate farming. Show how this model works, and show your math.  SECOND – the world has done local markets for most of human history, and much of the world is still dependent upon them as a primary food source. They have shown to be inadequate to handle even small disruptions or shortfalls to food supply. What role can and should local food markets play in the broader food supply? I see plenty of spaces, places and reasons for them to expand and flourish, but not in their current state, not with their current politics, and never as a replacement for cheaper and more convenient large-scale markets. Again, if you’re making an argument, show your math.

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Posted in Culture, Economics, Food
4 comments on “Shopping at the Farmers Market
  1. Jay says:

    I have an organic garden, just for my family. Given the inputs and work involved, I’d speculate that the prices at that market reflect what the farmers need to charge in order to continue their form of agriculture. It’s true that they couldn’t keep the people in their zip code fed even through an entire season, just as Liberty gardens probably couldn’t supply most families with all their foodstuffs throughout the year. Sustainable agriculture is possible, but often not as productive or as inexpensive. The conventional type of agriculture however, using pesticides, inorganic fertilizers, and aquifer water, uses up resources and eventually turns productive farm land into unproductive waste land. If there comes a time when natural gas is too expensive to use to produce fertilizer, and the overuse of pesticides creates indestructible superbugs, there isn’t going to be inexpensive produce trucked in reefer semis from California. It isn’t sustainable. There will only be locally-grown in-season produce. The consequences are unthinkable, only because we willfully decline to contemplate their grimness, and as utterly predictable as the other Cassandra-like murmurings we’ve failed to heed over the last decades.

    As it is now, there are already places in the United States where no fresh produce is available, only shelf-stable bodega food. If $12/pound of pork is expensive, think about what the price will be when a superbug eats half the US corn production, and a swine epidemic wipes out a huge number of piglets (the latter has already killed 10 percent of the pig population). There’s nothing wrong with corn per se, or swine herding, just the monocultural and factory-farming way we’re doing it. The practice is more efficient until biology catches up with it, as it always does.

    Plant a garden today. You’ll be glad you did, and it won’t hurt anyone if you do. You’ll quickly see why a head of lettuce is $4 at the organic farmer’s market and pork is $12/pound. While maintaining your altruism, it wouldn’t be unwise to cultivate a paying clientele despite their unattractive snobbiness. There’s no accounting for some people, and you’ll find assholes no matter where you go.

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  2. Yesac13 says:

    In Lucerne, Switzerland… They have a weekly farmer’s market every Saturday. I was there once. They had EVERYTHING. Not only everything, there were legit volumes, too – can buy as much as you wanted. Not quite supermarket levels but pretty good.

    Give this farmer’s market thing some time. It took the Swiss decades to reach the level they got in Lucerne.

    Location does matter, too. If you live a town that has a fair amount of farms close by, the farmers market may be better. If not, worse.

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  3. Elisabeth Marshall says:

    Many, if not most farmers market growers donate large amounts of produce to food banks. It is just silly to dismiss farmers market’s importance by expecting them to perform the same as supermarkets. That is not the goal, in fact, it is the antithesis of the goal, to bring fresh local produce to urban communities and keep the revenues circulating locally.

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  4. Jay says:

    Okay, want some math? Our planet has 7 billion people on it and counting. The population explosion is directly related to the use of fossil fuels and scientific methods to produce more food and more of life’s necessities. Before combine harvesters, container ships, and a modern transportation system, everyone was a locavore. A population of 7 billion people necessitates the agriculture we have today; as recently as thirty years ago Malthus was derided as having made a grave error in not taking scientific advancements into account for his population collapse theory. Take inexpensive fossil fuels out of the equation, and you can’t support 7 billion people. Add to that exhaustion of the soil, scarcity of agricultural necessities like potash, and you will see big problems. These could manifest themselves in many ways. I’m not saying that what you’re seeing is wrong, or that you should like farmer’s markets, nor do I have a solution for people who are trying to scrape by. I’m just saying that if our means of agricultural production collapses, local farming is going to be a primary alternative. It could take a long time for that to happen, but generally things will only get worse. Sorry! I don’t like it either. Last time oil prices were this high, the stock and real estate bubbles popped–also symptoms of the dependence on oil. Add a bad harvest and speculators jacking up the price of grains and you get riots in Cairo. Our “leadership” doesn’t dare question the status quo, can’t undo widespread ecological damage, they can’t mitigate crop failures, so what do they invest in? Surplus war materiel deposited to local police departments via the Department of Homeland Security. I’m not a farmer or an apologist for any type of agriculture, but the “no farmers, no food” cliche is true.

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