Thursday, August 25, 2016

Farmers Markets: Pros and Cons

Bounty from several weeks ago: Swiss chard (I cut off the roots and planted them in the garden, and they grew new leaves! A couple months later, I'm still eating them), pastured eggs, strawberries (sweetest berries I've ever had), parsley plant (since devoured by the rabbits), chive plant (still alive and well on my front porch), sweet basil (likewise flourishing), heirloom tomatoes, natural deodorant, homemade soap.

On most Saturday mornings for the past couple months, I’ve been packing up my backpack with reusable bags, grabbing a fistful of cash, and trekking my way to the St. Charles Farmers Market. Sometimes I only buy a dozen eggs, or a couple tomatoes; occasionally I’ll buy so much that it’s hard to carry it all home. I have a love-hate relationship with the market, as I am encouraged by my higher ideals and discouraged by my love of convenience. In the end, it’s a matter of figuring out whether the pros outweigh the cons for you. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

Con: It’s inconvenient...
Zach works at Walmart, and it’s definitely easier for me to ask him to grab some peppers on his way out than it is for me to walk a three-mile round trip just to find out that no one is selling peppers today. A once-a-week farmers market requires clearing your schedule just for that activity, something that may not be feasible for busy people. 

It's a really cool instrument.
Pro: ...but it’s a fun experience.
The St. Charles Farmers Market, while smaller than most, has live music and pretty booths to peruse. I always like seeing what the farmers have each week, as well as looking at home-baked bread, woodworking products, hand-crocheted hats, seedlings, jams and jellies, and other miscellaneous items. When I’m in other cities, going to a farmers market can be a great tourist attraction! (I’d never seen someone play a hurdy-gurdy until I visited the market in Bellingham, WA.) 

Con: There isn’t consistent selection or much variety...
Whenever cookbooks (which are usually written by someone who lives on the coasts) talks about finding “heirloom carrots” or “quail eggs” or even “rutabagas” at “your local farmers market,” I sarcastically laugh at my book. I’m grateful to have a market within walking distance (which is more than most people can say), but I can never go there with a list because I never know what will be available. Also, farmers sometimes sell out quickly, which is why The Saga of Trying to Buy Pastured Eggs before They Sell Out has been an ongoing struggle for me the past few weeks.

Pro: ...which encourages you to eat with the seasons.
Other than Blizzard flavors at Dairy Queen, I had no concept of seasonal eating until recently. People are designed to eat different foods at different times of the year, when the produce are at their peak freshness. (In other words, there’s no reason to eat a fresh tomato in winter.) If you buy most of your produce at the farmers market, seasonal eating will happen naturally, and you’ll learn to enjoy food straight off the vine, rather than packed away, shipped across the country, and artificially ripened. The selection at a market may be limited, but whatever you get is going to taste amazing!

Con: It’s more expensive...
When the eggs at Aldi are selling for 79¢, buying a $4 carton of eggs requires a strong belief in the quality of the product. If you shop regularly at the farmers market, your grocery bill will go up.

Pro: ...but you’re supporting local farmers.
In the case of the eggs, that extra $3.21 is worth it to me because the eggs are coming from hens who roam around and eat bugs all day in the sunshine, rather than living in a factory farm. I want to support people who believe in keeping chickens this way. Small farmers can’t hope to afford to sell their goods at a competitive price to industrial, government-subsidized farms. At a farmers market, you can meet the people who are growing your food and understand what they value. A lot of small farmers grow their crops organically (though they can’t afford the certification), or at least more ethically than big-business operations (for instance, a local strawberry farm mulches with straw instead of disposable plastic, and only sprays pesticides when the plants are seedlings, rather than the ripe fruit). Small- and medium-sized farms are a cause that I believe in, so I’m willing to support them. Whenever I feel stressed about spending that much money on produce, I remind myself, “Imagine that you’re donating $5 to support local agriculture... and you get free tomatoes.”

Farmers markets aren’t feasible for everyone, and like I said, I still have mixed feelings about the clash between my ideals and the practical world. Still, if you’re looking for a fun, seasonal activity that supports local and sustainable agriculture, it’s a great place to start.


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